|This case has remained unsolved for 8 years, 11 months, and 26 days.|
Economy, Pennsylvania (PA) is a low-population rural borough in Beaver County. It has low rates of violent and property crime, and is rated safer than almost 90 percent of US neighborhoods. For these reasons, the discovery of a severed woman’s head in a wooded area in 2014 caused quite the stir, both in town and nationwide.
Almost 10 years later, authorities still aren’t sure who the head belonged to, how it got there, or why it was left in Economy. Even though a variety of different analysis techniques have been carried out — dental records, DNA comparison, artist reconstruction, isotope testing, and more — we still have no idea who the head belonged to or why it ended up there. Why was a head found in rural Pennsylvania? And who did it once belong to?
Table of Contents
A Bizarre and Horrifying Find
On December 12, 2014, a teenage boy was wandering around a wooded area in Economy Borough, PA, about 20 miles from Pittsburgh. He came across a bizarre find: the severed head of an older woman roughly 10 yards from a rural road. He immediately contacted authorities, and they responded to the scene to investigate.
Surrounding Area Searched
Law enforcement used cadaver dogs to search the area around where the head was found in case other body parts were nearby. However, they didn’t find anything other than the head, and the head appeared to be embalmed.
Authorities asked the public for information, and though many tips flooded in, none provided any answers. The police chief at the time, Michael O’Brien, told the press, “What’s bizarre is not that we’ve found a head; it’s that we’ve found a head that’s embalmed.”
Embalming typically occurs in funeral homes as a preparation for open-casket funerals or in medical research capacities so that the bodies can be studied by medical students. It’s very unusual for someone to find a body — or in this case parts of a body — that has been embalmed.
Coroner Examined the Head
The head was brought to the Beaver County Coroner for further examination. The coroner confirmed that the head had been embalmed, which was the reason all of the flesh hadn’t decomposed. In typical setting, the human body starts to decompose rather quickly after death, but if a body is embalmed, it can be preserved for much, much longer.
It was also discovered that the eyes on the head had been removed and replaced with rubber balls, and it’s believed that whoever removed the eyes had some anatomical knowledge. Michelle Vitali, an anatomy professor who examined the head, explained:
“When we lifted the flap at the back of the neck, we could see that the whole purpose of that was to access the key joint that would preserve both the head and the vertebral column, thereby maximizing the profitability of both.”Michelle Vitali (Source: Reuters)
Another pathologist, Cyril Wecht, who examined photographs of the head agreed that the dismemberment was done by a professional: “We see a rather neat surgical dissection. Somebody took their time.”
Was a Crime Committed?
Although a head was found in the woods, it wasn’t immediately clear if a crime had been committed. After all, the head had been embalmed, and it didn’t seem that this was a murder victim — although that possibility couldn’t be entirely ruled out.
According to authorities, the crime of abuse of a corpse was committed at the very least, and since they can’t rule out other foul play, more serious charges are possible for whoever left the head in the woods.
Whose Head Was It?
Figuring out who the head belonged to is perhaps the key to solving the question of why it ended up in rural Pennsylvania. O’Brien, the Chief of Police at the time, stated:
“Her identity is the priority of this investigation. She deserved to have her name put to her face. Once that identification is made we can move forward in this investigation.”Michael O’Brien (Source: 21 WFMJ)
In the meantime, she’s been called Jane Doe, as so many other unidentified female bodies are referred to when no positive identification can be made. Authorities set out on using a variety of different testing methods to try to determine who Jane Doe really was.
Dental Records Checked
When a body can’t be easily identified due to decomposition or other means of destruction, dental records are often used as a means of identification. Some dentists examined the head’s teeth and dental work and suggested that Jane Doe was perhaps a lower-income woman with several filled cavities. The fillings she had were made with a compound that wasn’t available prior to 2004, suggesting she died sometime after that.
However, this information wasn’t enough to make a positive identification mostly because it would need to be compared to a potential victim, and authorities still have no leads on that.
Isotope Testing Conducted
Isotope analysis involves testing isotopes found in human hair, bones, or teeth to find more information about an individual’s age, sex, race, body mass, genetic disorders, general health, and regions where they might’ve lived. This testing was conducted on the found head and it was determined the woman might’ve spent her last few months of life in the Ohio area or in other nearby states like West Virginia.
DNA Analysis Yielded No Results
Some sources state that no DNA could be obtained from the head because the embalming process destroyed it while others claimed that DNA was in fact recovered, and that the DNA was put into a nationwide database for missing persons. It’s not clear which is the truth, and even if DNA was submitted, no match has been found.
Further Examinations Conducted
After further examination, the head was believed to have once belonged to a white female over the age of 50. She may have died from a cardiac event, as traces of a medication used to treat heart failure were found.
Sketches and Busts Made
Some sketches and busts were made of the head in an attempt to identify who the woman might’ve been. The hope was that someone out there would see a sketch or a photograph of the bust and recognize the woman as someone they might’ve known. To date, no one has come forward with the key that would confirm this woman’s identity.
The Head Buried
After authorities finished examining and conducting tests on the head, it was eventually buried in Beaver County, PA out of respect for the victim, who to this day remains a Jane Doe. And that’s about all we know — even to this day — about who the head might’ve belonged to.
Theories on What Happened
There are several plausible theories about what might’ve happened in this case, ranging from incorrect disposal of human remains to murder. Let’s examine the theories.
A Possible Murder Victim
There’s always the possibility that the head belonged to a murder victim, and that the murderer had some degree of anatomical knowledge or skill — enough to embalm and dismember the victim’s body. Because we don’t know who the woman was though, it’s difficult to tell whether she was murdered or if she had donated her body to science.
A Potential Medical School Cadaver
Many suspected that the head might’ve come from a medical school cadaver — that is, the bodies donated to science to help train future doctors. Most cadavers are embalmed, which might explain why the head was embalmed.
Authorities considered this theory and contacted medical schools in the area, trying to see if any of their cadavers were missing a head, but they didn’t get any good leads back. Of course, this doesn’t mean that the head didn’t belong to a cadaver — only that none of the surrounding medical schools reported any missing a head.
The Woman’s Body was Dismembered by a Body Broker
Some have suggested that the woman’s head was severed by a body broker — someone who sells parts of bodies that were ostensibly donated to science. Part of the issue with body brokers is that sales of body parts aren’t necessarily tracked or regulated. You also don’t need a license to become a body broker because it’s considered tissue donation, which is separate from organ donation and therefore not tightly-regulated.
What Do I Think Happened?
When I first started writing this article, I’d never heard of a body broker before. Of course, I’ve heard of donating your body to science or being an organ donor, and I think these are great programs. Using cadavers is one of the best ways to help educate medical students, and organ donations save thousands of lives every year. Even donating remains to a body farm for the advancement of forensic science is understandable.
All that being said, I can’t imagine that families would donate their loved ones’ remains to “science” if they knew that the remains might be disarticulated and sold — and not necessarily to medical establishments. Body brokers don’t even require a license to do this, nor are the donations tracked.
Body Brokers Charged with Crimes
There have a number of instances of these body brokers breaking laws by either selling infected remains, disposing of remains incorrectly, or illegally selling parts without consent. Here are a few:
- A Washington body broker was convicted of 29 counts of abandonment of a dead body for dumping the remains of nine people in an Arizona desert, leaving them to rot.
- A Michigan body broker was sentenced to 9 years in prison for proffering disease-infected corpses for medical demonstrations and courses.
- A Colorado funeral home director was sentenced to 20 years for illegally selling body parts from over 500 victims without the consent of their families. While it’s legal to sell body parts, it must be done with consent.
- An Illinois body broker was sentenced to 2 years in prison for selling infected body parts to a medical center.
My point in listing some of these cases is that it’s entirely possible that this severed head came from an unscrupulous body broker, and indeed, I think this is likely the answer in this case.
Body Broker Theory Likely
Because the head was removed so carefully from the vertebral column, it seems to me that this was likely done by a body broker or someone else who planned on selling the body parts to other third parties. The fact that the eyes were removed and replaced with rubber balls — not at all common when it comes to medical practice cadavers — suggests that whoever did this was not a medical student conducting research.
Murder Victim Possible, But Unlikely
If this was just a murder victim, why would someone so carefully extricate the head from the body if they were just trying to dismember the victim for easier disposal? Why would they bother embalming the head? If anything, a murder typically wants to destroy evidence — not preserve it.
Ultimately, it’s not impossible that this woman was murdered and then desecrated, but it seems unlikely to me for the aforementioned reasons.
Regardless, Jane Doe Deserves Justice
Whoever she is and however her body ended up being donated, Jane Doe didn’t deserve to be discarded in rural Pennsylvania. If you have any idea who might’ve dumped Jane Doe’s head, or if you know what Jane Doe’s real name might’ve been, please reach out to the relevant authorities.
Do You Have Information?
If you have any information about this case, please reach out to the Economy Borough Police Department at (724) 876–0380 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Cold Case Questions
- Do you think the severed head belonged to a murder victim or a cadaver from a body broker? Or perhaps there’s another explanation?
- Will Jane Doe ever be positively identified?
Let me know your thoughts in the comment section below!
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