“On December 6, 1983, two Niagara Mohawk utility linemen were driving to work on Highway 86. They thought they had seen a mannequin laying on the road,” Tom Di Zinno, a senior investigator with the Chautauqua County Sheriff’s Office Unsolved Crimes Unit told Dateline. “So they went back, pulled up, got out.”
Those men made a horrifying discovery along that highway in Ellery, New York.
“They realized it was a woman,” Di Zinno said. “The woman had been shot three -- four times, actually -- once in the mouth -- and dumped there.”
Authorities do not believe the woman was killed at that location and that she had only been dead for 24 to 36 hours before her body was discovered.
“She was posed about 40 feet from the highway,” Di Zinno told Dateline. “She was definitely posed as if she was a sexual assault victim.”
Investigators were unable to identify the woman, so she became known as the Ellery Jane Doe.
Di Zinno told Dateline about the details authorities gathered about the Jane Doe. “There’s been a lot of clues, and trying to identify the individual, we did work with the FBI,” Di Zinno said. “We’ve done a forensic genetic genealogy profile on her. And she has markers -- DNA markers from the Netherlands, Germany and Belgium.”
Di Zinno said the woman is believed to have been between 33 and 35 years old. “She had really extensive dental work that really looked Western European -- a lot of gold caps,” he said. She also had a tracheotomy scar.
“She had a distinctive mole above her eye and below her eye on the left side and kind of a skin tab mole behind her left ear,” Di Zinno detailed. “Those were kind of real distinctive.”
Through an examination, authorities were also able to determine that she had given birth at least once.
Di Zinno told Dateline that investigators looked extensively at the clothing the woman was wearing, as well. “She was identified only as having clothing from Europe. She had an Italian blouse on. She had a jacket that was from Germany, and she had a beautiful skirt,” he said. “They were expensive clothes that seemed to be handmade, but the material was really a fine wool.” They also determined that her IUD was made in the Netherlands and only available in Europe and in parts of Canada.
In her jacket, authorities found something else.
“In her pocket was this note from the Blue Boy Motel in Vancouver, which has been the subject of thousands of theories of what was on there,” Di Zinno said, referring to three sets of abbreviations next to three sets of 5-digit numbers.
“The thing that seems to make the most sense are -- a Buffalo police forensic individual feels that there were phone numbers or telex numbers to three airlines.”
Because of the details uncovered when examining the Ellery Jane Doe, authorities believe she was not from the area.
“I believe she was a traveler, I really do,” Di Zinno said. “She was either looking for someone or traveling to get away.”
“All the detectives that have worked on the case over the years -- they did a lot of work with the Canadian authorities, with RCMP trying to track anything in Canada. They’ve done a lot of work in Europe with Interpol,” Di Zinno said.
And even though they were able to extract DNA to do forensic genealogy, authorities have had little luck there. “The best that the FBI has been able to generate is, like, a 6th cousin -- which is very far away from doing the work necessary to build a tree to identify her,” Di Zinno said. “So we’ve had a lot of difficulty identifying her.”
Di Zinno noted that the Chautauqua County Sheriff’s Office has received a lot of assistance on the Ellery Jane Doe case from the FBI, the New York State Troopers and the Erie County lab. “We would be really lost without the assistance of those various labs,” he said.
Identifying Ellery Jane Doe is one of the top priorities for Di Zinno and his partner in the Unsolved Crimes Unit, Tom Tarpley. While they’d like to give Ellery Jane Doe her name back, Di Zinno told Dateline they’d like to return her to her family, as well. “There’s somebody that’s missing her that --. We know she had a child,” he said.
The investigator also told Dateline that his office has heard from many people who think Ellery Jane Doe may be a loved one who’s missing. They’ve compared her DNA to that of hundreds of women from around the world. But none of them has been a match.
Di Zinno told Dateline authorities have another goal: to identify Ellery Jane Doe’s killer. “What we’re hoping, perhaps, is if we can identify the killer first, we might have more success in finding her,” he said.
And this year, authorities are looking at a potential suspect in her case.
His name is Christopher Wilder, an Australian-born man suspected of being a serial killer dubbed the ‘Snapshot Killer.’ “Christopher Bernard Wilder is a prolific monster,” Di Zinno said.
According to Di Zinno, Wilder emigrated to the United States in the late ‘60s. He landed in Florida and found success in the construction business. He also became an IMSA sports car driver. “He would go to these car races. He would do a lot of research and he would pose himself as a photographer for a local modeling agency, a film production studio,” Di Zinno told Dateline. “He would talk these young women into being a model.”
“That’s how he abducted them,” Di Zinno said. According to the investigator, Wilder “went on a rampage across the country” in a six-week spree from February to April of 1984. “When you look at the FBI records, it seems like every office in the United States was involved,” Di Zinno told Dateline. According to a Los Angeles Times article from 1984, the FBI “formally connected him to the abductions of 11 women.”
Dateline featured the disappearances of Florida teenagers Mary Opitz and Mary Hare, who vanished in January and February of 1981 respectively, in our Cold Case Spotlight series in 2017. Both teens were last seen alive at local malls. Authorities said they believed both could have been victims of the ‘Snapshot Killer.’ Mary Hare’s body was found later that year in a field by a highway. She had been stabbed to death. Mary Opitz is still missing.
Di Zinno told Dateline that there are a few cases of women who he believes may have ended up in Western New York at the hands of Christopher Wilder.
Tammy Jo Alexander was murdered in October of 1979. Her body was found in November of that year in Caledonia, New York. A Jane Doe for decades, she was identified as Tammy Jo about eight years ago. That’s when authorities learned she was an aspiring model from Florida. She was wearing a racecar jacket when her body was found.
A woman was found murdered in Shelby, New York in October of 1983. It took 30 years, but in 2013 authorities were able to identify her as Shari Lynne Ball. Shari was reported missing by her family in Florida in June of 1983. They told authorities that Shari had stated she was going to be traveling to New York with a friend to pursue a modeling career.
Wilder “was brought back to Australia in October -- after Shari Lynne Ball was found murdered. He was on trial for a ‘70s murder,” Di Zinno told Dateline. According to the investigator, Wilder was able to get out on a bond that allowed him to return to the United States. “They gave a half a million dollar bond to allow him to leave Australia to come back to the United States in that November of ‘83 period.”
“He must have figured the gig was up and that’s when he went on this rampage,” Di Zinno said. Authorities believe he may have picked the Ellery Jane Doe as a victim and killed her soon after he returned to the U.S.
“He was all over the United States. He was a driver -- he was an endurance driver,” Di Zinno said. That’s how he was able to go on a six-week spree of abducting, raping and killing women across the country in early 1984.
In April of 1984, Dawnette Wilt was kidnapped from a mall in Indiana and then left for dead in the woods in Penn Yan, New York. Despite being stabbed twice, Dawnette somehow “was able to -- just pure toughness -- pulled herself out of the woods and got away,” Di Zinno said. She identified Christopher Wilder as her attacker.
Not long after that, Wilder allegedly abducted Beth Dodge from a mall in Victor, New York, shot her with a .38 and dumped her body.
Because of those other cases, authorities believe Wilder may have been familiar with the area where Ellery Jane Doe was found. “All in Western New York, using that I-90, 86 throughway towards Niagara Falls, where we are,” Di Zinno said. “So we know this guy was here in this area, very familiar with it.”
“So we’ve been looking at him and trying to trace back,” the investigator said. “It’s the additional people like Tammy Jo Alexander and Shari Lynne Ball and Ellery Jane Doe that we don’t know, but there are indications that fit his modus operandi.”
By April of 1984, Wilder was well-known to the authorities. “He’s probably the most wanted man in the United States and the FBI is looking for him,” Di Zinno said. Wilder was added to the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted list.
“But he’s everywhere. He’s targeted in Florida, he’s in California, he’s in Oregon, he’s in Indiana,” Di Zinno said, which makes it difficult to track his movements.
Di Zinno told Dateline that in April of 1984, authorities believed Wilder was likely making his way to Canada to escape. “He’s spotted by two New Hampshire state police officers. They’re coming out of lunch. They see this car. They go, ‘Hey, isn’t that the car the FBI has been broadcasting?’” Di Zinno told Dateline. Wilder was about 10 miles from the Canadian border. “They run over to talk to him. He dives into his car, pulls out a gun, and as the New Hampshire state trooper jumps on him, thinking he’s got him secured, Wilder actually shoots himself in the heart and a bullet goes through his body and hits the New Hampshire state trooper.”
Wilder died during the struggle and was never charged with any of the dozens of crimes of which he was suspected. The state trooper survived.
Authorities were then able to access Wilder’s car. “He actually had a murder kit. And the murder kit had a knife -- big knife -- that he used to stab the women. It had instruments to torture them,” Di Zinno told Dateline. “He was a construction guy, and he worked up some device that tortured them with electricity.”
Some of the women who survived attacks, and identified Wilder as their attacker, told authorities that he would stick a gun in their mouth and say things like, “‘You do what I’m saying. You’re not performing. You’re not doing what I’m asking.’” Di Zinno said.
Ellery Jane Doe was shot in the mouth. “Right now we have the gun from the New Hampshire State Police that we’re testing in New York against Jane Doe,” Di Zinno told Dateline, adding that they are measuring projectiles found at the scene to compare them to the caliber and model of Wilder’s gun. Those results have not come back yet.
Di Zinno said they’ve connected with police in Florida who had Wilder’s DNA on file from an unrelated case. “The Palm Beach Police actually still had his DNA. So we have his DNA that we’re tracking against Ellery Jane Doe’s clothing.” The investigator added that the DNA will be used to test in the Shari Lynne Ball and Tammy Jo Alexander cases, too.
In November 2023, a woman named Barbara Rotella, who owns and operates an organization called Underground Mysteries -- which is dedicated to bringing attention to underrepresented and unreported missing person and unidentified people cases -- created new reconstructive photos of Ellery Jane Doe.
Di Zinno told Dateline that no matter how much time has passed, the Unsolved Crimes Unit will continue to work tirelessly until they find Ellery Jane Doe’s real name, reunite her with her family and identify her killer.
If you have information about the Ellery Jane Doe case, please reach out to email@example.com or call the Unsolved Crimes Unit at 716-753-4579.