Friday, November 6, 2015

Beth Doe Hits Home

The images shown in this article are not photographs and serve only as estimations of the subject in life. 

It was late December 1976 when a young woman's body was found in Carbon County, Pennsylvania. It's been nearly forty years and nobody has any idea of who she was. Nearly forty years. Nobody has ever answered for this savage crime. She's known posthumously  as "Beth Doe" and is buried in anonymously in a pauper's grave. She was no older than 25 and may have been as young as 14 when she was murdered. She was most likely born in a European country before moving to the United States, judging by scientific experiments conducted on her bones.

I'm not going into detail. The description of her case is horrifying and unthinkable to me, even though I've spent the last half of my life watching true crime television shows and spending hours every day reading about these crimes. Beth's is different. There have only been about five cases that have shaken me so heavily - and hers is at the top of the list, surprisingly being above the Jack the Ripper victims and the Black Dahlia.

What remains such a huge factor is her young age as well as the circumstances surrounding the case. Two days ago, a partial mortuary photograph surfaced. It wasn't like the two renderings shown above that are nothing more than an artist's guess of how she looked. The photograph showed only half of her face, yet it was enough to bring forward the sheer reality of violence that ended this young woman's life. I had read details about her case before and I was prepared ahead of time for what I would see. I never had a complete understanding of the disgusting, unsettling and gruesome murder that someone was actually capable of doing to another human being.

I knew I would cry when I saw the face that countless artists tried to recreate over the past four decades. I knew I would be angry and I knew I would feel grief. Frankly, I should have seen this coming, yet reality never hit me until a fragment of a faded photograph leaked online from a person on a photo-sharing website that carelessly made this excruciatingly graphic image public for all members of society to see.

Friday, April 3, 2015

My struggle with self-harm

This post received an Editor's Choice award on TeenInk. 

Last month, I sat in bed one night, having the usual symptoms of being a night owl. It was late at night and I was running out of things to do to stay awake. I walked as noiselessly as possible toward my bookshelf where I grabbed my freshman English class' publication of journal entries detailing events that "changed them," inspired by The Freedom Writer's Diary. I began paging through and suddenly, a small object slipped out from the book onto my pillow. I looked down and countless memories began flashing in my mind. It was my razor, long since forgotten, hidden from my family during some of my darkest days. It was one of the instruments that has literally left countless scars across my body. If you haven't guessed already, I'll confess that I have had a long history with the "phenomenon" of self-injury.

I began this traumatic journey at the age of eleven. It was the fall of 2007 and I had a shouting match with my mother. Out of anger, I had the idea to cut myself by using one of my pocketknives that I had stashed away for Boy Scouting events. I dragged the blade over my shin in several rows and watched tiny beads of scarlet liquid form at each small canyon in my skin. It was something that I thought I had invented, just another random impulse that I acted upon.

Months passed and I was living a dramatic life as an obnoxious and sensitive sixth-grade boy. I had gone through a bad breakup with my "girlfriend" of three months, whom I'll call Darcy. I was hurt that she had dumped me for some other boy in our class that she had little involvement with before he asked her out. The members of my posse of friends were polarized on which side to take on this ordeal. Some were angry with Darcy and others were angry with me for how I continued to harass my ex-girlfriend whom I thought I loved. The drama worsened to the point where I wanted to teach Darcy and her friends how much their words hurt me and I showed up to school one winter day wearing a short-sleeved shirt, exposing the various cuts in various stages of healing on my arms.

Things changed somewhat after this, as Darcy and some of her friends were upset about what I had done and I was sent straight to the guidance counselor's office. The woman assigned to work with sixth-graders was out of the office, so I was assigned to speak with the individual that interacted with seventh-grade students. Mrs. Poole hadn't come across as friendly when I had seen her before and she certainly didn't appear thrilled to be dealing with an angry four-foot-seven eleven-year-old. I answered her questions about why I had cut myself and even had to show her some places on my legs, which weren't visible. She asked me to take off some band-aids on my wrists, which I did grudgingly, to reveal nothing underneath. I had intended to give the impression that I had attempted suicide, along with cutting myself, to increase my chance to stop my constant conflict with Darcy and her friends.

I admit, I was looking for attention. I was going through a phase in my life where I craved sympathy from other people and would occasionally show up to school with cuts in order to restore the drama that had begun to settle. I know for a fact that everyone around me was tired of this, as I would always head down to the counselor's office to show my scarred arms and legs and my mother would have to drive fifteen minutes to bring me a long-sleeved shirt to cover my wounds.

The next year, I transferred to a nearby charter school to escape the trauma from the mainstream middle school. It was a new beginning, although one of my classmates whom had befriended me and did what she could to convince me to stop self-harm had also left the traditional school setting. I didn't relapse until the middle of my seventh-grade year. I had thrown away my last few months of "sobriety" after my depression returned. Surprisingly, I remember few details about this time, likely because of how insignificant my triggers were, such as getting yelled at by my teachers or having a squabble with my family members.

Eighth grade was a completely different story than my last two years of self-harm. By then, at the age of thirteen, I was beginning to struggle with my sexual orientation. Currently, I am living as an out-of-the-closet bisexual, yet at the time, I had the most difficult time to come to terms with myself. Every time I noticed I had desires toward other boys, I would cut, which eventually turned into a daily ritual. In the middle of the winter when my condition was at the worst, I was inflicting over fifty cuts across my body for each occasion that I felt was wrong to feel. I knew my family wouldn't be upset if I was to come out of the closet, yet I wasn't ready to accept myself for who I was. By late January, I made my first of six visits to a psychiatric hospital.

As usual, I would recover and stop cutting myself by spring and I soon began my freshman year of high school. My depression worsened to the point where I relapsed and spent every other week at the psychiatric hospital I had visited in early 2010. I eventually transferred in the middle of the semester from the charter school to the local high school, which was completely unfamiliar. Personally, I felt that I needed to move away from a learning environment that didn't quite work for me.

A photo of me in 2010, which illustrates my feelings at the time perfectly

Once I left, I had little to no friends and I kept to myself for the majority of the year. I appeared to be the average shy kid that nobody ever thought twice about, yet inside, I was screaming. I was stressed over a large workload of homework assignments and some harassment from bullies that had nothing better to do. I started pleading to return with a resounding "no" from my parents. I had already relapsed for the umpteenth time and there were new wounds every night. At several different times, I had attempted to take my life, thankfully by trying to cut my veins the wrong direction, as I was unaware of the lethal way to do so. Unfortunately, many weren't able to take my situation as seriously, as they believed I was simply a habitual cutter instead of a suicidal freshman.

The year passed and I eventually moved on with my depression and reduced my self-harming greatly. I was now a sophomore who was now used to the life of a high-schooler. There were still days where I cut, yet my mood began to improve once I began to show promise in my schoolwork. By the end of the semester, I had an excellent grade-point-average and my problems seemed to decrease as my grades got higher. I'd have to admit, my change for the better was by far helped by some encouraging new teachers, one of which was my open-minded English teacher, Mrs. Ryan.

Immediately after I wrote my first essay, I was complimented for my writing, which made me want to learn and do better. I'm proud to say that I aced every major essay for the two semesters that I had with her. Without having such a person as an instructor, I'm not sure if it would have been possible for me to change,

My junior year was more like my freshman year. Mrs. Ryan, along with another of my favorite teachers, Mrs. LaGreu, had been laid off due to budget cuts, which left me frustrated with less faith in the high school I had learned to love. I first noticed that this year was different once I ended up with a C in my chemistry class. I was used to getting mostly A's, and B's. My self esteem subsequently crumbled further when my grade deteriorated and I was soon slacking off in my other classes because my depression had returned with a vengeance. This was the year that fifteen-year-old Amanda Todd from British Columbia, Canada. The thought of suicide resurfaced and I soon became obsessed with "bullycides," which consisted of teenagers who were bullied to the point where they decided to end their lives. The case of Jamey Rodemeyer hit me the hardest, as he was a person in the same situation as I was, growing up as an LGBTQ student, although he was out of the closet some time before I would eventually have the courage to do. Jamey had a history of cutting and was open about his sexuality with his classmates, which resulted harassment that ended with him hanging himself in September 2011. I began expressing my feelings on an online blogging platform known as Tumblr. Surprisingly, there was a tremendous amount of other teens that suffered from depression, many of which I befriended.
My Tumblr picture (censored)

Self-harm is a very popular topic on Tumblr. Many have posted photos, videos and gifs (moving pictures) of self-inflicted injuries. It was then that I discovered new items to use for my own cutting; ones that would go deeper and draw more blood. Soon, I became like many others on the website. I started posting my own photos.

Cutting was my escape from reality. Scientific study shows that it released endorphins ("happy" chemicals) in the brain, similar to crying. It was my way to let my problems bleed out of the gashes on my legs and arms, some of which left puddles on my floor that were larger than my feet.

On a day in late 2012 or early 2013, I decided to post a self-portrait of myself with my cuts  and to write about my history with cutting. I was then overwhelmed by the amount of people who "rebloged" or reposted this insignificant-seeming image. As of two years and two months, the post has  had 3,600 reblogs and likes. There was so much popularity that even some of my peers at school saw. 

I deleted my Tumblr within months after my story was published. I decided that the only way I was to get better was to leave all of the negativity that I could in my environment. This choice may have even saved my life, as I still wonder if there would eventually come a day where drowning in my own and other people's sorrow would have been too much. However, I returned in late 2014 with a vow to refrain from getting involved in what had unknowingly caused me so much pain. Currently, all I post about includes Orange is the New Black, Jennifer Lawrence and various other popular topics in the young adult world.

As of my second semester in my first year of college, I am proud to say I have gone over a year without relapsing. The temptation still exists, yet I continue to remember that I owe it to myself, and potentially my children, to stay "clean" and live life to the fullest. It's not easy, I must admit, as there are always times where my depression overwhelms me and I am constantly looking for ways to relieve my stress.

My advice to current or recovering cutters: cry. It's easy to become numb when you've resorted to hurting yourself to feel better. I've found that one of the best ways for me to release my pain is to simply go to a quiet, locked room and to allow myself to deflate into a mass of tears. As I mentioned before, tears release endorphins, just as the pain inflicted from a blade will do. Another method? Draw on yourself with a pen or marker. By feeling the pressure of something or by moving something across where you would cut could somewhat simulate cutting without doing bodily harm. If it works for recovering smokers to hold straws or pencils between their fingers, it may help for a cutter to approach their problem in a similar manner, Recovering isn't easy, obviously, but it is definitely more realistic than it may seem.

Monday, March 30, 2015

It's personal: The Walker County Jane Doe

2015 reconstruction of the victim by NCMEC

This post contains sensitive details of violence that may be disturbing or triggering to some individuals.

In Huntsville, Walker County, Texas, on November 1, 1980, the face-down, naked body of a teenage girl was found lying near a highway. She'd been beaten, sexually assaulted and strangled. The victim's face was bruised and her mouth was ajar, as if her jaw had been broken. It's been thirty-four years and nobody knows who this arguably stunningly beautiful young woman was.

I usually refrain from writing about violent cases such as this on this blog, but this case is perhaps the closest unsolved murder to me and has made a significant impact on my life ever since I discovered it. I've shed countless tears and spent hours researching, hoping that we will someday be able to call her something other than "Jane Doe."

Walker County Jane Doe was a teenager, approximately fourteen to twenty. Upon the time of her death, she was at a healthy weight and appeared to have been raised in a middle-class household. She was found wearing a "smokey glass pendant" on a gold chain around her neck and a pair of reddish sandals with high-heels were carelessly thrown near her body.

The age and beauty of this victim is definitely a major factor to why I feel so close to this case. I am also determined to see it solved due to another thing - that she was brutally murdered. Walker County Jane Doe was beaten severely, as I mentioned before, but there is another gruesome detail - her killer had bitten her near the back of her shoulder. I'm disgusted by this; as it obviously wasn't enough to sexually assault and savagely abuse this poor girl. I hope one day I'll know who the son-of-a-bitch was, so I can see him pay for this heinous crime.

Researching about the unidentified fascinates me, as I crave to learn more about these mysterious people and to possibly help others find out who they were.The down side is that I often times come across images of bodies, many with strained expressions, such as this victim. For the longest time, I couldn't bear to see the face of this girl's body, which appears peaceful from the nose up, but illustrates a damaged neck and a gaping mouth, slanted open toward the left side. Some color photos are also available, which adds more grief, as anyone can notice the bruises. I often times cry when  I see these pictures, as it is truly horrifying how Walker County Jane Doe died.

A peculiar detail in the case is that it is believed that Walker County Jane Doe was seen alive the night before her murder. A girl matching her description was seen being dropped off by a man in a blue truck at a gas station.

The girl appeared to be a runaway; she appeared to have been sleeping in the clothes she was wearing. She carried high heeled sandals, similar to what were found next to the body of the Jane Doe. The girl spoke to the manager and requested directions to the Ellis Prison Unit, where she claimed she wished to visit a friend. It is unknown if this "friend" was a prisoner or a staff member. Either way, nobody could identify the girl when pictures of the victim were shown in the facility.

The girl had also been seen at the Hitch 'N' Post truck stop, which no longer exists, where she asked a waitress to draw her a map to the same prison unit. The waitress asked her age and expressed her doubts when the girl said she was nineteen. After the waitress asked where the girl's parents were, she was given the answer "who cares," which indicated that the Jane Doe was a runaway who was angry at her parents. The waitress also stated that the girl could have been from the towns of Aransas Pass or Rockport, both of which are located in Texas.

Debbie  McCall compared to a reconstruction of the Jane Doe
I personally am blown away that no missing girls were reported missing from either location that bore a resemblance to the victim. In fact, there are no missing girls from Texas at the time period that the Walker County Jane Doe was found that match her description. Those who did have long since been eliminated from the case as potential identities.

Awhile back, I came across the case of Deborah "Debbie" McCall from Downers Grove, Illinois. She has been missing nearly a year before the unidentified body was found. She matched the physical description, apart from eye color and even wore a gold chain around her neck, like the victim. The difference in eye color could be due to a mistake made by either the medical examiner or by the missing person report as well as clouding that may have occurred in the eyes after death, which does happen. Sometimes, eyes change color due to lighting, as I experience myself, as my eyes are blue but have turned green in bright sunlight.

Second comparison (middle image by Karen T. Taylor)

Debbie has been excluded from the case, yet I still believe there could be a chance that she could have been accidentally ruled out, as I've seen such a thing happen before. I'm not sure what method was used for the exclusion, but I believe that DNA should be compared between the two if it hasn't been already, as this method is the most precise way to exclude individuals.

I hope one day I'll be able to call this girl by her real name. I know thirty-four years is a long time, but old cases aren't hopeless. Most recently, the case of Tammy Alexander, which I've written about before was solved after thirty-five years. Another includes a man, Robert Daniel Corriveau, identified forty-four years after his death in 1968.

One thing that everyone needs to realize is that missing people need to be reported. Countless cases have been solved after someone makes the decision to file a report years and sometimes decades late. If you've lost touch with a friend: look for them on the web. If you're estranged from a family member whom nobody has heard from in a long period of time, do the same. If all else fails, file a report. You might just put to rest a mystery that appears unsolvable.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Tammy Alexander: Anonymous No More

It's definitely peculiar when the body of an unidentified person is discovered. This occurrence happens all across the world, especially in populous areas. There are an estimated 40,000 unidentified bodies in the United States alone. Many of such individuals remain unidentified for years. That's what happened when sixteen-year-old Tammy Jo Alexander in November of 1979.

Tammy came from an unstable household in Brooksville, Florida. Her mother abused drugs and often times erupted into furious tantrums, which many could agree was an undesirable way to grow up. This led Tammy to run away from home, hitchhiking as far as California, where her family would eventually pay for a flight to bring her home. Then, there was one time where she never came back, sometime between 1977 and 1979.

After her final disappearance, a teenage girl's body was found on the side of a corn field in Caledonia, New York on November 10, 1979. The victim was shot twice - once in the head and again in the back. Her killer then dragged her into the field, where she was found about a day later. Authorities were called to the scene but found no identification documents in her possession, possibly  being removed by the perpetrator, as her pockets were turned inside out. Days passed. Then months. Years. The police realized that they were dealing with a Jane Doe, later known as the Caledonia Jane Doe or as Cali Doe.

I first learned about this case in late 2008, when I began reading about murder victims, which became a fascination of mine. I then discovered that it was possible that a victim would not identified, including that of Cali Doe and Princess Doe, who were estimated to be only teenagers when they were murdered. Eventually, my interest with homicide victims as a whole began to fade away, as I chose to pursue more positive interests.

Five years passed and I stumbled once again on an unidentified person case when researching about forensic facial reconstruction,  which I was used to seeing on ancient mummies, such as King Tut. I then searched for more cases of unidentified individuals, which led me to discover The Doe Network, which is a database that covers cases across the world. I came across the file of a girl found in New York in 1979, which I eventually found out was the Caledonia Jane Doe. I found this very interesting, as I had read about this case before, but had never come across reconstructions of what she may have looked like when alive.

I read more about the case and discovered more information about the girl. Testing on her bones and clothing indicated that she was from Arizona, California,Northern Mexico or Florida, judging by the pollen found clinging to her clothes. This was  I also learned that she was likely to be a runaway - since she appeared to be wearing secondhand clothing and suffered from tooth decay and acne.

I soon began reading more about unidentified persons cases on the Doe Network, which covers thousands of cases worldwide. This led me somewhat astray from that of Cali Doe, but I definitely never forgot about her. Later in the year, my final project for creative writing was to create a play, which I eventually decided to write a fictionalized story about several unidentified persons with Cali Doe as a supporting character, who was a runaway from an abusive stepfather in Arizona. I was certainly a bit off with the actual location, as Tammy was from Florida, but I believed at the time that she was from the southwestern part of the country, additionally because of the Native-American-appearing necklace that she wore.

By January 2015, my hopes for the case being solved were dwindling somewhat. I knew that there would always be cases where a victim wouldn't be identified and was starting to believe that this case, which was quite close to me, wouldn't have a happy ending. She could have been from anywhere in the country and fit the description of countless missing children, many of which were excluded as possible identities.

While scrolling on my Facebook news feed, one of the pages dedicated to the unidentified posted photo of a smiling blond teen who was recently reported missing by a childhood friend. It was Tammy Alexander, who had likely run away from home in the late 1970s and would have her sister's mitochondrial DNA compared to that of the body of Cali Doe. I figured this was going to be another exclusion, as Tammy didn't look exactly like the body or the reconstructions of the unidentified victim and had a different hair color and style, although traces of blond were found in Cali's hair.

On the morning of January 26, 2015, I was scrolling on my Facebook news feed once again and saw a headline reading: LIVINGSTON COUNTY OFFICIALS TO IDENTIFY THE CALEDONIA JANE DOE. My eyes grew wide and I couldn't help letting out a short "oh, God!" and clicked the link, which stated that the DNA was a match with Tammy Alexander. I called for my mother who presumed something wrong had happened. I ran out of my room and into the hallway, where I embraced her and collapsed onto the floor in an explosion of tears.

I'd told her about my passion for unidentified persons cases before, but tried to cut back, as it wasn't exactly a cheerful topic to bring up. Nonetheless, I quickly told her the story of the Caledonia Jane Doe and the events leading up to the discovery of her identity. I knew she wouldn't exactly understand, but I didn't care. The mystery had been solved, in part, as we now knew who the Jane Doe was.

Although Tammy's body was identified, the individual who took her life has never been charged or identified. A man who was seen with Tammy at a diner has been named a person of interest, but the only clue we have is a rough FBI sketch of a young man wearing glasses. Now, authorities have decided to post billboards detailing the case on highways, which has proven to be a good way to find important evidence. Who knows? The case may eventually be solved.

This post received an Editor's Choice award on TeenInk.