This story was rebroadcast as part of our best-of 2015 series. It was originally reported in September 2015.
When Alan Meade made police detective in Englewood, Ohio, in 2003, he inherited the department’s only unidentified person case.
“Englewood Jane Doe,” named after the small suburb of Dayton, was a 20-something white woman, wearing only blue jeans and a bandanna, found by two passers-by on Aug. 10, 1987. She was strangled and dumped down a hill near an off-ramp to Interstate 70.
Already the case had been through a few detectives. Meade hoped for new information and told a local reporter that the case bothered him.
“This is someone’s daughter. This is someone’s sister. Or maybe even someone’s mother,” he said. “Someone out there knows her. I just said, ‘We’re going to get her identified one of these days.’”
That day came in December 2009 when a Kansas City woman, Stephanie Clack, 42, called with a report on her own online gumshoe efforts that included a story about a rose and a unicorn.
“I’m like, I’m getting ready to solve your murder case,” Clack remembered telling Englewood police.
Beyond the captivating mysteries on popular TV shows and sought out by would-be web detectives are the families and friends of missing people who are agonizing over their lost loved ones. In 2014, the FBI reported nearly 85,000 active missing person cases.
An investigation by Reveal, a national investigative reporting radio show that airs on KCUR, found more than 10,000 cases of Jane or John Does. Reveal’s September episode, “Left for dead,” focuses on the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System, or NamUs, a unique federal database that allows the public to enter or search information provided by law enforcement.
In the “Englewood Jane Doe” case, it turned out that she was a daughter, a sister and a mother. Her name was Paula Beverly Davis, 21 years old and living in Kansas City when she was murdered. She was the oldest of three sisters, had been briefly married and had a 10-month-old son, Michael.
Clack, Davis’ baby sister, was just 14 when Davis disappeared. But she remembers Aug. 9, 1987, very well.
“We got a call during the night, said something had happened to Paula and that she didn’t come home,” Clack said. “We … went over there. Her purse was there, her ID was there. But Paula wasn’t.”
Davis’ mother, Esther Beverly, knew something was wrong from the get go. She tried to file a missing person report with the Jackson County Sheriff’s office, Clack said. But they were told that because Davis was 21 she was of legal age and that her jumping town with her roommate didn’t seem unusual. Esther Beverly had told an officer that her daughter liked to get rides at local truck stops then hitchhike home, according to law enforcement records.
Esther Beverly was allowed to file a missing person report on Aug. 17, 1987, seven days after her daughter went missing, Meade said. The Jackson County Sheriff’s Department didn’t return calls seeking comment.
But Davis never surfaced. Every few years, the family would get a call from police and Davis’ parents would be asked to identify a body, but it was never their daughter, Clack said.
“She was there and then she was gone,” Clack said. “And then you have all these years in between and you forget what her face looks like, what her voice sounds like.”
Then one night, in October 2009, Clack and the middle sister, Alice Beverly, were watching “The Forgotten,” a TV show that ran on ABC for one season. Starring Christian Slater, the show featured a group of amateur sleuths who solved missing person cases.
At the end of the show that night was a public service announcement about NamUs, the federal database based at the University of North Texas Health Science Center.
A few nights later, the sisters sat down to a computer, went to the NamUs site and typed in what they knew about Davis. Their search turned up 10 pages. Clack read through the files and started to click out of the database. Then she stopped, thought perhaps she had skipped the final entry, so she went back to read the last entry on the 10th page.
“It was File 985,” Clack said. “And I was reading the descriptions. I saw the description of the unicorn tattoo and the rose tattoo. I was like, ‘Oh my god! We just found her.’”
After 22 years, Davis’ sisters found her in less than 20 minutes using NamUs. File 985 was “Englewood Jane Doe.” Then a simple Google search found that name on the Englewood, Ohio, police website.
“I remember Stephanie saying, ‘Hey, I remember my sister had these two tattoos, I’ve seen these tattoos and I’m certain it’s my sister,’” Meade said.
The tattoos, according to the Montgomery County (Ohio) Coroner's Office, "appeared to be fairly new and of good quality."
Finally, the family knew what happened to their daughter, sister and mother. But that only helped solve half of the mystery.
“There’s really no closure,” Alice Beverly said. Clack added: “We got the closure of where she was, what happened. The only closure we don’t know is who.”
To learn more about the mystery surrounding Davis’ murder and the delay in filing the missing person report, read part two of this story.
Check out Reveal's investigation "Left for Dead," by clicking here, including its database of missing and unidentified people.