The Girl Next Door

An Obsessed Cop And Amazing Forensics Help Solve A Haunting Mystery

This story was last broadcast on June 14, 2008.

Like any good homicide detective, Sgt. Scott Dudek can sometimes get a little obsessed with his cases. But as correspondent Harold Dow reports, the 2003 murder of an unidentified young girl troubled him more than any other.

A 22-year veteran of the Alameda County Sheriff's Office in northern California, Dudek has solved his share of gruesome crimes. But murders are rare in the suburban community of Castro Valley.

So what he saw the night of May 1, 2003 was especially shocking, even to a seasoned detective: the body of a young girl, murdered, stuffed into a trash bag, and discarded behind a restaurant.

Dudek says the girl had been dead for about ten days. And the way she died - with a rag in her throat - suggests someone may have wanted to silence her.

Usually, Dudek says, investigators know within the first 24 to 48 hours the identity of an unidentified murder victim, as missing persons' reports are reviewed or parents contact the authorities.

But sadly, no one seemed to be looking for this victim. Because her body was so badly decomposed, a local artist did the best she could to give her a face. They also gave her a name: "Jane Doe." Police had to rely on her autopsy for other clues.

"We had ten perfect prints that we got off of both her hands, which is a rarity," Dudek explains.

Investigators guessed she was in her early teens. She was in good health, with perfect teeth. This Jane had all the appearances of a typical teenage girl-next-door, from her painted nails to her choice of clothing.

Dudek released a sketch, hopeful it was good enough for someone to recognize this girl once it was splashed all over the local media and posted on Web sites dedicated to finding missing children. "With this sketch being released we probably had 150 possible clues or sightings of people that thought they knew who our Castro Valley Jane Doe was," he says.

One clue seemed so promising, that Dudek and his partner, Ed Chicoine, followed it all the way down to the Texas-Mexican border, where they collected DNA samples from several mothers of missing teenage girls, including a girl whose picture bore a remarkable resemblance to Jane.

But none of those leads panned out. There would be many more dead ends, but Dudek remained determined, even though his frustration was mounting.

Then, investigators got another clue that seemed almost too good to be true from a possible witness: "We thought it was a huge break. We got an anonymous letter in the mail," Dudek says.

The writer claimed to have seen someone get "something from the trunk" of a car and dump it into the very same bushes where the body was found.

Dudek says police asked the person to come forward, offering to keep him anonymous. This potential witness admitted in the letter that he was reluctant to come forward because he himself had been in that parking lot "waiting for a married girlfriend."

As weeks turned to months, the letter writer never came forward and no one claimed this young girl.

But her case touched the people of Castro Valley, and an unlikely hero emerged: Dave Woolworth, a landscaper. He had no way of knowing that what he was about to do would one day help solve this mystery.

"From day one she touched me, and to this day she still does," says Woolworth, who was best known around town for his signature tie-dyed T-shirts. "When I read the story, I started crying. And I looked at my wife and I told her, 'No one will come and claim her. It was eating at me.'"

Once the forensic investigation was completed, Jane was destined for cremation. But that was unacceptable to Woolworth, himself a father who had once been estranged from his own daughter.

Woolworth decided to take the lead in raising donations from the community, and so four months after her body was abandoned in a parking lot, Castro Valley's adopted daughter was given a funeral befitting a dignitary.

As several more months went by, this child was still nameless, and her killer faceless. The leads had slowed to a trickle.

So Sgt. Dudek made the agonizing decision to exhume the young girl's body and search again for the clues that could close this case.