ID of presumed homicide victim eludes Wisconsin investigators.
On an overcast October Saturday in 2002, 12-year-old Keenan Blaisdell spotted a black garbage bag near two rocks while he was hiking a steep hill. He poked it with a stick, tearing the plastic. A small reddish skull rolled out.
At first, he and others thought it was from a deer. Then they saw the holes for the eyes and nose.
Now, nearly 10 years after Blaisdell and fellow Prior Lake Boy Scouts discovered the skull near Houlton, Wis. -- and after detectives recently chased one especially promising lead all the way to Japan -- investigators are back to square one. The skull's identity remains a mystery, and the St. Croix County Sheriff's Office is again asking for the public's help.
"If you know of a missing individual who might have fit the profile, or if you have any information that you [think] might help us, whether it's just a story that you've heard, or a comment, or rumor, we'd be happy to take that call and follow up," Sheriff John Shilts said. "Who knows where it might lead?"
The skull, found off Anderson Scout Camp Road, is stored in the evidence room of the St. Croix County Sheriff's Office in Hudson, Wis., waiting for identification and a proper burial.
It's likely the victim was slain and her body dismembered to hamper identification, Shilts said.
Other body parts were never found.
Leslie Eisenberg, a forensic anthropologist from Wisconsin who examined the skull for St. Croix County, determined that the woman was Asian or possibly American Indian, at least 35 years old, with mousey brown hair 2 1/2 to 3 inches long. She could have stood out in a crowd as looking different, investigators say.
"Because of widely spaced eyes, a broad nose, prominent forehead, and projecting lower jaw devoid of teeth, the person may have been typecast as mentally retarded or been ostracized from society," Eisenberg's report says.
Since she had no teeth and wore no dentures, she would have had to be careful with what she ate. Her jaw had been freshly fractured, likely around the time of her death, although those blows would not have killed her, according to investigators.
The skull was shipped for reconstruction to Dr. Emily Craig, a forensic anthropologist in Kentucky, in 2004. She cautioned that the reconstruction only "approximates" the person's facial shape and proportions.
"This is not like matching pictures on Facebook," she said. "An acquaintance of the deceased individual needs to see the reconstruction. They will mentally key on the shape and proportion."
The work of Eisenberg and Craig, however, led to a strong lead that had officials hopeful.
St. Croix County investigator Brent Standaert took the case in early 2011 when Dave Hake retired after nearly nine years as lead investigator. Soon after, a national database called the Doe Network contacted him to tell him of a resemblance between the reconstructed skull and a photo of an Asian immigrant, Nori Jenkins, who had disappeared from a Kansas hospital for the criminally insane in 1986. She hadn't been heard from since.
Jenkins had married soldier Harold Jenkins of Topeka in Okinawa, in March 1959, and later became a U.S. citizen. In 1964, while Harold worked a late shift, she dressed her two toddlers in their best dresses and white anklets and strangled them with a belt.
Nori Jenkins was found not guilty by reason of insanity. She walked away from the Topeka State Hospital on July 20, 1986.
Standaert noted how much Jenkins' photo resembled the reconstruction, and also commented on other parallels between the women.
"Absolutely, the similarities are pretty striking when you see them side-by-side," the investigator said.
There was no DNA of Jenkins to compare to the skull, so Standaert turned to the FBI, the international police agency Interpol, and finally to Japanese police to ask Nori Jenkins' sister for a DNA sample to compare to the skull.
Japan's national police notified Standaert in April that DNA from Jenkins' sister was not a match.
At a time when the U.S. Department of Justice says an estimated 40,000 sets of unidentified human remains are held by medical examiners, Standaert now is left wondering about two parallel lost lives.
"You try to wrap your head around why on a small little road in a small little town in western Wisconsin, was this person dumped?" he said.
He has sifted through many leads and spent much time examining the life of Nori Jenkins, only to be left wondering how she could simply disappear. He also questions how a skull could show up and nobody would report a missing person.
"And, of course, you go to these national databases, and you see the hundreds upon hundreds of missing persons who are reported, and the unidentified remains that are out there," he said.
"And you're thinking in a country like the United States, why do we have so much of this going on?"
Joy Powell • 651-925-5038