A young woman buried as Jane Doe in Colorado 55 years ago. An Arizona family puzzled and saddened as Dorothy Gay Howard's disappearance stretched into decades.
It took a historian, a detective and a determined family member to make the connection after more than a half century that these two people were one and the same.
Howard's younger sister, Marlene Howard Ashman, the last surviving member of the immediate family, was relieved last month when authorities announced the identification.
"It was just complete and utter shock," said Ashman, who lives in Mena, Ark., but spoke from Newport, N.C., where she was visiting her daughter.
"All these 55 years, I guess I learned as a child to put it in an abstract form so I could deal with it; it's easier to accept," Ashman said.
‘The horrible death’
But the younger sister is grappling with the fact that Howard was slain and is aching to know who killed her.
"Now that I know, it isn't so much that she died, but the horrible death," she said.
Boulder County Sheriff's Detective Steve Ainsworth, the lead investigator in the case, said Howard died of blunt-force trauma. She couldn't be identified because her body was found a week after she was killed, and animals had damaged her face and fingers.
At the time, the mystery made headlines across Colorado, and Boulder residents raised enough money to buy her a gravestone, which read "Jane Doe — April 1954 — Age About 20 Years."
Boulder County sheriff's officials have credited historian Silvia Pettem with encouraging them to renew efforts to identify Jane Doe. Pettem became interested in the woman and her story after visiting the cemetery in the 1990s and writing the book "Someone's Daughter, In Search of Justice for Jane Doe."
Meanwhile, Howard's grandniece Michelle Marie Fowler decided to contact Ainsworth after reading an article about Jane Doe and suspecting for years that Howard had been killed.
Ainsworth asked Ashman to provide a DNA sample, and the family learned Oct. 23 that Ashman and Jane Doe were related.
Ainsworth said it was gratifying to tell Howard's family what had happened to her, but he now has a new focus.
‘There's still another mystery’
"We know who she is, but there's still another mystery and that may be the biggest mystery of all, and that's who did it," Ainsworth said.
He said his gut tells him it was serial killer Harvey Glatman, who was executed in 1959 in California. Glatman, who confessed to killing three women, had served time in a Colorado state prison for violent assaults on women, including one about a quarter of a mile from where Howard's body was found.
Because of marks on her body, evidence at the scene and a passing reference Glatman made to a California police detective, Ainsworth's theory is that Glatman hit Howard with his car as she tried to get away. Now, Ainsworth just has to prove it.
Ashman said all she wants is justice for her sister.
She said Howard was extremely strong-willed and lived quite a life in her 18 years, including marrying twice. "Once she decided on a course, it would take heaven and earth to stop her," Ashman said.
Petite and attractive with blond hair, Howard was the oldest of three sisters born in the Texas Panhandle. The girls' parents moved the family to Phoenix in 1942 for "greener pastures."
Married at age 15
Howard married her first husband at age 15 with her parents' permission, but she got divorced and remarried unbeknownst to her family, Ashman said. The family found out about the second marriage years after Howard disappeared.
Howard was working as a live-in nanny in Phoenix the last her family heard from her; they reported her missing when she didn't show up to take one of her sisters to the movies.
Because Howard was so willful and had run away from home once before, Ashman said the family thought she just didn't want to see them again. "We always waited to hear from her," she said.
Ashman still has a letter that her sister wrote to her parents soon before she disappeared.
"She just said, 'Here's some money to help out,'" Ashman said. "She signed it, 'Love always, Dot.'"