Metro-East News

DNA testing fails to identify killer of Summerfield ‘Jane Doe’

Sheriff continues to investigate Summerfield Jane Doe

St. Clair County Sheriff Rick Watson talks about the Summerfield Jane Doe case. "We never quit on any case," Watson said. "All it takes is a small break."
Up Next
St. Clair County Sheriff Rick Watson talks about the Summerfield Jane Doe case. "We never quit on any case," Watson said. "All it takes is a small break."

When police found long-lost DNA from the murder scene that had not been tested, they were hoping for an answer to who strangled, mutilated and abandoned a woman in a cornfield near Summerfield more than 30 years ago.

But the DNA tests were inconclusive and could not definitively say who murdered the woman who for years was known as the “Summerfield Jane Doe.”

What they got was a maybe yes, maybe no. For now, the question of who killed Eulalia Mylia Pholia Chavez remains unanswered.

“It was the same M.O. for the others and Chavez. I thought we were going to solve it,” St. Clair County Sheriff’s Sgt. Ken McHughes said, referring to other killings where federal prisoner Larry Hall has been positively linked.

McHughes had traveled to the federal prison in Buttner, N.C., where Hall was serving a life sentence for kidnapping. Hall became a suspect after he wrote a letter to a St. Louis television reporter that he killed Chavez. He later recanted the confession.

Test results revealed that Hall “could not be excluded” as contributing to a mixture of DNA, but the answer wasn’t positively conclusive either.

Hall, 54, didn’t want to talk when McHughes visited. He acted nervous about giving a DNA sample. McHughes thought he had his man. The only thing now was to wait for the test results.

Summer turned to fall, and fall turned to winter. One of the case’s most active investigators, St. Clair County Coroner Rick Stone, died on Nov. 12, just 10 days before a report to Hall comparing DNA found at the scene was written. But the report wasn’t sent to the sheriff’s department.

Last week, St. Clair County Sheriff Rick Watson told his investigators to check on the status of Chavez’s case. The report was in the file. McHughes made the call to Katie, Chavez’s daughter, who was put up for adoption when she was an infant. Katie didn’t want to use her last name because she fears her mother’s killer.

Even though the test results didn’t prove that Hall murdered Chavez, state police scientists did find a profile that will be loaded into a national database for comparison to other felons.

Chavez was found alone with her possessions in a couple of bags in a cornfield near Summerfield on Sept. 6, 1986. She was 2,700 miles away from her home in California. Whatever drove her to the road made her vulnerable. That September night, she met Hall or someone else — someone who strangled and sexually mutilated her, then left her to be found by a stranger.

Seven years later, Hall was questioned about his connection to the disappearance of 15-year-old Jessica Roach, who was last seen riding her bike near her Georgetown, Ill., home. Her body was found six weeks later in an Indiana cornfield. He was also questioned about the disappearance of other women.

Watson didn’t want to rely on Hall’s word.

“Even if we had a confession, it wouldn’t be enough to say for certain one way or the other who did this,” Watson had said.

The case would be made on DNA. But it wasn’t.

In a small town like Summerfield, people have heard about this, and when new people move in, they are told about it.

St. Clair County Sheriff Rick Watson

The lack of conclusive test results means there will be another chapter in the former Jane Doe’s story. It’s a story that has turned legend among Summerfield’s townspeople, investigators and reporters connected with the case. One police officer, who was at the scene and is now deceased, said there was a set of silverware and a salt and pepper shaker found near Chavez’s body. Detectives once questioned a man traveling in a covered wagon around the time of the murder.

Townspeople felt so strongly about the murdered wanderer they wanted to bury her in Summerfield after she was exhumed in 2007. Sonya Wilcomer opted to leave her adopted daughter’s remains in a drawer at the University of Tennessee’s body farm. Wilcomer died in 2011.

“In a small town like Summerfield, people have heard about this, and when new people move in, they are told about it,” Watson said.

There seems to be a synchronicity in the Summerfield Jane Doe’s murder investigation, Chavez’s daughter, Katie, said.

For 21 years, Chavez went without a name. The murder victim was buried under a stone inscribed with “Jane Doe: Known Only to God” for years until a detective broadened her age range from 25 to 27, eventually leading to her name. That, her daughter said, would be miraculous enough, but the spooky serendipity continued.

“It’s like there is an unseen hand pushing and pulling us,” said Katie.

Katie experienced a chance encounter herself on New Year’s Day.

She talked with Scot Rubi, a friend, who revealed he, too, was adopted. During the conversation, Ruby revealed he was raised in Belleville. Katie told Rubi about her biological mother, who was found mutilated and murdered in a cornfield near Summerfield, near Belleville.

Rubi told Katie that his mother’s friend paid to bury her mother at Mount Hope Cemetery in Belleville.

In a later telephone conversation, Rubi’s mother mentioned a recent BND story about Watson renewing his department’s efforts to find Chavez’s killer.

“When I took over I said we can look at these old cases. We should take a look at these. And then, after going over the files, I said we can solve some of these,” Watson said.

A younger generation is inheriting the case now. Watson took over for Sheriff Mearl Justus after Justus died in 2012. Calvin Dye took over as coroner after Stone’s death. McHughes was just getting his driver’s license when Chavez’s body was found.

“This is kind of personal now. They want to get this done. This is a case that is very personal to investigators. They want to get it solved. They want to know who it is,” Watson said.

Katie, the daughter who doesn’t remember her mother, remains committed, too.

“I’m definitely interested in seeing justice for my mother,” Katie said. “I will do whatever I can to see that happen.”

Beth Hundsdorfer: 618-239-2570, @bhundsdorfer

George Pawlaczyk: 618-239-2625, @gapawlaczyk