By the looks of it, she’d been dead for roughly six hours. The body of the teenage girl was found twenty feet from the shoulder of Interstate 45, just north of Huntsville, at around 9:30 a.m. on November 1, 1980. Red high heels lay nearby and, except for the gold chain with a smoky blue rectangular pendant hanging around her neck, she was naked.
The only clues to her identity that police could muster came through the testimonies of a manager and two workers at the nearby South End Gulf gas station and a Hitchin’ Post truck stop. They’d spotted her wearing a white knit sweater, a yellow pullover, and blue jeans on Halloween night. She was carrying the high heels and had inquired about how to get to the nearby Ellis Prison Farm, one of several state penitentiaries dotting the outskirts of the East Texas town.
For more than forty years, she was known only as Walker County Jane Doe—the nameless victim of a brutal murder and sexual assault that perplexed local law enforcement and captivated true-crime obsessives. That changed Tuesday morning. Flanked by officials from several law enforcement agencies, including the FBI and the Texas Rangers, Walker County sheriff Clint McRae announced that, at long last, the girl was nameless no more.
“With this being the forty-first anniversary of this horrible crime taking place, I would at this point in time like to reveal the fact that our victim has been identified: Sherri Ann Jarvis,” McRae said, a beige cowboy hat perched atop his head. “I never liked to refer to this case as being a cold case. It has always been a top priority of our department. We loved her as well.”
McRae revealed that Jarvis was born on March 9, 1966, meaning she was just fourteen when she was killed. Contrary to longtime theories about her hailing from Rockport or Aransas Pass (two locations Jarvis reportedly mentioned to a Hitchin’ Post waitress), she was actually raised in the small town of Stillwater, Minnesota, about 25 miles east of Minneapolis. According to a lengthy statement from the family read by a sheriff’s deputy, Jarvis had been seized by local authorities at the age of thirteen due to charges of habitual truancy. Shortly after her fourteenth birthday, she ran away for good.
“We lost Sherri more than 41 years ago and we’ve lived in bewilderment every day since, until now as she has finally been found,” the statement said. “Sherri Ann Jarvis was a daughter, sister, cousin and granddaughter. She loved children, animals and horseback riding. . . . She was deprived of so many life experiences as a result of this tragedy. She was denied the opportunity to experience romance and love, marital bliss, the heartache and pain of loss, the pure joy of having children or growing old and being able to reflect on such milestones afforded an abounding lifetime. . . . You are with mom and dad now, Sherri, may you rest in peace.”
According to her brother, Don, who exchanged a series of messages with administrators of the “Who Was Walker County Jane Doe?” Facebook group back in September, the last correspondence Jarvis had with her family came in the form of a letter to her mother postmarked in Denver. In it, Jarvis said she’d contact the family sometime between her eighteenth and twenty-first birthdays. Despite multiple attempts to locate her, including hiring a private investigator and keeping the same home phone number for decades in hopes she’d call someday, they never heard from her again.
Carl Koppelman, the 58-year-old retired accountant who started the Facebook group, recognizes the significance of Tuesday’s announcement more than most. For more than twelve years, he’s scoured pages of forensic files and police reports filled with gruesome details of Jarvis’s killing—a frequent exercise for those involved in the sprawling online community dedicated to uncovering the identities of unnamed murder victims.
“I became aware of the case around 2009, just shortly after I started getting involved in this world. It was one of the highest-profile cases and remains so,” Koppelman said. “It’s easy to see why. It’s a teenage girl who appears to have been from a middle-class background. You’d think the parents would come claim the body or report her missing. But that never happened. That in and of itself was a big mystery.”
Koppelman’s research had extended far beyond police paperwork. From his home in Torrance, California, he’s hunted through yearbook archives for dozens of high schools across Texas in hopes of spotting her hazel eyes and neat brown hair in a row of her classmates. He’s stared unblinkingly at crime scene photos while drawing forensic illustrations to share with his fellow investigators at internet collectives like the DNA Doe Project and Websleuths. He’s also enlisted the 20,000-plus followers of his Facebook group to share their findings. Koppelman even traveled to Huntsville in 2017 to retrace the girl’s final steps alongside a few women who also monitored the case and kept her anonymous grave adorned with fresh flowers. But these efforts ultimately proved in vain.
Likewise, for years police investigators had tried to identify Walker County Jane Doe using the meager evidence left behind at the crime scene. They’d chased tips from private citizens and sought help from other law enforcement agencies, especially those located along the Texas coast. They found nothing but dead ends. Even with the rise of popular direct-to-consumer DNA testing sites like 23andMe and Ancestry.com, which have accumulated millions of Americans’ genetic information and become fertile ground for lead-hungry law enforcement agencies, the case seemed destined to stay cold.
Until July 2020, when the Walker County Sheriff’s Department’s lead investigator on the case, Detective Thomas Bean, received a call from Othram, a Woodlands-based forensic DNA lab. Given the perplexing nature of the crime and the fact that it was committed less than fifty miles from his company’s campus, Walker County Jane Doe was on Othram’s radar as a potential case with which it might assist, said company founder David Mittelman. Although it’s only been around since 2018, Othram has made headlines for helping solve cold cases via forensic genetic genealogy—an investigative method that combines advanced DNA analysis with traditional genealogical research. Among its prior successes have been helping finger a suspect in the 1974 murder of Carla Walker in Fort Worth and identifying an unknown teenager who mysteriously drowned in the West Texas town of Pecos in 1966.
Bean accepted Othram’s offer of help. Mittelman’s team soon understood why the case had been cold for so long. There was little viable evidence for forensic genealogical testing. Much of the victim’s skeletal remains (a femur and a tooth Bean sent to the lab in October 2020) had decayed over the decades and had been repeatedly tested by other labs, which had stripped away almost all usable genetic material.
It wasn’t the first time Othram’s scientists had run into such a challenge. They rarely have the luxury of working with high-quality genetic samples. They’re typically left to scrutinize specimens that are far older, far smaller, and far less intact than those yielded by at-home DNA testing kits. But the lab’s proprietary technology was designed to recover and enhance miniscule quantities of degraded forensic evidence. For instance, Mittelman said, genetic-testing company 23andMe gathers around one thousand nanograms of DNA using a mouth swab. His team, on the other hand, identified the alleged perpetrator of a 32-year-old rape and murder in Las Vegas using only 0.12 nanograms of DNA, the smallest genetic specimen ever used to crack a case.
And yet, following several weeks of work, Othram’s scientists determined even they couldn’t glean enough from Walker County Jane Doe’s skeletal remains. Fortunately, Bean had another piece of evidence at his disposal: a piece of brain tissue that had been preserved in what’s referred to as a formalin-fixed paraffin-embedded block, a process that protects DNA proteins and vital structures using formaldehyde and paraffin wax. This once-standard practice was deployed by law enforcement because it keeps bodily evidence intact, Mittelman said, but it can also drastically inhibit DNA gatherers’ ability to access remnants of genetic code—something that wasn’t on Walker County detectives’ radar in 1980.
“Using some kind of material that incorporates formaldehyde was a standard practice back then. That sucks all the water out of a human cell and makes it a very rigid structure that’s basically frozen it in time. It’s a cool thing to do, because you can look at the cells under a microscope a decade or two later,” he said. “But the bad news is, that can create a situation where you’ve essentially got a dehydrated butterfly pinned to a wooden board. If you want to take that butterfly apart later, it’ll just collapse into dust.”
The brain tissue was heavily damaged by the chemical solution, but it was easily the best piece of evidence Othram’s scientists had. Everything changed from there, Mittelman said. While previous tests of the tissue by other labs had proven inconclusive, Othram managed to identify nine nanograms of DNA molecules from it by using specialized techniques to enhance specific genome sequences and then methodically piecing together splintered segments of genetic code, using what Mittelman refers to as Forensic-Grade Genome Sequencing. He said the process allowed Othram to work with DNA that would otherwise have been deemed too broken.
Once they’d reconstructed enough of the victim’s DNA, Othram’s scientists began sorting through tens of thousands of genealogical samples on third-party databases, looking for matches. It was an arduous, weeks-long process, but in March 2021, they’d whittled down their list of potential matches from distant relatives to six people they believed were either the parents, siblings, or aunts and uncles of Walker County Jane Doe.
From there, it was up to Bean to verify whether Othram’s leads were for real. That meant rifling through online databases and social media platforms before, eventually, homing in on Sherri Jarvis’s siblings, who confirmed to him that they were indeed missing a family member. Following months of heart-wrenching conversations, follow-up investigations, and additional genetic testing of fresh DNA samples from the family by government labs, Bean confirmed in late September that Sherri had been found.
Despite these breakthroughs, authorities refrained from making a formal announcement about the case until now to give the family time to mourn anew before today’s press conference, Mittelman said. Even in closely followed cases like this, the family’s wishes always come before feeding information to the public.
“I’m happy that this is finally coming to a conclusion on this portion,” Bean, who declined to provide specifics about leads on potential suspects, told a handful of reporters at the press conference. “Now we’re going to get into finding out who did this to Sherri. That’s going to be one of the things that I’m looking forward to in finishing out my career.”
Though Sherri Jarvis has her name once more, mysteries remain for Bean to unearth. How long had she been in Texas? Why was she looking to get to the prison that night? And, most critically, who killed her and why? Bean’s team is investigating whether Jarvis’s death can be linked to other cold-case murders committed in the same area around the same time.
Nonetheless, the identification of this young girl brings some sense of closure. “What drives me most is being able to provide answers. These cases happen so long ago, and, with the exception of some of the dedicated website sleuths, the world moves on. But the families can’t move on,” Mittelman said, hinting that DNA might yet lead to a suspect too. “This makes you go back and look at all the cold cases, whether they’re crimes or unidentified people, and say, ‘Is there anything that can be done?’ Because as long as there’s DNA, there’s hope.”