Elizabeth "Lisa" Ann Roberts AKA Precious Jane Doe

Date Found: August 14, 1977

Date Identified: June 16, 2020


     Just after 1 p.m. on August 14, 1977, while picking blackberries near the 11300 block of 4th Avenue West in unincorporated south Everett, local residents came across the body of a young, white female. It was obvious to investigators at the time that she had been deceased for several days and it quickly became apparent that she was the victim of foul play. Unfortunately, no identification was found with her and due to the condition of her remains, visual identification was impossible. The young woman would become known as Snohomish County Coroner’s case number 77-8-621, Jane Doe.

     An autopsy would determine that she had been shot multiple times in the head with a .22 caliber firearm. No shell casings were recovered from the scene. Given her prolonged exposure to the elements, her hands were unable to be fingerprinted using traditional methods and were removed at autopsy and sent to the FBI’s crime lab for fingerprinting and comparison. This was standard practice at the time as the FBI had more specialized equipment and techniques available to them to obtain prints. Her skull was also retained for possible identification at a later date through dental comparison. Her body was buried in an indigent burial plot at Cypress Lawn Memorial Park in Everett on August 19, 1977. This too was standard practice at the time due to the office’s lack of space for storing unidentified remains. Today, unidentified decedents are kept permanently at the Snohomish County Medical Examiner’s Office until their identity can be established.

     In the days following her discovery, a man by the name of David Roth confessed to a friend that he had killed a hitchhiker in Everett. The friend notified the authorities and detectives with the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office searched Roth’s vehicle and found a .22 caliber rifle, ammunition, bungee cords, and multiple shell casings. It would be months before ballistics testing tied the rifle to the rounds recovered from Jane Doe at autopsy. Roth was arrested in January 1979, over two years after Jane Doe was discovered. He was arrested on marijuana charges, but shortly after detectives began asking about Jane Doe, he confessed. 

     Roth told detectives that he picked up the Jane Doe when she was hitchhiking along Bothell-Everett Highway near Silver Lake on August 9, 1977. After rebuffing his advances, Roth became angry, strangled her with bungee cords, and dragged her away from his car before shooting her. He also said that she never told him her name after he picked her up. He was tried and found guilty of first-degree murder in November 1979 and remained imprisoned until his release in 2005.1977 Sketch

     Meanwhile, the investigation into Jane Doe’s identity went cold. Over the decades, authorities with the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office continued to re-examine the case to try and find out who Jane Doe was. In the intervening years, Snohomish County converted from an elected Coroner’s Office into an appointed and expanded Medical Examiner’s Office. As new identification techniques became available, each was applied to Jane Doe’s case.

     One of the first of these techniques was a sketch released to the media two weeks after she was found. Detectives used and identity kit with a catalog of facial features to create the sketch, however, none helped to identify her. Around this same time, the FBI provided the Coroner’s Office with a set of fingerprints that they were able to obtain. Unfortunately, after running the prints through their database, they found that she had not previously been printed and were unable to provide investigators with a name.

     During the initial exam, Jane Doe’s age was estimated to be between 20-30 years. A dental exam showed that her teeth were in good condition with minimal restoration. This indicated that she likely grew up in a region with good water quality, which at the time suggested that she may have come to the Pacific Northwest from the eastern half of the country, therefore investigators were looking seriously at missing persons reports from across the country. The arrest and trial of David Roth over the next two years generated renewed interest in the case by the media which in turn would produce numerous leads from across the country and even into Canada, however all of these potential matches would be ruled out. In October 1988, forensic odontologist Dr. Gary Bell conducted a more complete and in-depth examination for the decedent’s teeth. He noted that her upper two front teeth had at some point been fractured due to trauma and restored. Based on his exam at that time, he estimated her age to be between 17-24 years.

     In 1992, the case w1992 Clay Reconstructionas entered into the FBI’s National Crime Information Center (NCIC) database. This provided investigators with new leads as jurisdictions from around the country were able to review the case against their own missing persons reports and provide investigators with potential matches. Around the same time, Detective John Hinds used forensic facial reconstruction to create a three-dimensional model of Jane Doe’s face and head. This technique begins by applying modeling clay in layers to a cast of a skull starting with muscle and connective tissue using features found on the bones of the skull as landmarks. The artist works outward in layers until an approximation of what the person may have looked like is achieved. Hair, eyes, and makeup are added to complete the process. Hinds’ reconstruction and Jane Doe’s addition to the NCIC database provided many new potential matches from across the country, however each of these were systematically ruled out by investigators.

     In 2008, Detective James Scharf with the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office Cold Case Team began investigating unsolved and unidentified homicide case in Snohomish County. With advances in DNA technology, he was interested in having these cases exhumed and re-examined in order to obtain DNA samples that could be profiled and uploaded to the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System (NamUs), a nation-wide database used by law enforcement and coroner/medical examiner offices. On the morning of April 1, 2008, having secured an exhumation order from the Snohomish County 2008 SketchProsecutor’s Office, Jane Doe’s remains were exhumed from their resting place of more than thirty years at Cypress Lawn Memorial Park in Everett. To bring more attention to the case, Scharf nicknamed her Precious Jane Doe. He also had a video made highlighting the case that he shared regularly which he provided a link to in his email signature so everyone he communicated with could hear about the case. That video can be seen here.

     That same month, the exhumed remains, after being reunited with the skull which had been kept since the initial 1977 investigation, were examined by Dr. Katherine Taylor, the Washington State Forensic Anthropologist. Her report estimated Jane Doe’s age to be between 15-24 years, but more likely 16-19 years. Forensic odontologist Dr. Gary Bell, who examined the skull in 1988, conducted a second exam and narrowed his estimated age range from 17-24 years to 16-22 years. Det. Hinds, who constructed the clay model in 1992, was also consulted again and provided investigators with a sketch of what Jane Doe may have looked like a the time of her death.

     In June 2008, a small section of Jane Doe’s left femur (thigh bone) was removed and sent to the University of North Texas (UNT) laboratory for DNA sequencing and her partial DNA profile was uploaded to the FBI’s Combined DNA Index System (CODIS) database. It was also uploaded to her newly generated case file the NamUs database where it could be compared against missing persons reports that also had DNA samples uploaded to CODIS. Her 1977 fingerprints and Dr. Bell’s 2008 odontology report were also added to her NamUS file. This led to dozens of new potential matches that had to be individually compared via dental or DNA, all of which were excluded. Over the next decade, new possible matches would emerge as law enforcement agencies began utilizing NamUs more frequently. Each of these matches would have to be compared against Jane Doe and excluded.

     In would be anoth2016 Sketcher eight years before a new investigative tool became available to investigators that would finally open the door to finding out Jane Doe’s real identity. During that time as the likelihood of finding out who Jane Doe was increased, another forensic sketch artist, Natalie Murry, provided investigators with an updated sketch in 2016 to help increase media attention on the case. Then, through his contacts within the field of cold case investigations, Detective Scharf learned about the emerging science behind forensic genealogy. Advances in DNA sequencing made at-home testing much more efficient and easily accessible and subsequently, more and more individuals were having their own DNA sequenced through direct-to-consumer genealogy companies like Ancestry.com, FamilyTreeDNA and 23andMe. As a result, a non-profit website called GEDmatch was founded where people who had their DNA sequenced by a company could share it with GEDmatch, which functions as a centralized database for all direct-to-consumer companies which could house millions of samples and more easily connect people to their relatives. It wasn’t long before several genetic genealogists realized that they may be able to use the database to search for the relatives of perpetrators whose DNA was collected at a crime scene or also to find the relatives of unidentified decedents.

     So, Detective Scharf got in touch with the DNA Doe Project. The DNA Doe Project was co-founded in 2017 by Dr. Colleen Fitzpatrick and Dr. Margaret Press as an all-volunteer organization using forensic genealogy to help law enforcement and medical examiner/coroner offices identify their John and Jane Doe cases. The DNA Doe Project uploads files generated from DNA samples submitted by agencies to GEDmatch. Once a possible relative is identified the team uses traditional genealogy research methods to create family trees and fill in the familial gaps between the samples. In some cases it may take only a couple of hours after a family connection established to identify the John or Jane Doe.

     The first step in the process is uploading the DNA sample. Unfortunately, the DNA sample obtained by UNT from Jane Doe’s femur in 2008 could not be uploaded by the DNA Doe Project as it was not the specific type of genomic sequencing that was required in order to upload a sample to GEDmatch. Therefore, in August 2017, small sections of the decedent’s skull and teeth were sent to a lab in Virginia for DNA extraction. After initial attempts were unsuccessful, a separate sample of femur was sent, which also proved unsuccessful. Samples were also sent to a lab in Oklahoma for sequencing, however their attempts were unsuccessful as well. A story about their efforts was featured in an article in The Atlantic that same month.

     Later that year, Detective Scharf reached out to Dr. Barbara Rae-Venter, another genetic genealogist who gained national attention for her work in identifying the Golden State Killer in California in 2018. She was able to connect Scharf with Dr. Richard (Ed) Green with the University of California, Santa Cruz who was working in the field of paleogenomics and had had success in obtaining DNA from very old and degraded specimens. After reviewing the work previously conducted at the labs in Oklahoma and Virginia, Dr. Green thought the best option for DNA extraction would be to use a hair sample. Unlike more widely used methods, Dr. Green had developed a technique where DNA could be extracted from hair without an intact root. Luckily, the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office had held onto Jane Doe’s hair as evidence and in February 2018, a sample of hair roughly the diameter of a pencil was sent to Dr. Green’s lab in California.

     Much of 2018 was spent sequencing the DNA into a usable file that could be uploaded to GEDmatch. While this proved difficult given the age and condition of the specimen, they were finally able to upload a usable file containing Jane Doe’s DNA to GEDmatch and Dr. Rae-Venter and her team at Firebird Forensics got to work. For the better part of two years they spent thousands of hours creating dozens of family trees trying to connect Jane Doe to familial matches that could reveal her identity. 

     Finally, in June 2020, Dr. Rae-Venter and her team made a breakthrough. They had narrowed down Jane Doe’s likely parents, but all of their children appeared to be accounted for in the most widely used genealogy websites. Then they found a single reference to an Elizabeth Marie Elder on the website Genealogy. com, along with three brothers that they already knew about. Dr. Rae-Venter provided Detective Scharf and the Medical Examiner’s Office with the name and the names of the three half-siblings along with an aunt. Detective Scharf contacted one of Elizabeth’s half-sisters and she confirmed that her mother told her about a daughter named Elizabeth that she had given up for adoption when she was young. A half-brother who had also been given up for adoption at a young age was located and it was discovered that his DNA profile happened to have been uploaded to Ancestry.com. Dr. Rae-Venter was able to get his profile uploaded to GEDmatch and, when compared against Jane Doe, found that they shared an amount of DNA consistent with a half-sibling relationship.

     Elizabeth’s half-siblings stated that she was born in Oregon in 1959. She was given up for adoption at a young age following the divorce of her birth parents, who also had three sons. Her birth mother would later remarry and have three more daughters. Her birth father remarried soon after Elizabeth was adopted by her new family. He was tragically killed in a car accident in Oregon in 1970 along with his new wife and three sons that he had with Elizabeth’s birth mother.

     Family rumors told a story of how Elizabeth ran away from home as a teenager after finding out she was adopted. Over the years, her birth mother reconnected with Elizabeth’s half-brother, who was also given up for adoption before Elizabeth was Elizabeth Ann Roberts 1977born. She had even hired a private detective to search for Elizabeth at one time, to no avail. Her mother stated that when Elizabeth was given up for adoption, she had asked that her adoptive parents keep her first and middle names, to which they agreed. Her half-brother was able to provide a list of possible last names of Elizabeth’s adoptive parents and several searches of school records in Oregon in the 1970s were conducted to try to find an Elizabeth with a matching last name, however these too proved unsuccessful. 

     So, on June 9, 2020, the Oregon Center for Health Statistics was contacted and asked to provide the adoptive name and parent’s names of Elizabeth Ann Elder. A week later they provided the names of her adoptive parents. It was soon learned that her adoptive mother was deceased. Her father, however, was still alive and when contacted was able to provide details about Elizabeth. 

     Following her adoption, she was renamed Elizabeth Ann Roberts and went by the name Lisa. She was a junior at Roseburg High School in Oregon when she ran away from home on July 25, 1977 after a disagreement with her parents and not, as rumored by her blood relatives, because she discovered she was adopted. He stated that she was aware that she had been adopted long before she ran away from home. She was reported missing to local authorities the same day she ran away and they initiated a missing person’s report in NCIC, however for some unknown reason it was removed the same day. Soon after she phoned home and told her parents that she was in Everett, WA but refused to come back to Oregon and would not tell them who she was staying with. When she asked fro money, her father sent $500 to a bank in Everett, but he later learned it was never picked up and they never heard from her again. Her further stated that while in high school Elizabeth played the flute. Shortly before she ran away, another boy at school hit the flute she was playing which broke bother the flute and her two front teeth, which had to be repaired by a dentist.

     On June 16, 2020, after reviewing the findings provided by Dr. Barbara Rae-Venter and Detective Scharf, Snohomish County Chief Medical Examiner Dr. J. Matthew Lacy formally identified Precious Jane Doe as Elizabeth "Lisa" Ann Roberts. She has since been released from the Medical Examiner’s Office and interred in a cemetery near her family.  

     The Snohomish County Medical Examiner’s Office would like to thank the following individuals and organizations for their assistance on the this case: Carri Gordon and the Washington State Patrol Missing and Unidentified Persons Unit, NamUs and the University of North Texas Health Science Center, forensic odontologist Dr. Gary Bell, forensic anthropologist Dr. Katherine Taylor, Detective John Hinds, forensic artist Natalie Murry, Bode Cellmark Forensics, DNA Solutions, Dr. Ed Green and the UCSC Paleogenomics Lab, GEDmatch, Ancestry.com, FamilyTreeDNA.com, Dr. Colleen Fitzpatrick and Dr. Margaret Press with the DNA Doe Project, Ciara O’Rourke for The Atlantic, and the Everett Herald for their many stories over the years covering this case. Special thanks to Dr. Barbara Rae-Venter and her team of volunteers with Firebird Forensics and the family of Elizabeth Ann Roberts. And finally to Detective James Scharf and the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office Cold Case Unit, without whom Precious Jane Doe’s identity would still be unknown.