A young girl found dead in a river by a passing truck driver has been identified after nearly 40 years.
The 18-month-old girl, called ‘Delta Dawn’ or ‘Baby Jane’ for the last 38 years, was identified as Alisha Ann Heinrich, of Joplin, Missouri, Mississippi authorities announced on Friday, December 4th.
Alisha was last seen alive on Thanksgiving in 1982, just before her mother, 23-year-old Gwendolyn Mae Clemons and her unnamed boyfriend, apparently headed to Florida to ‘start a new life.’ Following that Thanksgiving, neither Alisha nor Gwendolyn was seen by family ever again, but the unnamed boyfriend did eventually return to Missouri on his own. He is still a suspect in Alisha’s death.
“We have family members up there that are cooperating with us,” Jackson County Sheriff Mike Ezell said during a news conference. “It’s the reason why we don’t want to release his name at this time.”
After the pair disappeared in late November of 1982, officials received reports of a woman walking along Interstate 10 near the Alabama state line with a child in her arms on December 3rd, 1982. The passersby who called police stopped to offer assistance to the woman, who they described as appearing distressed, but she declined.
Two days later at around 7 a.m. on December 5th, a passing truck driver contacted police to report a woman’s body he saw floating in the Escatawpa River near the I-10 bridge. When police arrived to investigate, they did not find a woman’s body in the river, but did discover the body of the little girl now identified as Alisha.
Because of the positioning of Alisha’s body within the brush and reeds that line the river, officials did not believe that Alisha’s body was the one seen by the trucker, and so continued their search. Investigators continued searching the river for days, but were never able to locate the body that inspired the trucker’s initial report. The body of a black man was found during the search efforts, but police have since determined the man to be unrelated to the discovery of the dead toddler. He has still not been identified.
After conducting an autopsy on Alisha’s body, investigators determined that someone had attempted to smother the girl before throwing her in the river, but that she had drowned rather than succumbed to the smothering. Investigators also described Alisha as “well nourished and cared for” at the time of her death.
Later that month, a local deputy and his wife “adopted” Alisha so that she could receive a proper burial. Her gravestone reads: “Baby Jane: Known only to God.”
Delta Dawn Doe’s Grave Delta Dawn and/or Baby Jane Escatawpa, Jackson County, Mississippi Unidentified…Posted by Unidentified Persons: John and Jane Doe on Wednesday, January 22, 2020
Then in 2009, Alisha’s body was exhumed to allow investigators to collect DNA samples, which were sent to the University of North Texas for analysis. Unfortunately, nothing came of the DNA samples until 2019, when investigators looked to genetic genealogy to help identify the little girl. Investigators sent the collected DNA to a private DNA lab in Houston, Texas, where they were able to profile potential relatives still in Missouri and confirm that the dead little girl was indeed, Alisha.
Honored to help Jackson County Sheriff's Office and the FBI identify Delta Dawn after 38 years. Three of our team members made the trip in person to announce the case with law enforcement today. Don't give up on cold cases!https://t.co/M8Qk2sGEbQ#dnasolves #othram #runthedna— Othram Inc. (@OthramTech) December 4, 2020
“DNA samples were collected from two of Gwendolyn’s family members and sent to [the lab]” Ezell explained.
“The aunt and the grandmother were present, along with one of the cousins, and they were extremely thankful that we were able to identify her and give her name back. And now they know what happened. They know where she was. They were very thankful.” said Joe Bignell, a Pascagoula police investigator who spoke with the living family members.
Alisha and her mother Gwendolyn Clemons. Gwendolyn has never been found. pic.twitter.com/cDP7a4kNSn— Shelby Myers (@FOX10Shelby) December 4, 2020
Now that Alisha has been identified thanks to the help of an observant trucker and advances in DNA technology, investigators are working on finding her mother, Gwendolyn, who has been missing since 1982.
“We do not know if she is dead or alive at this point,” Ezell said. “We’re assuming the worst but we don’t know that for sure.”
“They [the family] were still under the assumption that Alisha was alive and living somewhere. They were still hoping, but they were very thankful that after 38 years, the case was still being worked,” Bignell said. “It gave them some closure.
At the time of her disappearance, Gwendolyn Clemons had strawberry blonde hair, stood somewhere between 5’2” and 5’8”, and weighed between 105 and 135 pounds.
Officials are still investigating the involvement of Gwendolyn’s boyfriend in their deaths, although he has since passed away.
Anyone with information about this case is asked to contact Jackson County Sheriff’s Department at 228-769-3036 or Mississippi Coast Crime Stoppers at 877-787-5898.