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Body to be exhumed for Ottawa County cold case from 1967

The Ottawa County Sheriff's Office said the remains of the victim would be exhumed on Wednesday in hopes of furthering the homicide investigation.

OTTAWA COUNTY, Mich. — The Ottawa County Sheriff's Office has release a computer generated image of a 1967 homicide victim, and plans on exhuming her remains, in hopes of revealing more answers in the cold case investigation. 

On October 20, 1967, the sheriff's office said hunters found the partially nude body of a black woman near the intersection of 52nd Avenue and Fillmore Street in Blendon Township. The area is just south of Allendale, close to Grand Valley State University. 

The woman's body had been there between three to seven days, and the sheriff's office said an autopsy showed that she died of blunt force trauma to the head. It also showed she was strangled to death. 

Her death was ruled a homicide, but she went unidentified for more than 50 years. She is believed to have been between 16 and 21 years of age, around 5-foot-7 and between 90 and 100 pounds at the time of death. During the cold case investigation, police nicknamed her "Jenny."

On Wednesday, July 29, the victim's remains will be exhumed from the cemetery and taken to a lab for further investigation.

The sheriff's office said the investigation into her death continued for years, eventually going cold. Multiple law enforcement agencies shared information, including Michigan State Police and the FBI. However, no one could successfully identify the woman and she was buried on Nov. 3, 1967 in an unidentified grave at Blendon Cemetery on Tyler Street. 

Credit: 13 OYS
In 1967, the body of an unknown female homicide victim was found by hunters near 52nd Ave and Fillmore in what used to be a remote area.

"This victim, although 53 years ago, is still a victim of a real heinous crime," said Capt. Mark Bennett with the Ottawa County Sheriff's Office. "She was murdered; there’s no doubt about that. The autopsy was pretty complete, even a 53-year-old autopsy was very clear. So to say we're still working for her, absolutely. To at least identify her and give her a name, giver her a proper marking. And if that leads to a further homicide, we’ll certainly work that farther."

In May 2018, the sheriff's office cold case team submitted the information about the victim into a national database that helps resolve unidentified missing persons and unresolved homicide cases, but with no luck in identifying the 1967 victim. 

In May of this year, the cold case team began to explore the possibility of exhuming the unidentified victim’s remains in hopes of extracting DNA to identify the victim and further the homicide investigation, the sheriff's office explained. 

Detectives obtained an order of disinterment from the 58th District Court back in June. They want to remove the victim from the cemetery and use modern technology to identify the victim's DNA. 

Bennett said they hope ancestry-related DNA will correlate to a family member who has taken one of those tests. 

"At least, it's worth a try," said Bennett. "Based on what we know of the processes, based upon the resources that are available to us, we thought we owed it to this victim we attempt to make an I.D, that way."

The sheriff's office said because of the possible young age of the victim at the time of her death, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children was contacted and the center has provided resources to include forensic anthropology.

Credit: 13 OYS
The victim is buried at Blendon Cemetery in an unmarked grave.

Investigators have now assembled a team from the funeral home, the cemetery, the medical examiner’s office, a Michigan State Police human remains analyst, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children anthropology consultants, and Michigan State University.

It could take several months, or even a year, before any conclusive data from the remains result in an identification. 

"This could be a lengthy process but the purpose is twofold," the sheriff office explained in a press release. "First, to identify the victim who since 1967 has been in an unmarked grave at the cemetery and second, to further the homicide investigation."

As for why detectives are looking into this case right now, Bennett said the COVID-19 pandemic may have played a part. Those on the cold case unit were not going out and doing as many interviews, and had more time to devote to research. 

"That slowdown during COVID for support units was very useful for this case," said Bennett, "to be able to research this case and the circumstances surrounding potential exhuming."

Bennett also said exhumations are very rare in Ottawa County. In his more than 30-year career, this is only the second he was even slightly involved with. This is also one of only two cold cases with an unidentified victim, the other a case from 1994 in Wright Township. 

Anyone with any information regarding this investigation or the identity of the victim is asked to call Silent Observer at 1-877-88-SILENT or tips can be sent to MOSOTIPS.com.

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