PASCAGOULA, Mississippi — Nearly 38 years to the day after her lifeless body was found floating face up in the Escatawpa River, “Baby Jane Doe” has been identified.
Jackson County Sheriff Mike Ezell announced at a press conference Thursday the 18-month-old child buried in Jackson County Cemetery is Alisha Ann Heinrich, last seen when she and her mother, 23-year-old Gwendolyn Clemons, left their family home in Joplin, Mo., on Thanksgiving 1982.
Clemons and her daughter, accompanied by a man Clemons was dating at the time, were supposedly traveling to Florida to start a new life. Ten days later, Alisha’s body was found, Clemons was missing and the man disappeared.
The nearly four-decades old saga began in the early morning hours of Dec. 3, 1982, when motorists on both Highway 63 and Interstate 10 reported seeing a woman carrying a toddler alongside both roadways. Some of those reporting the sighting said the woman appeared to be in distress, but refused all offers of help, according to news reports at the time, including those in The Mississippi Press.
Two days later, about 7 a.m. on Dec. 5, a truck driver — Ted Hammonds — reported seeing the body of an adult female floating near a bridge across the Escatawpa River along I-10. Hammonds said the woman was clothed in a blue plaid shirt — the same description given of the woman sighted walking with the toddler two days earlier.
A Jackson County deputy responded to the scene but did not find the body in the area Hammonds had identified. The deputy expanded the search area and shortly after found the body of a blonde-haired, female toddler partially submerged and face up near the bridge.
After the child’s body was found, the river was dragged, with assistance from helicopters and additional boats, in hopes of locating the adult female body reported in the river, but the adult body was never found.
An autopsy was performed on the child, with medical examiners determining someone had attempted to smother the child and then, possibly believing the child to be dead, threw her off the 1-10 bridge into the water. The child, the autopsy found, was alive when she hit the water and her cause of death was drowning.
The examination also found she had been a healthy toddler, estimated to be between 18 months and two years of age. She showed no signs of malnourishment or prior abuse. She had been dressed in a pink and white Cradle Togs checkered dress, decorated with three flowers on the front.
The story garnered national media attention, with the child named “Baby Jane Doe” or “Delta Dawn” by both the public and media. Jackson County deputy Virgil Moore and his wife were largely responsible for raising funds and donations to pay for the child’s funeral.
Services for Baby Jane were held at Bethel Assembly Church in Pascagoula, with an estimated 200 people in attendance. She was buried in the Jackson County Cemetery under a granite marker with the inscription “Baby Jane” and “Known Only to God.”
Extensive efforts were undertaken to try and determine Baby Jane’s identity and locate any family members, but all proved fruitless. In 2009, her body was exhumed to allow investigators to obtain a DNA sample and sent to the University of North Texas in the hopes it might lead to an identification, but the results came back negative.
The DNA information was entered into the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System and the National Center for Mississippi & Exploited Children databases, but in October, Baby Jane’s information was taken down from the database, suggesting to many she had, at last, been identified.
Ezell’s Friday announcement confirmed it. Surrounded by several investigators who have continued to work on the 38-year-old case — some of whom were clearly emotional — Ezell said they received news from Othram, a DNA laboratory in Houston, Texas, which had been able to match Baby Jane’s DNA with family in Missouri.
Investigators traveled to Missouri in August and September of this year and, through discussions with the family, determined the child was indeed Alisha, as well as her mother’s identity.
“The family were under the assumption that Alisha was alive and living somewhere,” said Ezell during the press conference, which was also streamed through Facebook. “I guess they were just hopeful. They were thankful that the case was still being worked and (finding out what happened) gave them some closure.”
Although speculation over the years has been that the child’s mother was the adult body seen by the truck driver, Ezell said they cannot rule out Clemons still being alive.
“We’re assuming the worst, but we don’t know that for sure,” he said.
As for the man who accompanied Clemons and Alisha, Ezell said he ultimately returned to Missouri, but is now deceased. He is considered a suspect in Alisha’s death, Ezell said, but his name will not be released unless more concrete evidence surfaces.
The case — as it has for 38 years — remains under investigation.