For years, victims were listed on cold case files in law enforcement evidence boxes. While never forgotten, limitations in forensic science prevented their cases from being closed. Families waited decades for answers and justice while their killers remained unidentified.
In 2018, a new tool for crime solving rose to prominence as the notorious Golden State Killer was finally unmasked; forensic genetic genealogy. To begin, investigators upload their unknown DNA profile to the site, which generates a list of the closest genetic matches, based on how many centimorgans (cM) of DNA are shared with the unknown person. Next, investigators will begin to build back the unknown person's family tree until a common ancestor is uncovered. Then, they will build the family trees forward, identifying every descendent possible, using traditional genealogy techniques. Once the trees have been fully built out, investigators look to identify candidate persons that might match the unknown person. Once a person of interest has been identified, new DNA can be collected to compare to the original forensic sample.
Though investigators suspected she was a victim of prolific serial killer, Samuel Little, they didn't know her name for over 40 years.
In December 1977, hunters discovered skeletonized human remains near a highway undergoing construction in Mississippi. Investigators determined that the remains belonged to an African American woman, small in stature. She had a distinctive front gold tooth and may have been wearing a wig. Investigators estimate that the woman might have died 3-4 months prior to discovery. Over the years several facial reconstructions and computer composites were created in an effort to help identify her. With no viable leads to her identity, she became known as "Escatawpa Jane Doe".
In 2018, convicted serial killer Samuel Little confessed to numerous murders across the Southeast, including the murder of Escatawpa Jane Doe, whom he did not know by name. Investigators confirmed Samuel Little was in Jackson County in 1977, during the approximate time frame of the woman’s death. Samuel Little died in prison in 2020.
With all leads exhausted, Jackson County Sheriff's Office, in cooperation with the Mississippi State Crime Lab, contracted Othram to see if advanced DNA testing could help produce leads to Escatawpa Jane Doe's true name.
Genealogical research led to a 93 year-old woman who was originally from Leflore County, Mississippi who stated her cousin, Clara Birdlong, had gone missing in the 1970's. A distant cousin in Texas confirmed that Clara, who had gone by the name "Nuttin" was a small woman who had a gold front tooth and often wore a wig.
Investigator Matthew Hoggatt located a woman in Leflore County who remembered Clara. She said Clara left Leflore County in the 70’s with an African American man who claimed to be passing through Mississippi on his way to Florida. Clara was never seen or heard from again.
Investigator Hoggatt requested reference DNA samples from several people closely associated with Clara to help confirm the ID. Othram used KinSNP rapid familial testing to confirm the suspected relationships. After further investigation and elimination of all other living and deceased relatives, investigators concluded the victim known as Escatawpa Jane Doe, was Clara Birdlong, born in 1933 in Leflore County, MS.
Investigators later learned Samuel Little was arrested in Pascagoula in August of 1977. Although he is now deceased, Samuel Little is considered a prime suspect in the death of Clara Birdlong. Anyone who may remember Clara Birdlong is asked to contact the Jackson County Sheriff’s Office at (228) 769-3063 or Mississippi Crime Stoppers at 877-787-5898.
The Othram team wishes to gratefully acknowledge Carla Davis, who provided critical funding support for this case.