GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — It’s been 27 years since a man driving on a rural road in New Buffalo near Michigan’s southwest border spotted the remains of an elderly woman.
She’d been wrapped in a sheet and placed inside two garbage bags secured by twine.
The skeletal remains were missing both hands, as well as a set of dentures.
“I saw a very obvious profile of a human wrapped in a black, plastic bag, obviously dumped,” recalled nearby resident Mark Henshaw in an interview with News 8 Wednesday afternoon.
“As I slowed to investigate, I noticed the bag had been partially ripped open and there was human hair protruding or poking through the bag at the opening. So, I knew right away what it was.”
Henshaw drove directly to a nearby state police post to report the discovery.
Nearly three decades later, despite years of investigation, chasing down tips, checking missing persons reports — even reconstructing the woman’s face based on her skull — Michigan State Police have been unable to identify the woman whose body was left on the side of Kruger Road near Red Arrow Highway in August 1992.
However, investigators are hopeful they’ll soon find the real name of the woman whose case became known in police circles as Betty the Bag Lady.
“We all know who that is,” said Det. Sgt. Douglas Kill who’s been with the Michigan State Police for 30 years.
“I mean, if you just say ‘Jane Doe,’ we’ve got lots of Jane Doe cases. If you say, ‘Betty the Bag Lady,’ we know exactly who we’re talking about.”
Last fall, Michigan State Police exhumed the remains to obtain DNA, which they then submitted to a genealogy testing organization that uses a nationwide, public, DNA database to make comparisons and reconstruct family trees.
“Right now, it sounds like they’ve got some leads,” Kill said.
“(DNA Doe Project) has sent out their investigators to follow up on the leads they have, so to me that indicates that they’ve found some family members some place and they’re working on it,” said Kill.
Based on the initial investigation, state police know the woman was white, 65 to 70 years old and had been deceased four to seven days before her body was left near the banks of the Galien River in New Buffalo.
Detectives believe the remains had been there for 24 hours before Henshaw discovered it.
“She had no clothing, her hands had been cut off postmortem and her dentures had been removed,” Kill explained
“It was obvious to the detective at the time that somebody was trying to disguise her identity or keep her from being identified, and that makes it really difficult. Fingerprints you could work with. Dentures are marked with the manufacturer, you could track it back that way. Somebody did not want her identified.”
Her feet had been wrapped in a thin, institution-style towel, which led police to believe she may have come from a care facility across the nearby state line, either in Indiana or northern Illinois.
“They followed up on every tip they could get, and nothing,” said Kill of investigators through the decades.
“The more time passed, the worse it got trying to identify her. We tried to generate publicity every so often. Twenty, twenty-five years, we tried it again just to see if we could generate, ‘oh, I remember her,’ but we’ve got nothing since then.”
Kill said the level of decomposition made it impossible to determine how she died — for instance, if she’d been shot, stabbed, beaten to death or anything else.
“But I have a lot of optimism now. I’m really kind of excited because of the success the DNA Doe Project has had. This is going to be great for identifying this woman, maybe bringing some closure to some family members who just never knew what happened to her.”
Mark Henshaw and his wife, Susan, hope an identification will also brings her killer to justice, as do Michigan State Police.
“I would like to know who she was and what happened to her,” Susan said.
“I mean everyone deserves that … My thought years ago was something happened with a caretaker. Someone’s getting her social security. I go to the dark side about things all the time. I think someone benefitted one way or another from her death.”
Mark Henshaw wants to see the mystery solved and a killer caught.
“If they did it once, who’s to say they haven’t done it again,” Henshaw questioned.
If you have any information you think might help, you’re asked to call Michigan State Police at 269.657.5551.