Southeast Missouri State University student publication

SEMO’S Anthropology department helps agencies solve Grace Doe cold case

Sunday, August 8, 2021

Southeast’s Anthropology department recently helped solve their second cold case after contributing to the investigation of Grace Doe by “providing analytical results that helped law enforcement advance their investigation,” according to Assistant Professor of Anthropology Jennifer Bengston.

Grace Doe was found in a wooded area next to a farmhouse in the Missouri county of McDonald by a couple in the 1990s. Doe had been sexually assaulted by the perpetrator after being hog-tied with ropes only available to the military, along with other bindings such as telephone cables. The McDonald County Sheriff's Department was contacted after the remains were found by the couple. Since then, a number of agencies have attempted to solve the case as technologies have continued to advance.

After learning about the Grace Doe case in December, Bengston drove to the McDonald County Police Department to claim the remains of Grace. She then carefully collected the bones of Doe and took inventory. The purpose of taking inventory is to match what Bengston brought into the lab with what police records previously had on file. Bengston then began building a team of Southeast graduate students she had previously worked with on cold cases. Chief Deputy Coroner of Bollinger County Meghan Cook was one of the members who worked on the Grace Doe Case with Bengston.

“She asked if I would come and teach her undergraduate students on how to work a case and how to go from start to finish on human skeletal remains and pretty much how that process works,” Cook said. “I worked on quite a few cold cases while I was an undergraduate at SEMO, so I have a little bit of experience. [Bengston] thought it would be beneficial for students to see a SEMO alum come back, so I was more than willing to come back and help her with that.”

One of the main goals of the forensic anthropology department is to build a genealogical profile using advanced technology of the remains they perform their research on. The information in the profile includes an age range, weight, height and ancestry. Doe’s age had previously been estimated at an age of 20 to 39. Graduate Assistant in Chemistry and Physics Amanda Milbrandt used her expertise to limit the age range of Doe to early 20s.

“I determined how old Grace was at her time of death,” Milbrandt said. “So with her particular case, I looked at dental formation and her clavicle to determine age based on size, wear and how developed it was. I did an age estimation … which was my age at the time. This could have been me, so it just sticks with me. I just picture if this was me, how would my parents, how would my family feel if it was me. It just made me feel hurt and sad.”

From their research and work, the Southeast Anthropological Department, alongside other organizations, were able to help locate Doe’s family and give her back her name. The dedicated workers of the Doe case expressed their own reactions after finding out their research had been fruitful.

“The best parts of these cases is to bring answers to the families and to give the unidentified their names back,” Bengston said. “The closure it contributes to is the most important thing.”

Cooke agrees with Bengston.

“It’s kind of one of those bittersweet moments,” Cook said. “It’s one of those times you are able to provide answers to a family that sorely needed them and deserved them. And then to a victim that even after so long, she finally had her name given back to her. We were definitely glad to help facilitate that, but it’s a very somber type of feeling. You’re happy to kind of help in some way, but it’s very humbling. You kind of have to take a step out of the picture for a second.”

Grace Doe’s true name was Shawna Beth Garber. She was from Kansas.