Sunday, December 1, 2013

Cold Case Files: Eulalia Wilcomer

The photographs were stunning.  A young woman, her head cradled by the dry remnants of an autumn cornfield, her eyes staring, blank.  She had gone from this place, leaving her body behind.  At our small newspaper in Southern Illinois, we looked at the pictures our editor had obtained from law enforcement, and gulped.

It was September 6, 1986.  I was working for a free weekly newspaper in Belleville, a pretty town about 20 miles southwest of St. Louis.  With four years of small town newspaper experience under my belt, I'd covered arson, murder trials, rape, elections, and the usual city council, county board, and school board meetings.  I'd seen some seriously bad things, bemusing and amusing things, and lots of weird things.  But I'd never seen the dull eyes and stillness of a freshly-murdered woman, especially one who'd been found strangled, naked,  and genitally mutilated.  Just that day a farmer had come upon her while working his field in the village of Summerfield, population 400.

Marty and I were the reporters assigned to the story,  and we were all over it like a new suit.  Unfortunately, there wasn't much in Summerfield to go on but rumors.  One story had a mysterious funeral-like procession driving past the field a few hours before the woman's body had been found.  There was a woman who supposedly knew something; she was never at her ramshackle house.  Marty and I knocked on doors, talked to any cop we could, and wrote story after story.  Who was this woman, and who had done such a terrible thing to her?

There were few clues.  Various sizes of clothing were found strewn around the body.  Investigators thought she'd been traveling, possibly as the follower of a band.  She'd had some unusual dental work.  I pressed law enforcement about doing more with this, having read about victims identified this way.  Her face in death was posted in the newspaper and shown on TV in hopes that someone might recognize her.  No one came forward.

The first few weeks the story was as hot and raging as a field fire.  People were scared, and any small update in the case was big news. So I was surprised when our editor pulled us aside, insisting that we stop asking questions of local law enforcement.  Then he told us to stop writing about the story completely.  No one knew who this woman was and apparently, no one cared.  I didn't know if he was being pressured to back off or just being a creep.

My partner went back to writing city council stories, but everything in me rebelled at letting the story go.  How could a person die without one person telling her name?  Was there no one who mourned her, who cared deeply that she was found wearing only her rings, her body ravaged?  How could such a vicious killer slip away, apparently with no consequences?  That my paper was dropping the story seemed like the final blow of injustice.

Meanwhile, the compassionate people of  Belleville buried her at Mount Hope Cemetery, a small gathering of press and concerned citizens in attendance.  A local minister read Matthew 29-31:  "Are not two sparrows sold for a cent? And yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father.  But the very hairs of your head are all numbered.  So do not fear; you are more valuable than many sparrows."  The words were uplifting, but despair still descended, cold and grey as stone.


For the next 22 years, that was all I knew of Jane Doe.  Her life had ended, but I was lucky and mine went on.  I became a freelance writer, mom, and did a second tour of duty in academia, racking up degrees.

And I became a victim advocate.  Perhaps this work channeled my old sorrow and horror into a passion for helping those who had survived their encounters with madness and cruelty.  Because over the years, I saw women who had narrowly missed Jane's fate.  Some had been strangled, again and again, their eyes clotted with blood, their necks raw and bruised.  At one hospital I met a woman who had been dragged face down across a road, raped and strangled, then left for dead in a field.  She woke up in the November rain to run muddy and naked to the nearest building, where a school nurse wrapped her in a blanket and called the police.  Sometimes I sat with survivors in a courtroom, sharing their triumph when a perpetrator was led out in handcuffs.  Many of these survivors had caring friends and families, but some were as alone as Jane Doe.  But unlike Jane, they were alive and knew that someone cared, that entire organizations cared.

Then, like something out of a Lifetime movie, in 2008 Jane Doe's body was exhumed.  With advancements in technology, the FBI was able to match her fingerprints and give her a real name.  She was Eulalia Wilcomer, born in 1959 and from Northern California.  When contacted, her family stated she had been running away since she was teenager, had a string of aliases, and had committed numerous misdemeanors. The family did not want her remains sent to California.  In a heartfelt gesture, the good people of Belleville tried to have her reburied at Mount Hope, where they'd come to care for her and felt she was protected.  Instead, her family chose to donate her remains to the University of Tennessee, where they are now decomposing with 800 other sets on a body farm.  Anthropology professor Richard Jantz told the Belleville News-Democrat, "We may not be able to answer scientific questions with just her remains, but in combinations with others, it could lead to answers that we want to know."  Sure hope so.

And in another twist, it turned out that Eulalia Wilcomer had a daughter, given up for adoption, who learned her mother's name and hideous fate in the same day.  Apparently after a friend of Eulalia's revealed her identity, her daughter searched the Internet, discovering that her mother had been brutally murdered and buried as a Jane Doe for over 20 years.  She was stunned.  And terrified, knowing the killer could still be out there.  She would not allow the local paper to use her name, for fear he would come after her, too.

It's been such a long time, and there have been so many strange paths in this case, that I called the local sheriff's department the other day.  The clerk for the detective bureau told me that none of the original investigators were still working there, but she'd do some checking and call me back.  Within an hour my phone rang.  "It's still an open case," she said.  "It's a cold case, but it's open."

I did some more research and came across a newspaper article from 2010.  The News-Democrat quoted Capt. Steve Johnson of the St. Clair County Sheriff's Department as saying, "Although it's been a long time since this homicide happened, it's still very important to the citizens of St. Clair County and to the sheriff's department to continue to investigate it.  Throughout that time, the case has changed hands through many investigators who have come and gone, but we are always constantly looking for possible leads."

Gone, but not forgotten:  Eulalia Wilcomer, 1959-1986
 Leads: St. Clair County Sheriff's Department, 700 North Fifth St.,  Belleville, IL 62220 618-277-3505

Gone, but not forgotten:  Eulalia Wilcomer, 1959-1986
 Leads: St. Clair County Sheriff's Department, 700 North Fifth St.,  Belleville, IL 62220 618-277-3505