Grace Doe Identified After 31 Years: What Does the Autopsy Reveal about Her Killer?

Lori Lamothe

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Artist's rendition of Grace Doe (left). Childhood photograph of Shawna Beth Garber (right)McDonald County Sheriff's Office

This is the first in a two-part series on the Shawna Beth Garber cold case.

For three decades, the murdered young woman remained nameless. After a couple found her behind an abandoned farmhouse in southwest Missouri, the McDonald County Sheriff’s Office spent 31 years trying to find out who she was. Because of the body’s deteriorated condition, detectives dubbed her Grace Doe because “only by the Grace of God” would she be identified.

Earlier this year their persistence paid off. They finally put a name to the county’s only unresolved missing persons case: Grace Doe was, beyond a doubt, Shawna Beth Garber. According to Lieutenant Michael Hall, who worked the case 15 years:

I am pleased that after all this time there is some closure as to the identity of “Grace” aka Shawna. It was sad for the family to find out what happened to Shawna, but I'm glad they got to lay her to rest.

Like so many cold cases solved during the past few years, it was DNA that ultimately gave investigators their answer.

A skull in the grass

When Randy and Linda Grohler spotted a skull lying in the grass on December 2, 1990, DNA analysis was in its infancy. They had been searching for cans on Oscar Talley Road, which lies at the border between Pineville and Anderson, but what they found was far more disturbing. In addition to the skull, there were other scattered bones, as well as the victim’s clothing.

The coroner estimated the victim was in her twenties at the time of her murder. Moreover, his findings suggested her death was exceptionally brutal. Her killer had bound her with no less than six types of bindings: nylon and lead ropes, coaxial and telephone cables, paracord and clothesline. Due to the extensive dental work on the victim’s teeth, forensic examiners believed she was from a larger city.

Detective Lori Howard, who is now retired but also worked the case for years, learned a 10-year-old boy stumbled across the remains about a month before the Grohlers, but his family didn’t believe him when he said he had found a body.

Unfortunately, Howard couldn’t discover the boy's name. Even the timing of his discovery is in dispute and it is possible he may have found the victim as much as two months before December 2, in early October.

According to Hall, the body had been there “weeks to months, but that is a guestimate.” The farmhouse, which was located at the border between Anderson and Pineville, had been empty for years and has since been destroyed.

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The search for "Grace Doe's" remains in 1990.McDonald County Sheriff's Office

A possible witness?

Detective Howard did eventually learn of a possible witness. A woman who had been a teenage girl at the time of the murder came forward to report hearing a scream in the vicinity on Halloween night 1990.

According to Howard, the woman and her friends were at a house down the road when a truck with a loud muffler drove by. They went outside to investigate and heard two vehicle doors open, followed by a scream. Then a single door slammed and the truck drove off.

Whether the incident is related to the murder is unclear. The fact that the truck departed so quickly suggests the area was simply a dump site but this doesn’t fit with the witness’s reports of a scream. If the victim was alive then ambushed at the site, it would have taken some time to bind her so extensively and the truck would likely have remained for a longer period of time.

Investigators initially believed Grace’s killer was from the area but later changed their minds. While the road is remote, it was not far from state highways in 1990. According to Hall:

“I do not believe that she was kept at that area and believe that she was brought in. I do not think that they knew the house.”

More than 200 leads

More than 200 leads failed to produce any solid evidence. As the case went cold, detectives continued to search for Grace’s identity but they didn't have much to go on.

Gradually, however, technological advances began to revolutionize DNA forensics. Grace's profile was entered into NamUS, CODIS and the University of North Texas Center for Human Remains but nothing matched.

In 2009—19 years after the murder—Howard worked with a facial reconstruction expert and an FBI instructor to create an accurate likeness of Grace. The image circulated across the country and soon the tips began to roll in. Grace now had a face but despite many suggestions about who she might be, her true name was still a mystery.

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One of the artist's renditions of Grace Doe that the sheriff's office circulated.McDonald County Sheriff's Office

Last year investigators partnered with Othram Inc., a Texas company that uses DNA testing and forensic genealogy to identify possible relatives of the deceased. In January, Hall reached out to Danielle Pixler, one of the women on Othram’s list of possible family members for Grace Doe.

A violent childhood

Danielle had been searching too. For the past 28 years, she had looked for her half-sister Shawna, who went into foster care in Garnett, Kansas when she was four years old. Danielle and Shawna had the same mother, but Pixler was the daughter of a different father. It wasn’t long until DNA testing confirmed that Grace Doe was indeed Danielle’s long lost half-sibling.

Sadly, her half-sister’s childhood was almost as violent as her death. In the early 1970s, Shawna was the youngest of three children living in Topeka, Kansas with her mother and father. Her two brothers, Rob and Roger, were at school one day when their mother poured lighter fuel on Shawna and set her on fire.

Though Shawna's mother repeatedly abused all three children, they had remained at home. After the incident, child protective services placed them into foster care and they lost track of one another. Rob, now 56 years old, describes his mother as “evil.” After she and her first husband split up, Shawna’s mother remarried and had a fourth child, Danielle.

Eighteen years after Shawna’s mother almost burned her to death, the petite 22-year-old woman would encounter someone equally depraved. She would not escape a second time.

Her killer, on the other hand, has never been caught.

Cold case is far from cold

Despite the progress they’ve made in recent months, investigators aren’t finished with the case. Now that they know who the victim was they want to answer a second question: who murdered her?

We are in the next phase of the investigation and trying to piece her life together after she became an adult up to the time that she was found deceased in McDonald County.” --Lieutenant Michael Hall

Hall is seeking any information about Garber, who he said may have been living in southeast Kansas or Joplin, Missouri, during her adult years. He also believes she may have used the name Shawna Harvey in the past.

In addition to searching for details about Garber’s life, detectives are re-examining the facts of her death. Based on an autopsy obtained from the McDonald Country Sheriff’s Office, several facts stand out—and some of them contradict information that has been widely reported in the press.

The following is a summary of some conclusions based on the copy I examined:

1. No cause of death was determined.

Despite reports that Garber was strangled, the autopsy makes no statements about cause of death and cites no evidence of strangulation. Because there was no sign of blunt force trauma, knife wounds or bullets, strangulation or suffocation may be likely but nothing has been proven. Not all bones were recovered from the site: multiple ribs, vertebrae and carpal bones were missing, among others.

2. There is no evidence Garber was raped before she died.

Though this scenario is likely, the autopsy makes no mention of sexual assault. Due to the condition of the body, it was impossible to make such a conclusion. The wording of the report indicates Garber was clothed when she was found.

The report states:

“In the white body bag the remains consist of a bluejean jacket containing the arm bones, which include the humerus, radius and ulna, and bluejeans containing the pelvis and legs, and white athletic shoes, size 7 ½, which contain one foot and bones. This one foot is inside a white sock . . .There is an abundant amount of soft tissue, muscle and skin on the lower pelvis and upper lower extremities.”

Thus Garber was wearing her jean jacket, Lee jeans, as well as one sock and shoe when she was left near the farmhouse. Her t-shirt and second sock were also recovered, though there is no mention of undergarments. The report goes on to note that she was bound extensively around the wrists and ankles.

“The wrist area of the jacket and the lower extremities down by the ankles are all bound together by multiple types of binding material. The material is wound numerous times around the wrists and ankles and is also attached to one shoe. There is also some coaxial cable attached to the right sleeve of the jacket.”

The information raises several questions. If Garber was sexually assaulted prior to her murder, why did the killer put her jeans back on or at least pull them back over her hips? If a rape occurred while she was partially clothed, it could imply the killer (or killers) may have been in a rush. Yet the extensive use of so many different types of bindings suggests he had plenty of time, either at the farmhouse or at another primary crime scene.

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Excerpt from the autopsy report for Garber, aka "UNKNOWN FEMALE."Lori Lamothe

3. Her killer used paracord that was only available to the military in 1990.

One of the bindings was MIL-C-5040H type II paracord, which was exclusively sold to the military in the 1990s. This is significant because it suggests her killer may have served in the military at some point.

As part of an interview Howard gave in 2011, she said:

“I believe the bindings are basically the key to solving this. It was complete overkill. Even if the murderer’s intent was to bind her as a result of sexual gratification, it does not fit that type of a binding case. It was overkill.”

Could the extensive binding be the killer's signature? (For more on this possibility, follow me to read the second story in my Shawna Beth Garber series).

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The various bindings used to hogtie the body.Defrostingcoldcases.com

4. The autopsy notes that there were numerous other bags, including one filled with towels, brown hair and coaxial cable.

“This black cable is similar to the one wrapped around the decedent’s right arm.”

Did the killer leave extra cable behind? Or did it somehow become detached from the tangle of bindings?

Coaxial cable is used to transmit data and is used for computers, radios, televisions and other electronics. Could this indicate Shawna's murderer worked in a field that involved installing and/or servicing such devices?

The report notes that clumps of brown hair were also found in the same container. Another bag contained Garber’s white t-shirt and one white sock. Yet another container was filled with animal bones.

5. The axis vertebra was retrieved separately by a local resident’s dog.

Exactly when and where Garber's axis vertebra was found is unclear but this detail appears on the inventory list at the end of the report. Located just below the skull, C2 appears to be the only bone that wasn't recovered with the others. Whether this was part of a search effort is not known.

If you have a tip about the case, you can call the McDonald County Sheriff’s Office at 417-223-4319. You can also contact me directly via email/social media or leave a comment below.

Please feel free to share this story in hopes that someone may know something about Shawna Beth Garber or her murder.

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