And when she lay down to die, in a cemetery in Annandale, Va., in December 1996, she did not want anyone to know who she was. She left a typewritten suicide note and signed it, “Thank you, Jane Doe.”
She succeeded. For 25 years, the Fairfax County police have tried and failed to identify “the Christmas Tree Lady,” so named because she placed an 8-inch Christmas tree with gold balls and red ribbons on the clear plastic sheet she put on the ground, near the front of the Pleasant Valley Memorial Park on Little River Turnpike. Her case has become an enduring mystery on the Internet, and she is the only person to die by suicide in Fairfax whom authorities have been unable to identify, before or since.
Enter Othram Inc., a forensic laboratory outside Houston. The company launched in 2018 specifically to solve police cases with advanced tools that can create complete DNA profiles of victims, and sometimes suspects. Now, they are taking on the Christmas Tree Lady, and Othram’s founder, David Mittelman, is highly confident that his company can do the genome sequencing that can provide leads for genealogical investigations, enabling Fairfax to not only identify the woman, but perhaps also answer questions for a family whose loved one disappeared.
“Somebody deserves answers,” said Maj. Ed O’Carroll, head of the Fairfax police major crimes bureau. “And we don’t know who that somebody is. But we’re determined to find out. By all indications, it’s not a criminal case, but it’s an open case. We’re hoping the latest in technology that did not exist 25 years ago can help us find those answers for those she left behind.”
Police have been teaming with DNA labs and genealogists for years now, with increasing success in identifying unknown victims and suspects. Those cases include that of the Golden State Killer, in which genetic genealogists delved into a family tree to identify a man responsible for 13 murders. But Mittelman said Othram has the ability to sequence an entire genome, rather than just a segment, which enables matches to be made more quickly and completely.
One unusual twist to the collaboration between the police and the private lab is that Othram is crowdfunding the process for the DNA testing. As with all of its cases, Othram sought $5,000 to create the genetic profile of the Christmas Tree Lady. The company has raised funds to build its lab and underlying infrastructure but is being asked to work on numerous cases and needs money for the costs of the testing, its employees and to keep the business afloat, Mittelman said. This week, a private donor suddenly kicked in more than $3,000, and the lab is ready to start on the case, Othram officials said.
Othram has had a string of successes. In March, it helped identify a child who had been found in the Arizona desert in 1960 and buried outside a church in Prescott, Ariz., with a tombstone labeled “Little Miss Nobody.” With assistance from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, the FBI and the Yavapai County Sheriff’s Office, it was determined that she was Sharon Lee Gallegos, a 4-year-old who had been abducted from New Mexico. Authorities are now trying to determine who kidnapped her.
Most of Othram’s cases involve homicide victims, discovered days or even years after they were killed. In November, Othram helped identify a teenager found in Huntsville, Tex., Sherri Ann Jarvis, who was found slain in 1980. Earlier last year, Othram helped identify a young pregnant woman, Evelyn Colon, who was found dismembered in White Haven, Pa., in 1976, and the suspected killer was soon charged with murder.
But Fairfax’s Jane Doe, who had no trauma on her body, made it pretty clear she had taken her own life.
Sometime on the morning of Dec. 18, 1996, the woman entered the Pleasant Valley cemetery in the dark, laid a plastic sheet on the ground, propped up the small Christmas tree and then took off her backpack. She wore a teal Eddie Bauer jacket and two sweaters, a silk shirt and navy knit wool pants, all from the Classiques Entier brand, possibly from Nordstrom or Saks Fifth Avenue. Her clothes, her neatly coifed hair and recently manicured red fingernails indicated to police she was not financially strained.
She wore black loafer shoes, two clip-on earrings, a small gold Guess watch, a 14-karat gold ring with four jade stones, and a metal chain with a medical alert pendant engraved, “NO CODE, DNR, No penicillin.”
The woman chose a spot in the cemetery near children’s graves, though detectives could never establish a link between her and anyone buried there. The cemetery is across the street from the Annandale campus of Northern Virginia Community College.
In her backpack were two of the comedy tapes, her bifocals, a red scarf, an empty bottle of brandy, two empty juice bottles and a children’s Minnie Mouse fanny pack, falling apart and held together with tape and safety pins.
She had a portable tape player, put some headphones on and listened to the “2000 Year Old Man,” in which Reiner interviews Brooks about the things he has seen and learned over two millennia. Then she pulled out a plastic bag and a roll of masking tape, placed the bag over her head, tied it off with the tape and suffocated herself.
A groundskeeper found her around 9 a.m. and called police. Fairfax homicide detectives Richard Perez and Mike Headley arrived about 40 minutes later and found the woman’s body still warm, meaning she hadn’t been there for too long. She had no identification, but she did have two envelopes in her pockets, one addressed to the cemetery and one to the coroner. Both had two $50 bills inside and the same typed note:
“Deceased by own hand … Prefer no autopsy. Please order cremation, with funds provided. Thank you, Jane Doe.”
The woman’s fingerprints and DNA were not in any local or national databases, such as CODIS, the FBI’s Combined DNA Index System, mainly populated by people who’ve been arrested. “Most unidentified victims are not in CODIS,” said Kristen Mittelman, the chief development officer for Othram and David Mittelman’s wife. “If something happened to you or me, we’d be one of the people not able to be identified.”
A drawing of the woman was distributed to the news media in 1996. Her finger and palm prints were taken, and a dental exam was done, all coded into the National Crime Information Center’s database. A radiologist reviewed X-rays of the woman for distinctive marks or breaks. In 2000, an enhanced photo of the woman from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children was published in The Post and later in various sites on the Internet.
“If she’s a drifter, she’s the best-kept drifter I’ve ever seen,” Detective Perez said in 2000, referring to her upscale clothes and jewelry. She had no receipts or other paperwork among her clothes or belongings, to keep police from tracking her. “This lady appears to have taken a thoughtful effort to leave us no clue as to who she is, and she’s got it all plotted out,” Perez said.
The case was passed down to cold-case detectives, who’ve tried various approaches over the years, said Detective Melissa Wallace. There was an attempt to determine the prescription of the eyeglasses and the brand of the frames and find her through optometrists. The juice bottles in her backpack were a somewhat unusual brand, Wallace said, and investigators tried to research who distributed them. Pictures of her jewelry have been posted on the Internet.
But websites devoted to missing people and unsolved mysteries have continued to discuss the Christmas Tree Lady. “The case has generated a lot of buzz over the years,” Wallace said. “Calls trickle in, some people still follow it. We just got an email about it a couple of days ago.”
David Mittelman, who was involved in the first genome sequencing project, said previous DNA technology often matched only part of a genome’s strand. But Othram can sequence the entire strand, “using the increased amount of genetic information to sequentially filter and narrow the possibilities.”
Othram uses publicly available DNA databases, to which people have voluntarily submitted their DNA, along with its own database. He said about 40 million profiles are in the databases, which don’t include large commercial websites 23andMe and Ancestry.com because they don’t share information with law enforcement or Othram. Othram is building a permanent DNA infrastructure to enable the lab, and police, to make matches more quickly.
Still, 40 million profiles is almost always enough to locate a genetic relative, Mittelman said. “It’s not someone you have Thanksgiving with,” he said. “Your genetic family is not your social family. With every one of these folks, at the third or fourth cousin level, you can build a scaffold,” finding links that lead to the eventual target.
“That’s where genealogy comes in,” Mittelman said, “which can be very simple or very hard.” It involves tracking down people and trying to establish links to the target. Police are often brought in to help with the research and to ask distant relatives for DNA to confirm matches. In the case of the Christmas Tree Lady, Othram will do much of the genealogy itself and expects to provide Fairfax with a name, which detectives can then work to confirm.
“We are here to support law enforcement,” Kristen Mittelman said, with what Othram calls forensic-grade genome sequencing. “We don’t stop until every single one of these has justice.”
Virginia has 222 active “long-term unidentified” cases statewide and created a position specifically for investigating them last year, according to Arkuie Williams of the state medical examiner’s office. Nationwide, the Justice Department’s National Missing and Unidentified Persons System, or NamUs, aims to match missing person cases with unidentified bodies or skeletons, and about 8,200 unidentified people are in the database.