BOULDER, Colo. -- The death certificate read, "Unidentified Woman." The newspapers christened her "the unfortunate girl." The card with the red gladioli sent to her funeral was addressed "To Someone's Daughter."
Folks didn't know what to call her, the mystery woman whose battered, nude body was found 50 years ago along a creek in Boulder Canyon. Eventually, she came to be known by the inscription on the small granite headstone placed at her grave:
"Jane Doe. April 1954. Age about 20 years."
Back then, this picturesque university town was a much different place, and murder was a rare atrocity. Jane Doe's story made headlines across Colorado and beyond, but no one came forward to claim her. So the people of Boulder adopted "someone's daughter" as their own.
They donated money for a private cemetery plot rather than see her buried in a pauper's grave. Town florists sent sprays of roses and sweet peas to cover her casket, along with arrangements purchased out of the pockets of strangers. A pastor conducted a nondenominational service, and dozens came in their Sunday best to pay their respects.
Then the murder investigation turned cold, and the nameless victim was all but forgotten.
A half-century later, her remains have been unearthed and her case reopened -- thanks to a curious historian who strolled by her grave and came away haunted by a question: "Who is she?"
Now a new generation is trying to find out, and perhaps solve the biggest mystery about the case.
Not just who is Jane Doe. But who killed her?
"Girl found slain near boulder!" screamed the headline in Denver's Rocky Mountain News.
It was April 9, 1954, the day before spring break was to begin for the more than 7,000 students at the University of Colorado at Boulder. The previous evening two freshmen, their exams done, had driven 9 miles west of town to explore Boulder Falls, a popular picnicking spot in the heart of a canyon filled with cottonwood and pine trees.
When they saw her remains, they first thought it was a mannequin. "We didn't think it could possibly be a human body," one of the students told a reporter.
She lay on rocks next to the stream. Her body was blackened and bruised -- the skull fractured, left arm and several ribs broken. She was about 5-foot-3 and 100 pounds, 17 to 20 years old. Her hair was strawberry blonde. The coroner estimated she had been dead as long as a week, and was probably still alive when her body was dumped.
That was about all investigators would learn about the woman.
No clothes were found, and she wore no jewelry. Her face and hands were so ravaged by animals that her features, even eye color, were unrecognizable and a solid fingerprint impossible to obtain. She had no cavities to compare against dental charts.
All that was left to distinguish her were three bobby pins and an appendectomy scar.
Reports of missing girls poured in immediately, overwhelming the three-man sheriff's office. A mother from Pueblo came to view the body, while letters arrived from such places as Tuttle, Okla.; Excelsior Springs, Mo.; and Crooksville, Ohio.
"Am writing you in regards to the unidentified girl . . ."
"I have a daughter who has been missing since Feb. 13 . . ."
One included a yearbook snapshot of a smiling young woman.
"We got tips from far, far away, as well as a lot of local ones. I couldn't begin to tell you how many, but I guess hundreds would cover it," recalled Dock Teegarden, 85, who was undersheriff in 1954. He spent weeks searching mountain cabins for clues and investigating leads. "All of them checked out."
The hunt for the killer also proved fruitless. Potential suspects were questioned but found to have no connection to the case. At one point, blood was found in a car with Colorado plates in Oklahoma, but the driver admitted killing someone else.
Boulder was on the verge of a population boom, but at the time of the slaying, it was a quiet, close-knit college town, leading investigators to conclude that the victim was not a local -- or surely someone would have known something.
"There was a lot of sympathy, of course," Teegarden says. "Who was the girl? Why was she up there? A lot of people felt, `That could've been my daughter."'
So when officials announced plans to bury her at Columbia Cemetery in an unmarked pauper's grave, people came forward with donations -- $1, $10 -- offered by a patrolman, a laundry owner, an electrician, the feed store operator, and others. The $95 needed for a private plot was quickly raised.
A granite manufacturer began work on a headstone, while Howe Mortuary donated the casket and its chapel for a service.
Two weeks after she was found, about 30 people filled the funeral home pews. During the service, at each place where the minister would have said the name of the deceased, he simply paused.
The next day, a newspaper photograph showed a crowd of men in suits and women wearing dresses and pillbox hats standing before a flower-strewn casket at the cemetery. The headline read, "Will This Grave Mark an Unsolved Mystery?"
On a sunny morning this past June, a small band of folks gathered at Columbia Cemetery once more.
"Let's have a moment of silence for Jane Doe," a sheriff's lieutenant said before a backhoe scraped away the first clump of earth.
Standing on the grass, Silvia Pettem imagined the day 50 years earlier, when another cadre of Boulder citizens had assembled there. "They were burying her; we're digging her up," Pettem thought.
"But it was still a group of people who cared," she would later remark, "and wondered who she was."
Pettem has wondered more than most.
It was 1996 when she first discovered Jane Doe. A longtime Boulder historian, Pettem was part of a "Meet the Spirits" cemetery reenactment in which volunteers portray the dearly departed. Her character was a university professor, but Jane Doe -- whose headstone was nearby -- caught her eye.
Although a performer depicted the mystery woman -- "Someone with a little acting flair could get into it," Pettem says -- the historian found herself returning to the grave, unsatisfied with a made-up life story.
"Who is she?" she wondered.
Three years later, Pettem revived Jane Doe's tale in a history column she writes for the Boulder Daily Camera. In the newspaper's research room, in the "murders" file under "U" for Unidentified, she found a stack of brittle articles from 1954.
Pettem was hooked.
She wondered whether Jane Doe could finally be identified, given today's advancements in DNA and facial reconstruction. She wrote the FBI to see what it knew of the case; the letter was returned with a note reading, "Too vague."
But Pettem, who has spent years probing records about Boulder's past, was not about to stop. "A relentless sleuth of the highest order" is how the Boulder Weekly has described the 57-year-old grandmother.
In 2000, she contacted the Boulder County Sheriff's Office, but it no longer had records on the case. Over the next three years, Pettem set about building her own file.
She visited Howe Mortuary before it closed, and found the funeral record for Jane Doe and an envelope containing cards from those who sent flowers. She contacted newspapers and bought photographs of the investigation and funeral. She posted a query on a genealogy website until a friend created a site solely dedicated to the mystery woman.
Finally, in fall 2003, Pettem presented her findings to sheriff's investigators. What were the chances, she asked, of reopening the case and exhuming Jane Doe?
Sheriff Joe Pelle and his detectives were enthusiastic but said they could not justify spending taxpayer money on such a cold case. Pettem came up with a solution. What if, as they had 50 years earlier, the citizens of Boulder donated the costs?
On Feb. 4, 2004, Pelle held a news conference announcing that his department would reopen the case if enough money could be raised to fund an investigation. Then Pettem spoke, telling the story of Jane Doe and imploring the community to pull together again "for this unknown victim."
The money flowed in -- donations ranging from $5 to $1,000, more than $3,600 to date.
"I hope you will be successful," a contributor wrote. "Somewhere a family still wonders where she is."
The exhumation took two days. A mortician who once worked at Howe supplied the equipment.
Jane Doe's remains were shipped to a lab, where forensic anthropologists recently finished reassembling the skull. Sheriff's detectives hope a facial reconstruction specialist can create a sculpture of what Jane Doe might have looked like, so they can circulate a sketch that a long-lost relative or friend might recognize.
Other forensic analysts are working to extract a DNA sample from her remains. The specialists are all members of an organization Pettem tracked down earlier this year that works pro bono.
The private donations will pay for DNA tests, should detectives find a possible family member.
But time is running out. Sheriff's Lieutenant Phil West emphasizes that authorities cannot begin looking for Jane Doe's killer until they know who she was.
"Any siblings she might have had -- they're probably in their late 60s or early 70s. If we're going to make an identification, it'd have to be now," he says. "This is our last, best chance."
Pettem understands that all too well. Now and then, she returns to the cemetery where Jane Doe first piqued her interest, and stands near her now-empty grave. What began as curiosity has evolved into a personal cause for Pettem, who said she cannot fathom losing a loved one and never knowing what became of that person.
"If Jane Doe were my sister or mother," she once wrote, "I would hope that someone would care enough to research her remains for me."
She wonders. Perhaps the woman was escaping an abusive husband or boyfriend. Perhaps she was a hitchhiker or a runaway.
Then Pettem imagines the day Jane Doe might be laid to rest for good. Instead of strangers all around, Pettem pictures an elderly brother or sister, nieces and nephews, or cousins. Some of her Boulder family, too.
"I want to be in Iowa or Tennessee or wherever she came from," the historian says wistfully, "at that burial."
And wherever that place is, Pettem envisions a new headstone to mark it.
One with Jane Doe's real name at last.