How Yolo County cold case victim was identified after 34 years
After botched hair samples and dead ends, the Yolo County Coroner’s Office identified the victim of 1984 homicide, reopening a 34-year-old cold case.
Yolo County now knows the Jane Doe whose skeletonized remains were found on a county road was Michelle Roy – and that Roy was raising a 3-year-old daughter when she was killed.
On Aug. 3, 1984, The Sacramento Bee reported that a man scrounging for scrap metal between Interstate 80 and the Southern Pacific Railroad tracks had found human remains “scattered over an area approximately 50 yards long.”
Body identification methods were much more rudimentary at the time. Roy’s remains were “in an advanced stage of decomposition,” according to then-Yolo County Sheriff’s Department spokesman Dennis Winger, and no weapons or pieces of telling evidence were found at the scene.
Detectives took hair samples from the victim, but without modern technology — DNA wasn’t successfully used as evidence in American criminal proceedings until 1987 — were unable to positively identify the victim.
Three months earlier, the family of Michelle Roy had filed a missing persons report.
Roy was a 21-year-old, 5-foot-1 black woman with brown eyes and medium-length hair, the report said. She had dropped her daughter off at her mother’s house on April 1, 1984, and was never seen again, according to the National Missing Persons Directory.
The initial investigation failed to tie her to the case.
The victim’s hair samples were consigned to the Yolo County archives, and she was buried in an anonymous grave in Woodland Cemetery, according to Laurel Weeks, the deputy coroner who investigated Roy’s case.
It wasn’t until 2002, 18 years after the fact, that the Coroner’s Office revisited the case in earnest. Officials consulted missing persons reports from the months preceding the body’s discovery and found a file for a woman who seemed a likely match — Michelle Roy.
Emboldened, the office submitted a hair sample from the body to the California Department of Justice alongside familial DNA samples from Michelle Roy’s mother. Mitochondrial DNA tests were conducted, and the two samples were compared.
“The results excluded (Roy’s mother) as being related to the decedent that we had,” Weeks said. In other words, no match.
The office having seemingly reached a dead end, Roy’s case went dormant once again.
In 2006, Weeks assumed her job at the Coroner’s Office and began a long-term review of unsolved cases, including Roy’s. Weeks said she realized that the 1984 Jane Doe had never been fully profiled, so in 2013 she began the process of exhuming the body. Once the remains were out of the ground, “we pretty much did everything over,” Weeks said, such as conducting all-new X-rays.
She submitted skeletal remains to Chico State, then had a special review done of the body’s teeth, then sent the data and the remains back to the Department of Justice.
The full process took more than a decade, as is common for convoluted cold cases, Weeks said.
In December 2017, they had their answer. The 2002 mitochondrial results had been compromised by a contaminant in Roy’s hair, Weeks said. The body was indeed Roy’s.
Detectives notified Roy’s mother, Weeks said. She let them know that, at the time of her death, Roy had a 3-year-old daughter, and put them in touch.
After 34 years of wondering, Roy’s adult daughter, who now lives in Washington, received her body, Weeks said.
The Sheriff’s Office didn’t release the results of the identification to the public until August. The office doesn’t publicize every identification, but because another high-profile cold case was recently solved, this one was tagged on to the news release, said Chief Deputy Coroner Gina Moya.
Detectives continue to investigate Roy’s homicide.
As of Tuesday, no new leads had been generated as a result of the ID, according to Sgt. Matt Davis. The department is not pursuing any suspects and has not released information relating to motive, Davis said.
Anyone with tips or information regarding any aspect of the case is urged to call the Sheriff’s Office at (530) 662-5240, leave an anonymous tip at (530) 662-5248, or email YoloCoSheriffTips@yolocounty.org.
Weeks said that in her 12-year tenure as deputy coroner, the office had identified five previously anonymous bodies.
But “no one dedicates 100 percent of their time, day in and day out,” to cold cases, Weeks said.
Twenty Jane and John Does of Yolo County remain nameless.