Retired chief hopes new DNA test solves 40-year mystery

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COVERT TOWNSHIP, Mich. (WOOD) — Along Interstate 196 south of South Haven, Covert Township Police were stymied by a pair of decades-long mysteries:

What were the identities of the two bodies found near the highway a decade apart? And, how did they get there?

The woman’s body, found in 1988, was nicknamed 196 Jane Doe, and now has a name thanks to the Michigan State Police genealogy project: Marcia Bateman, of Oklahoma City.

The man’s body, discovered in 1979, never got a nickname and remains nameless.

Police hope DNA from his remains will help identify him, too.

“It would be great for the family,” said retired Covert Township Police Chief Rick Winans, who helped discover the man’s badly burned body. “I’m sure, like the girl from Oklahoma, what family she has left after all these years was glad to find out what happened to her.”

Winans was a sergeant on trash patrol in July 1979, working with the then-chief to sniff out those dumping garbage at the end of 30th Avenue, where it stops just shy of I-196.

He said they spotted a smoldering green tarp just off the road.

“Digging through it, we found a pretty badly burned body that was in there,” Winans said.

The man had been shot in the head.

Scientists at Michigan State University used the skull to rebuild his face out of clay, and determined he likely was Hispanic, Winans said. Police handed out flyers, hoping the public could help identify him.

“Never had nothing on that, no missing people,” Winans said.

Other clues left behind didn’t help, either: a Timex watch and a gold chain with a religious medallion inscribed with Spanish writing that translated to “Our Lady of Guadalupe — pray for us.”

“We just kind of assumed it must have been somebody from one of the migrant camps that come up, made some bad enemies, and the enemies took him out there and did him in and burned him up,” Winans said.

Forty years later, Michigan State Police are trying to name the nameless man by submitting his DNA to a public genealogy database, hoping it will match one of his relatives.

It’s already worked on the other unidentified body case in Covert Township — I-196 Jane Doe.

The two are among seven sets of remains state police from the Fifth District are trying to identify through the genealogy project.

Three of the unnamed remains were given up by Lake Michigan — a woman’s body that washed up in 1988 near New Buffalo, a man’s body found on the beach in Covert Township in 2010, a jawbone with teeth discovered near Saugatuck in 2014.

So far, that’s about all that is known about them.

“They’re likely a drowning that will have remains wash up on the shore on Lake Michigan on this side, and those depending on how long in the water, those can be very hard to ID,” state police Fifth District Commander Lt. Chuck Christensen said.

Police figure the jaw bone came from a man who was somewhere between 18 and 99 years old.

The woman was fully clothed — size 38 men’s jeans, running shorts, pantyhose.

The man found in 2010 was Asian, wore dark swim trunks and a striped sleeveless tank top — washed up in Covert Township.

But there are other mysteries.

The partial skull of a boy, possibly 7 to 12 years old, was found buried in St. Joseph County in 1993.

Back on Christmas Eve 1987, a skeleton was discovered in woods in Van Buren County’s Keeler Township. He was dressed in layers ski jacket and a plaid shirt over a Busch Gardens t-shirt with a pair of Clydesdale horses on the back.

Police said this is the only real chance for families of the missing.

“They don’t know what happened. They’re just gone,” Christensen said. “They don’t have the remains, they don’t have closure, they don’t have any idea what happened, so when you look at it from that standpoint, it’s something you have to do, you can’t not do it.”

Indiana State Police Capt. Kevin Smith, who used the technology to catch a child killer, said identifying the remains, in some cases, could eventually lead to other killers.

“Some of those are crimes and some of those are not,” Smith said. “If you can’t identify who it is, it is nearly impossible to go the next step and figure out what happened. Often, it is skeletal remains, so the cause of death is very difficult to determine. If you don’t have an identification, you don’t even know where to start.”

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