Jane Doe
AP
Elba Leonor Diaz Soccarras, 76, a woman referred to for years as Jane Doe, is seen at a psychiatric hospital in this undated photo released Monday by the New Jersey Department of Human Services.
updated 3/23/2009 5:34:25 PM ET 2009-03-23T21:34:25

A mute elderly woman known only as "Jane Doe" since she was found wandering in a New Jersey mall 15 years ago has finally been identified.

Lt. Eduardo Ojeda of the New Jersey Department of Human Services police discovered recently that the woman is Elba Leonor Diaz Soccarras, who turns 75 on March 28. She has Alzheimer's disease and has been bedridden in a New Jersey psychiatric hospital for years. Her identity, partly obscured because she and her daughter had a falling out, was established thanks to tips from the public and Colombian officials.

Ojeda said her case file landed on his desk six years ago and that he exhausted all means to try to determine her identity.

"It was always on my mind, it really kind of bothered me," Ojeda said. "As someone said: 'You don't find peace until you find all the pieces.'"

Diaz was found at the Woodbridge Center mall in 1994. She was well-dressed and carrying an empty purse, but was disoriented and unable to speak. Her fingerprints yielded no database hits. Unable to determine if she was a U.S. citizen, and therefore eligible for nursing home placement under Medicare, she was committed to a New Jersey psychiatric hospital.

Ojeda decided to launch a public appeal after receiving a call last summer from the New Jersey courts, where Soccarras' institutionalization was up for periodic review.

Falling out with daughter
Tips flooded in: She had lived in Brooklyn for years, supporting her only daughter with various factory jobs. She was the elderly woman frequently seen wandering around Woodbridge, ordering a cheeseburger and a cup of coffee at a fast food restaurant nearly every day. She was frequently spotted, her hair always nicely done, wandering outside a Woodbridge grocery store carrying two shopping bags full of clothes. She even once uttered part of her name.

Tips also led them to her daughter, still living in Brooklyn, whose birth certificate revealed Soccarras' full name and nationality.

The daughter, whom Ojeda declined to name, said they had a falling out when the daughter was young and hadn't spoken since. The woman was shocked to hear about her mother because she assumed Soccarras had returned to Colombia decades ago.

Ojeda said those who had known Diaz described her as a humble, hardworking, churchgoing woman who "fell prey to this disease," now an advanced case of Alzheimer's.

With help from the Colombian consulate in New York, investigators discovered Soccarras had emigrated legally in 1969 from the town of Villanueva, where she grew up with six siblings, in the La Guajira region of Colombia.

With Diaz's identity and legal immigration status established, she has been approved for Supplemental Security Income assistance and Medicaid and is awaiting transfer to a nursing home, according to New Jersey's Department of Human Services.

It may never be known how Diaz ended up in New Jersey or came to be abandoned at the mall.

Ojeda, 52, said the case always haunted him.

"Every person, no matter what, has the right to die with the dignity of a first and last name," he said.

More on: Alzheimer's disease

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