Expert explains pollen forensics that may connect Ohio cold case to New England


PROVIDENCE, R.I (WPRI) — You’ve probably never heard of the young woman found dead in 1981 more than 600 miles away near Troy, Ohio. Police have never identified the remains of the woman, found in pigtails and estimated to be in her teens or twenties.

Friday, the Miami County Sheriff’s Office in Ohio released new lab results that indicate the woman, dubbed Jane Doe, may have spent a “significant” amount of time in the Northeast. Based on the oak pollen on her clothing, authorities say the area includes Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York and Connecticut.

“They’re trying to find where she might have been,” said W. Michael Sullivan, a Professor of Plant Sciences at URI. Sullivan works with the Rhode Island State Crime Lab on plant-related forensics, and we asked him to explain how 35-year-old pollen could heat up this cold case.

“35 years is a flash of time,” Sullivan explained. “While it’s no longer capable of pollinating things, the structure remains intact, and many trees, many plants have unique colors, unique shapes.”

Sullivan says as long as the clothing wasn’t washed, pollen can be preserved for hundreds of years. An expert using a microscope can identify the species and genus of the plant it came from and match it with the area where the plant is found.

Testing pollen is not new technology, Sullivan said. But he said forensic testing in the area has improved over the years.

“Being able to recover it, being able to look at it, being able to count…our ability to manage data has gotten quite a bit better.”

Last year, officials in Massachusetts used pollen testing to determine that Baby Doe, later identified as Bella Bond, was from the local area.

Police are asking anyone who recognized the composite photos of Jane Doe from Ohio to contact Detective Steve Hickey with the Miami County Sheriff’s Office, 937-440-3965 ext. 6629 or the Miami County Communication Center at 937-440-9911.

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