Sunday, October 23, 2016

Beth Doe

Graves of Beth and Baby Doe
Laurytown Cemetery
The first time I arrived at the Laurytown Road Cemetery the sun was rapidly setting behind the row of pines on the cemetery’s western edge. It was already later than planned, but I managed to talk my mother into taking a “little detour” on the way home so I could pay my respects to the unidentified victims of a brutal, unsolved murder that took place in 1976.

Located along Laurytown Road, the cemetery is hidden from the hustle and bustle of the modern world on a narrow back road between White Haven and Weatherly. Although it was once referred to as the Carbon County Potter’s Field most modern sources call it the Laurytown Road Cemetery, a name that is used as an attempt to erase the negative connotation of a “Potter’s Field.”

The field, which is surrounded by a tree farm, is covered in plain white crosses. Some of them have name plaques on them; a handful of them have small, simple plaques on the ground in front of the plain crosses. A handful of tombstones do exist in the cemetery, but the vast majority of the graves are marked with simple crosses.

Grave of Beth Doe
Along the Laurytown Road, at the front of the cemetery, stands a memorial dedicated to those veterans who served over the years. A large row of oak trees runs down the center of the field and on this trip, the grass was knee-high and really needed to be mowed. I could not help but wonder if those buried on this sacred piece of land were forgotten. I do want to note that other than my first visit, the grass has been mowed and the grounds well-kept.

In the quickly fading light, the cemetery had an eerie feeling about it. Maybe I was allowing the remote location get to me as I stood there. Only the sound of crickets chirping and the distant call of an owl could be heard. The grass rustled softly in the light wind that blew across the land.

After debating a couple of minutes, I violated my first rule; in the darkness I set out to find her grave. Having come this far, I wasn't about to let the moment go by. Moving quickly through the grass, I somehow managed to find the grave of Beth Doe and her baby in a matter of minutes and in the last rays of light, I stood to pay my respects to them.

I first encountered Beth Doe’s story while doing a research paper in college and after jotting down some notes I forgot about it as the notes disappeared among countless other notes and articles I had filed away. Years passed and while going through some papers I stumbled upon the notes taken years ago and soon the unsolved murder captured my attention as I dug into what details I could discover about the crime.

The sad story of Beth and Baby Jane Doe begins on December 20, 1976, when a fourteen year old boy playing along the Lehigh River near White Haven came across three suitcases along the frozen river. Upon investigating the suitcases thrown from westbound Interstate 80 bridge, he was shocked to discover that two of the suitcases had broken open, revealing the remains of a body.

It would later be determined that the suitcases held two bodies. The first was that of a female who was between the age of 16 and 25. She had been strangled, shot in the neck, and then dismembered; her ears, nose, and breasts had been removed and were never located. The brutal slaying of the young woman had occurred less than twenty-four hours before her lifeless body had been discovered.

One of the many white crosses that
Mark graves in the Laurytown Cemetery
Sadly she was nine months pregnant and the second body was that of her unborn baby. The baby, had it been born, would have been a little girl.

Police had few clues to go on from the start to identify Beth Doe or her killer. The remains were wrapped in a chenille bedspread that appeared to have originally been pink in color with embroidered yellow flowers and then stuffed into three similar suitcases. Also in the suitcase was the New York Times from September 26, 1976, and bits of hay and foam packing.

One possible clue that could eventually lead to her identity, or that of her killer, is a group of numbers and letters that had been written in ink on the palm of her left hand. There have been many interpretations of what is written, but it is known that the three letters are “WSR.” Next to that is either a “4 or a 5” and below that and slightly to the right is either a “4 or a 7.” License plates and CB handles have been explored as a possibility, but their significance has never been discovered.

One possibility to the girl’s identity that has been put forth is she was Sheryl Ann Tillinghast, a native of the Buffalo, New York area, who disappeared from the Wassaic State School (a reform school) where she worked. Sheryl disappeared in September of 1973, leaving behind two of her paychecks. New York State Police have ruled out Sheryl being the Jane Doe discovered along the Lehigh River. I have to admit that some of the pictures online of Sheryl do look very similar to the composites of Beth Doe.

Recent advances in technology allowed for the identification of isotopes in Beth Doe’s body and while the testing is not an exact science, it does give a possible clue from where she might have lived. It is believed that she was born in Western or Central Europe and spent her childhood in the southeastern United States. It is believed she had lived in the United States for five to ten years before her death and possibly she had lived in Eastern Tennessee. The testing did rule out the possibility of the victim being a local resident.

The unknown woman is buried with her unborn baby. Two simple white crosses mark their resting spot. On those crosses are small plaques naming them "Beth Doe" and "Baby Jane Doe." In front of each cross is a small granite marker with the same names carved in them. Baby Jane's grave had a number of toys placed on and around it as others remembered the victims from years ago.

Memorial to the veterans of
Carbon County
Laurytown Cemetery
No words came to mind as I stood there with countless questions running through my mind. How could someone do this to another person? How could a human be so cold-hearted as to murder a mother and her unborn child? Why did this happen? Why hasn't someone missed her? Though it has been decades ago, I can't imagine that somebody out there isn't missing her each and every day. I personally can't imagine living each day not knowing what happened to my loved one if they had disappeared out of my life. Yet Beth and her baby remain nameless after all these years.

The stars were coming out as I finally knew I had to leave. I said a quick prayer that one day she would be identified and the person behind the horrific murder would be caught. I left them resting under the blanket of stars as I made my way back to the vehicle and headed home, taking an extra minute that evening to tell my family how much I loved them.

Beth and Baby Jane are buried in the first batch of crosses on the right side of the cemetery as looking at it from the road. And if you choose to visit please be respectful of the area..

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