ST. LOUIS – A car breaks down on a late February afternoon. Two men start searching for a piece of pipe to try and fix their vehicle. They enter an abandoned apartment building at 5635 Clemens Avenue and, unable to find anything useful, descend into the basement to continue their search.

One of the men pulls out a cigarette lighter with the hope of cutting through the dark. But in striking the lighter, the men are sent running away to contact police, their minds tainted by the ghastly sight of a decapitated body.

It’s a case that has horrified St. Louisans and stumped police detectives for decades. An unidentified victim, no murder weapon, no suspect, and—unfortunately—no arrest.

It’s Feb. 28, 1983. Homicide detectives with the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department arrive at the apartment building in the West End neighborhood with ideas bouncing around their heads; ways to proceed once they figure out who their victim is. It’s believed somebody will eventually file a missing person’s case and that will set detectives on their way.

Courtesy: St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department

The detectives join medical examiners in the basement. The body is exactly as it was found: chest down, arms bound behind the back with red and white nylon rope, dressed only in a long-sleeve yellow sweater. She had red nail polish on her fingernails. When the body is turned over, the detectives realize a new horror. This was not an adult that had been murdered, but rather a young girl.

There is very little blood at the scene; an odd contrast for such a gruesome crime. Detectives believe the girl was strangled elsewhere, her head removed with a serrated blade, and her body drained of most of its blood before she was abandoned in the basement.

Police searched a 16-block radius for the girl’s head but to no avail.

The medical examiner would later find no marks, scars, or features on the child’s body to help with identification. Her stomach was empty. The girl also seemed to have spina bifida but it’s unclear how it may have affected her. And despite reports indicating the girl was sexually assaulted prior to her death, detectives would later say they couldn’t be certain of that.

Scientists at the Missouri Botanical Garden tested mold on the child’s neck wound and determined she’d been dead approximately five days before she was found.

All investigators had to go on was this was a Black girl between the ages of 8 and 11, weighing 60 to 70 pounds, and approximately 4’10” tall without her head.

Detectives reached out to every school district in the area to see if there was a missing student who matched the victim’s description. Seven months after the body was first discovered, St. Louis Police had accounted for every 8 to 11-year-old Black girl enrolled in those districts.

Police now suspected their unidentified victim—a Jane Doe—was not from the area. She had been kept in the morgue all this time in the hope somebody would come to claim her.

She was buried in Washington Park Cemetery in Berkeley on Dec. 2, 1983. Very few people were present for the original burial – the officiant, the funeral director, the city medical examiner, and a few police detectives. The gravediggers had to serve as pallbearers. The service lasted five minutes.

In the months and years following, investigators continuously filed missing person bulletins across the country and placed ads in Black magazines and newspapers. Detectives even consulted with psychics in a desperate search for any lead.

In one instance, a detective attended a seance in Maplewood. One of the psychics touched a photograph of Little Jane Doe’s fingerprints and claimed the child’s head was on a boat in the Gulf of Mexico.

The child’s head was never found.

Courtesy: Federal Bureau of Investigation

In the mid-1990s, detectives even went on a nationally-syndicated TV show to consult with a Florida psychic. Police mailed the psychic the yellow sweater and the rope used to bind the girl’s hands, so this person could touch the items and get a “psychic impression” of the victim. Nothing useful came of the TV appearance. The sweater and rope were never returned. The psychic claimed they were lost in the mail.

In 2009, police wanted to exhume Little Jane Doe’s body to run new tests in an attempt to identify her. Unfortunately, her remains weren’t in their listed location. Instead, authorities found three other bodies near her gravestone. Washington Park Cemetery had been neglected for decades.

Researchers from Washington University in St. Louis ultimately helped locate Little Jane Doe’s remains by examing old photographs and utilizing geolocation. She was finally exhumed in June 2013.

Her remains were examined by researchers from the Smithsonian Institution and the University of North Texas. They took DNA and bone samples for isotope testing, with the hope being they could identify where she lived by the mineral content in her bones. They determined the girl lived in any of 10 southeastern states: Alabama, Arkansas, the Carolinas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee, or Texas. The National Center for Missing & Exploited Children lists the following seven states on Little Jane Doe’s profile: Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, or Wisconsin.

Little Jane Doe was reburied following an hour-long ceremony on Feb. 8, 2014, at the Garden of Innocents in Calvary Cemetery; this time, dozens of people turned out for the service. A grave marker identifies her as “Hope.”

The building where Hope was discovered was torn down. It’s been replaced by a senior living apartment complex.

The St. Louis City Cold Case Unit, formed in 2019, has a room devoted just to the case of Little Jane Doe.

Of all the children listed on the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, Little Jane Doe is the only child without a photo or facial reconstruction image attached to their profile.

Last fall, filmmaker Edrar ‘Bird’ Sosa released a documentary about the crime and subsequent investigation. Entitled “Our Precious Hope: St. Louis’ Baby Jane Doe,” the film features interviews with people who lived in the neighborhood at the time of the discovery, as well as one of the lead detectives on the case.

Police are still looking for tips on this homicide and several other unsolved cases. You can send them by email to homicidecoldcase@slmpd.org or you can call the Homicide Division directly at 314-444-5371.

Anyone with a tip who wants to remain anonymous and is interested in a reward can contact CrimeStoppers at 866-371-TIPS (8477) or visit their website: CrimeStoppers.