Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Unsolved mystery of 'Miss X'

ID of woman whose body pulled from river still unknown

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Somewhere under a pile of soon-to-be-melted snow at Brookside Cemetery lies the unmarked grave of a mystery woman.

Very little is known about her demise, which came to light last summer when a badly decomposed body was fished out of the Red River. Even less is known about her life -- not her name, not her age, not her place of birth or whether she has any living relatives or friends.

It is the rarest of cases, an unidentified Jane Doe who has somehow lost her life without a single person coming forward to claim the body or offer information.

And the many lingering questions have Winnipeg police and the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner desperate for answers but open to the possibility she could forever remain buried in anonymity.

"This person has lived on this Earth, they have made a contribution to society," said Gordon Holens, a sub-inspector and statistician with the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, who has spent the past 10 months trying to find anything he can about the woman he refers to simply as "Miss X."

"You just don't see this very often."

Information has been difficult to obtain since a resident who lives just south of the north Perimeter Highway bridge made the grisly discovery on June 15. The case was initially treated as suspicious because there was plastic wrapped around the remains. Police later determined it was likely debris that had become entangled and ruled out foul play.

But other factors -- such as when she died and how and why she died -- remain a mystery, as does anything pertaining to her identity. Police took the unusual step last September of issuing a forensic sketch of the woman, along with photos of jewelry she was wearing when pulled from the water. The drawing of the woman is a facial reconstruction, not an exact likeness. She is believed to have been between 35 and 50 years old and about 5-5 with a slim build. She may have worn dentures.

It was hoped the public plea for assistance would lead to a break in the case, but investigators were met with silence.

"We have to sometimes think outside the box. We were very hopeful and optimistic at the time it might generate some discussion and get someone to come forward. Unfortunately that hasn't happened," police Const. Jason Michalyshen told the Free Press this week. "The investigators really take these matters very personally. They really want to bring some closure out of respect for the individual."

Holens said his office held the woman's remains until last October, then finally arranged for a brief funeral service and burial at Brookside. Predictably, nobody showed up.

"We view it as a community service to try and make at least some reasonable effort to locate family," said Holens.

Holens has held his job for 13 years and says this is only the second case he can remember in which a person remains anonymous long past burial. He said there are typically about 70 cases a year in Manitoba in which a person whose identity is known dies in relative obscurity and nobody comes forward immediately to claim the body. Usually about half are resolved quickly when a family member or friend is tracked down. The other half are given a service and burial similar to the ones Miss X received last October under the Manitoba Anatomy Act.

"Usually there is nobody going, or you can count the attendance in terms of one or two," said Holens, who does as much research as he can on the unclaimed person to plan a funeral that suits their religious background or even have them buried in the same cemetery as other deceased relatives.

"But a lot of these unclaimed bodies, they chose to live that lifestyle, they like being on their own. And in some cases we'll find family and they just refuse to claim because of family dynamics that go on," he said.

Of course, there's no way of knowing what the family dynamics are in the case of Miss X. Winnipeg police have reached out to other jurisdictions, asking law enforcement to check their missing-persons' databases to see if there could be a match. Forensic sciences haven't been able to offer much help so far.

"This case is not closed in our eyes by any stretch of the imagination," said Michalyshen. "Learning a bit about the history of this individual would certainly help us paint a better picture of what happened. We'd be taking quite a leap right now to try and say."

Anyone with information is asked to call the police missing persons unit at 204-986-6250 or Crime Stoppers at 204-786-TIPS (8477).

www.mikeoncrime.com


Sub-inspector still wondering about his first 'John Doe' case

IT is the type of case that can keep a police officer or medical examiner tossing and turning at night.

Gordon Holens still can't shake lingering thoughts of the very first "John Doe" buried under his watch as he tries to find answers in a similar case involving an unidentified woman he has dubbed "Miss X."

Holens, a sub-inspector and statistician with the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, said he often thinks about the anonymous man who was laid to rest about a decade ago in complete obscurity. He spent months trying to track down clues in the case only to be repeatedly met with frustration. Holens was only able to learn the following, which he shared with the Free Press:

The man appeared to be Korean, in his mid-30s and may have been financially well-off given the clothing and jewelry he was wearing. He came to Winnipeg and bought a one-way bus ticket at the downtown terminal. His final stop was Grand Rapids, about 400 kilometres north of Winnipeg.

The man checked into a motel under a bogus name and paid cash. When he didn't check out the following morning, staff entered his room and found him hanging. He had committed suicide.

"As it so happened, the Korean ambassador was in town at the time and we had him look at the body," Holens said.

But they were never able to learn who the man was, where he came from or who he may have left behind.

"He was probably running from something. I thought he may have been from the U.S.," said Holens.

-- Mike McIntyre

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 13, 2013 A3

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