For Abby Stylianou, a research associate with Washington University, it was a particularly emotional conclusion to her lab's latest project. Yesterday, her team in the department of computer science and engineering successfully located the remains of a young "Jane Doe," who was violently killed three decades ago in a cold case that is still a mystery to St. Louis police today.
"It was a very bittersweet moment," Stylianou tells Daily RFT. "There was a sense of satisfaction and a job well done. But mostly, it was very sad. A very overwhelming sense of sadness thinking of what got her to this point. That was really tough."
The hope is that detectives may be able to use the remains to identify the girl who was found decapitated in north St. Louis in 1983. So many years after she was first discovered, police still don't know who she was, where she came from or who might have murdered her.
On February 28, 1983, two men looking for a piece of metal to fix a car's timing chain made a very grisly discovery inside a vacant apartment building on 5365 Clemens Avenue. In the basement, they found the body of a young girl, wearing only a dirty yellow sweater. Her hands were tied behind her back with red and white nylon rope -- and her head was missing.
She was an African American girl somewhere between the ages of eight and eleven who police believe was sexually assaulted and strangled before she was decapitated. The girl, who may have been killed elsewhere prior to her discovery, was eventually buried in Washington Park Cemetery, but recently authorities have had trouble even locating the grave with her remains.
After the Post-Dispatch wrote about the search for her grave earlier this year -- in a cemetery that is apparently in poor condition -- one reader took particular interest.
Charles Fuchs, Stylianou's uncle, alerted his niece to the story, knowing that she does relevant research at Wash. U.
And it was personal, in a way. The case decades ago unfolded just a few blocks from where her parents were living at the time -- and they still remember it today.
At Wash. U.'s media and machines lab, Stylianou does computer vision work, which involves studying outdoor imagery. Sometimes her lab uses photos to examine trends like climate change or urban sidewalk usage. But in this case, her expertise proved useful in carefully scrutinizing old photographs of a cemetery that has dramatically changed over time. The goal was to use a handful of images from 1983 to find the location of the grave today.
"This poor little girl...for her grave to just be lost is horrific," she says. "We wanted to find it."
Even if cops never identify her, Stylianou says, she deserves a proper resting spot. (The funeral director, who did not respond to a request for comment from Daily RFT yesterday, has been working with authorities and researchers to help find the grave.)
When Stylianou first visited the site, she says, the task proved difficult with the limited camera equipment they had. The margin of error was too wide to pinpoint the correct location.
"It was a harder problem to solve than we were expecting," she says.
But eventually, they returned with a $25,000 GPS device that was incredibly precise -- leading them to an exact spot. And yesterday morning, they successfully located the remains of Jane Doe, which cops then removed from the cemetery. This marks the end of her research -- but it appears to be the beginning of a renewed investigation for police, who aim to use the remains to extract DNA.
"We're hopeful that something can be discovered," Stylianou says.