Mystery of the Sumter County Does

Police artist sketches of John and Jane Doe in Sumter County, South Carolina.
Police artist sketches of John and Jane Doe in Sumter County, South Carolina.

What in the world are Sumter County Does?  Could they be a girls’ drill team that performed at halftime for a football team called the Stags or Bucks?  Are they a type of female deer that is indigenous to only Sumter County?  There are several Sumter Counties in the USA.

Melba wondered these things as she kept running across this entry on web lists while doing research on strange mysteries.  She decided to delve further.

The Sumter County Does are in fact John and Jane Doe, found murdered 400 meters off of I-95 in a pine-tree riddled spot of Sumter County, South Carolina on August 9, 1976 by a passing trucker.  That was the year of all the Bicentennial celebrations on television and elsewhere, Melba thought.  Many people traveled to the nation’s capitol for history’s sake.  I, myself was one, although it was by plane and in the month of April.  The couple had been shot in the back after they stepped from the rear of a van.*  The murderer then rolled them over and shot them again in the necks, under their chins to make sure they were dead.  The young man was thought to be in his early twenties, the young woman was most probably in her late teens or early twenties.  They had both eaten a fruity-milky concoction shortly before death.  They were both clean and had taken showers within the last twenty-four hours.  John Doe had a four inch appendectomy scar.  They did not have any drugs or alcohol in their systems.  Various reports listed them as “wealthy,” because of expensive dental work the young man had, his expensive watch, and other jewelry. No, not for sure wealthy, Melba thought.  Middle class people often splurge on expensive dental work.  The watch was nice, but why not a Rolex, if wealthy? And truly old money wealthy people did not have the need to show off their wealth with bling.  Young people such as these might be the exception.   They neither one had on underwear.  No underwear?  Clean people that they were, that seems odd!  Jane Doe’s legs were not shaven.

Mousey little Melba’s mind started working overtime when she got to the part about no underwear.  She put on her detective hat.  Had they been kidnapped, forced to make a porn movie at gunpoint, then forced to dress hastily, and exit the van* to be murdered?  That was kind of far-fetched and there was no evidence of their ever turning up in a porn movie, anywhere.  The killer then drove off in a cloud of dust, taking the underwear with him? Possible but nutty.  Hmmmm.  Maybe it was a porn movie and their faces were not visible.  Melba tossed this idea aside, as their autopsies would probably have indicated such activity and that was not mentioned.

Do I dare look at post mortem photos, if they are available? Melba decided to take a chance.  She found the ones that the police sketches had been made from.  The coroner had covered the bodies up with sheets so that only the heads were showing.  In other photos, the mouths and eyes were open.  Are those really that way, or was that feature added by an artist?  It was hard to tell.  Melba decided to do more research.

After thirty minutes of searching on the web, Melba found the crime scene photo.  The bodies were on the grass, kind of splayed out.  You could not see the faces closely.  Another half hour of research revealed another photo.  It was horrible.  A crime scene photo had been blown up and posted in a chat room about cold cases.  It was of their death faces.  Are their faces frozen that way due to trauma or are they in some stage of rigor?  Melba could not tell.  Their eyes were open and their mouths were open, it seemed, in horror.   Descriptions of the woman had included that she had extra thick and long eyelashes—more so than most—and that she had two unique moles on the left side of her face.  Her teeth were straight.  She had been very attractive and you could see all of this in the death photo.  The young man was described as having thick, bushy, dark eyebrows.  Most of his mouth was filled with extensive dental restorations. They both had olive skin.  They were both brunette, her eyes brownish-green, his brown.  Again, you could see all of this in the photos.

Why did someone not come forward and report these young people missing in almost forty years?  Surely families were missing them.  Theories ran rampant:  They were Canadians.  They were from Argentina or another South American country.  They were under a witness-protection program. They were drug-runners.  It was a contract hit.  Why?

Years ago a man was arrested for DWI in South Carolina, Lonnie George Henry.  A gun was found in his possession.  The serial number had been partially filed away.  It proved to be the gun that had killed the young couple.  He took a polygraph.  He did not kill them, the polygraph indicated, but he was being deceptive about where he had gotten the gun in the first place.  A relative admitted giving him the .357 Smith and Wesson for a birthday.  It had had all of the serial numbers when given, the relative insisted.  Mr. Henry finally admitted that he had filed the numbers off himself, but why?  Did he loan the gun to someone, then have a fear for how the person had used it?  He died in 1982 without giving any more information.  Could he have gotten so inebriated that he killed them and had no memory of it, thus tricking the polygraph?  Was he in a blackout of some kind?

Robbery does not seem to be a motive.  The jewelry and watch were left on the bodies (unless they had a huge wad of cash on them that was taken, and no one has an answer to that, naturally).  The young man’s ring has the initials, “JPF” engraved on the inside of the band.

The bodies were kept sealed in a funeral home for a time in hopes of identification.  Their caskets had windows for viewing the faces.  They were later buried in a parish cemetery, to be exhumed and tested for DNA, then buried again.  Their fingerprints have been sent to most data bases and warehouses for such.  Still there are no answers.

Melba was bothered by all of these questions.  Days of research on the Worldwide Web had not provided any more answers.  Was she searching in the wrong place?  Hmmm.  What would happen if I contacted the Sheriff’s Department?  That would be kind of nervy of me.  They don’t have time to mess with the “merely curious.”  After a few hours of thinking it over she decided to send the Sumter County Sheriff’s Department an email.  A phone call would be too disruptive.  There were three questions she wanted answered—answers that she had not found in her research, that they should know by now.  She was shocked when Lt. Robert Burnish sent a speedy reply and answered all three of her questions:

  1. DNA testing has proven that John and Jane Doe were NOT siblings or otherwise related by blood.
  2. There was no indication of European descent through DNA
  3. As far as the quote “they stepped from a VAN”* there is no idea why that is quoted in web accounts.  There was no vehicle, (van or otherwise) in the area.

Lt. Robert Burnish also stated, “if your readers have, or pass on, any information, we would love to hear from you.”

Lt. Robert Burnish

Criminal Investigations

Sumter County Sheriff’s Office

1281 North Main Street

Sumter, S.C. 29153

803-436-2017

Who were these people?  Who were the Sumter County Does?

ScavengersSong

Please click the book cover image to read more about Sara Marie Hogg and her novels.

 

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  • Michael

    I read somewhere that a wheel base measurement was taken at the dirt road murder site by police in 1976 and those measurements best matched that of a van. I’m no expert, but I would have thought that the wheel base measurements for vans and pick up trucks to be identicle. I think I read that piece of info on the web sleuth forum or the porch light web site a few years ago when I myself became obsessed with these two. I was researching info on a local jane doe in Frederick Maryland at the time.

  • Grunhilde

    They were not of European decent at all? What kind of ethnicity or race DID the DNA testing reveal? This could go along with the idea that they may have come from South America. However, if one looks at their appearance, they look like, if they are Hispanic, that they also have some European (Spanish) ancestry as well. I am VERY confused right now! Are they of Jewish ancestry? That was one of my theories. However, they would likely still show some European ancestry mixed in with Semitic DNA. This doesn’t make sense to me.

  • Melanie Rhodes

    I just messaged Sumter county through Facebook. I have also come across this same case numerous times. It puzzles me that so many years have passed without them being identified. It seems that at least one of them would have been reported as missing or that the family would be looking for them in some way. I let them know about some DNA upload sites that mostly genealogy researchers use. Hopefully they can upload the DNA to at least one of them and find a relative that can crack the case for their identity. I also believe the man who they suspected knew more than he told. Maybe someday someone will step forward and give a clue as to who the murderer was. The account I read at one time said a hermit had seen them by the roadway and alerted a store owner who then contacted police.

    • Sara Marie Hogg

      Thank you for your comment, Melanie. It is most baffling–why did no relative miss them, as you stated? I, too, think some kind of DNA result would be the answer as to all the next-of-kins in a database. I recently did a blog on the case of Lori Ruff. She was mysterious about her past and after her death they found new “identity” documents in a box–she had probably used an identity broker to start a new life. A forensic geneaologist did solve the case of her true identity with DNA, but there was still a mystery as to what she was doing during a time gap. Both of these cases are baffling. I am glad one of them was partially solved, anyway.

  • Bill Anthony

    It’s takes imagination to feel the expressions on their faces were that of “horror.” More than likely their mouths exhaled air upon the bullets impact. Much has been written about the lack of underwear, but that might have been explained by the heat, or perhaps even by the idea their laundry was being done at the time. (Did police ever check nearby laundromats for unclaimed clothes?) Also, much has been made of Jane’s unshaven legs, suggesting that she might have been European or South American; But again, this information could have been misleading. Perhaps it was only a few days of growth, and she hadn’t gotten around to shaving her legs yet. That information is not much to go on, in and of itself. The most disturbing aspect of the investigation was the suspect who turned up with the murder weapon. That was the most viable piece of known evidence collected. It seems to me it’s the most likely way to solve the case. That suspect is now dead, unfortunately, but what about relatives, friends, and known acquaintances? As for the identity of the victims… If they are indeed foreigners, especially from a South American country, they may never be identified. The one hope may rest with relatives searching for lost loved ones. At least now there’s a DNA Sample that could be compared if relatives were to come forward. This is a troubling and haunting case. I’m sure it’s bothered law enforcement agencies in South Carolina for decades. The murders themselves might never be solved at this point. It would be a relief, however, after all this time, if through the use of the internet and the samples of DNA collected in 2007, the victims were finally identified and, perhaps, returned to their families.

    • FOL

      Agree with most. However, in the 70s, MANY young people of their age were not wearing underwear. Feminism was the rage and “chicks” were burning their bras and not shaving too. My young parents had a business at that time, which employed many respectable, clean 18-25 year olds (they didn’t want “dirty hippy types”). Nevertheless, I remember all the hairy legs and armpits on the girls! My cousin, a cheerleader said it wasn’t “cool” to wear underwear in the summer, especially to avoid panty lines. Guys called it “freeing” in the summer…later that become “going commando”. The couple were probably lovers too and had similar likes/dislikes for things of that nature.

      • Caleb Pirtle

        Don’t know if you’ve seen these, Sara.

  • Jbessette

    Update
    As of July 24th the Sumter county does are undergoing testing by thr DNA doe project

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