On the morning of Nov. 10, 1979, farmer Harry Clements found the body of a young female at the edge of his standing cornfield, 10 paces off U.S. Highway 20 in the boondocks south of Rochester.
The victim was a petite teenager with dishwater blond hair obscured by a months-old brown dye job. She had been shot in the head with a .38 at the side of the road, then dragged into Clements’ field and shot a second time in the back.
She wore an oversized red windbreaker, plaid shirt and brown corduroy slacks. Her clothing was unmolested, and she had been stripped of identification.
The body yielded few clues. Her skin bore bikini tan lines, indicating she had traveled to autumnal western New York from a warm climate. Two cheap metal keychains, a brand sold at Thruway rest stops, dangled from her belt loops.
Police canvassed the region and discovered the girl had stopped for dinner — ham, potatoes and corn — at 8:30 the previous evening in nearby Lima. Her dining companion was a young man with curly hair and glasses driving a tan station wagon.
The girl was murdered just 8 miles west of Lima on Highway 20.
Marge Bradford, her waitress that night, articulated the puzzle at the heart of the murder: “Why would you buy somebody dinner and then kill them 45 minutes later and throw them in a cornfield?”
But that and all other questions about the murder would go unanswered, including the victim’s identity — the starting line for any homicide probe.
Every corpse has a story to tell, but this one would take decades to speak.
The girl, killed in the town of Caledonia in Livingston County, was known in her police case file as Caledonia Jane Doe — or Cali Doe. John York, the county’s longtime sheriff, kept an eye on national missing-person reports and issued periodic reminders about the murder, hoping to link one with the other.
“All we ever needed was somebody to report her missing,” York told reporters. That didn’t happen, and the body remained unidentified when he retired in 2013.
At about that same time, Laurel Nowell, a middle-aged Florida woman, searched Facebook for a long-lost high school friend from Brooksville, Fla., north of Tampa.
Nowell and her friend, Tammy Jo Alexander, were untamable teenagers. They ran away at age 15 in 1978 and hitchhiked to Los Angeles with long-haul truckers. Nowell’s parents flew them back.
She learned from Tammy’s older sister, Pamela Dyson, that her friend took off in 1979 and was never heard from again.
Dyson said she believed Tammy fled their troubled home life — featuring a suicidal, drug-addicted mother — and found a fresh start far away.
“My mother put Joan Crawford to shame,” Dyson told Gary Craig of the Rochester Democrat & Chronicle. She described her as “a screamer and a slapper.”
Prompted by Nowell, Dyson entered her sister’s information at NamUs.gov, the federal clearinghouse for missing persons.
The newly posted photograph of Alexander caught the eye of Carl Koppelman, a California accountant who is among the 115,000 members of WebSleuths.com, who obsess over cold-case crimes.
Koppelman is an amateur forensic artist, using software to enhance police images of unidentified victims and missing persons. By coincidence, he had updated on an old police sketch of New York’s Cali Doe.
“Bingo,” Koppelman posted at WebSleuths. “I think this is Cali Doe.”
He contacted authorities, and a DNA test from stored evidence confirmed a genetic match to Pamela Dyson. Ex-Sheriff York was called out of retirement to help announce the identification in January 2015, 35 years after the murder.
Investigators in western New York and in Alexander’s Florida hometown hoped the ID would flush out new clues.
They learned that her free-range childhood was split among foster homes, her grandmother’s place, and life with her troubled mother, who died years ago.
By age 15, she was an old hand at thumbing rides, sometimes with long-haulers she met while waitressing at a truck stop café operated by her mother and stepfather.
As high school sophomores, the year of their trek to California, Alexander and Nowell often skipped school and hitched 45 minutes south to Tampa, where Tammy beguiled strangers with her bubbly personality and bright smile.
“People were just drawn to her,” she told Rochester journalists Gary Craig and Veronica Volk in their nine-part podcast about the case, “Finding Tammy Jo.”
A high school boyfriend said Alexander left Brooksville for good in the spring of 1979.
No one has been able to discern why, but she lived briefly at a faith-based prison halfway house in the mountains of north Georgia. The boyfriend said he last saw her in St. Petersburg, Fla., a few months before she turned up dead in a cornfield 1,300 miles away.
So far, new DNA testing and details of the girl’s truncated life story have failed to identify the young man in the station wagon or any others suspects, four years after Alexander was named and 39 years after her body turned up in the cornfield south of Rochester.
The latest in a long line of Livingston County investigators to shepherd the case says the search goes on.