Did a woman fall to her death off a cliff or was she murdered?

Jane Doe

Jane Doe

When a coroner is called to the scene of an unexplained death, it is his job to identify who the “John and Jane Does” are and how they died. This is a story about the unheralded heroes of law enforcement.

On the morning of October 5, 1983, two lifeguards discovered the body of a young boy. He was floating in a channel near the ocean at Seal Beach, California. According to the lifeguards, the body was so badly decomposed, that it made identification impossible.

Coroner’s investigator, Joe Luckey, was sent to the scene. He found no evidence of foul play. In fact, an autopsy later revealed that the young boy had drowned. But who the boy was and where he came from posed a baffling mystery:

“It takes a while sometimes to get over the fact that you can’t identify these people. You tend to think about your own families and know that there’s somebody out there who’s missing a relative, somebody, but we don’t know who.”

Joe sent a description of the boy to every law enforcement agency in the area. Only one possible match turned up. It was of a boy who had disappeared from Fullerton, California. Fullerton was sixteen miles from where the body was discovered, but Joe still met with the boy’s parents. They told him that their son had vanished shortly after leaving for a neighborhood park. Joe searched the park for any possible clues:

“I found that there was a flood control channel adjacent to the park.  I also discovered because of the rainfall the day he disappeared, that the flood control district had opened a local dam and allowed the overflow to come through that channel, raising it six feet higher than normal.”

Tragically, the young boy had fallen into the flood channel and was swept sixteen miles to Seal Beach. Blood samples later provided a positive identification. The mystery had been solved. 

Clues were found at the top of the cliff

Clues were found at the top of the cliff

Cullen Ellingburgh was a coroner in Orange County at the time of the boy’s disappearance:

“A coroner is probably a good mixture of being a surgeon, a detective, and an attorney.  Every day is a challenge.  It’s new, a little bit of detective work all the time.”

Cullen Ellingburgh has worked on literally thousands of cases. Some take months of painstaking research and legwork. Others are solved solely on the basis of one small piece of evidence. One case, in particular, has haunted Cullen Ellingburgh since May 18, 1987.  That morning, the body of a woman in her early 20s, was found at the bottom of a steep cliff in Southern California. According to Ellingburgh, the woman had apparently fallen to her death sometime during the night:

“We weren’t sure at that point if it was an accident… or if she had been pushed. I went to the top of the cliff and there I found a small purse, a half consumed soda, and a map of Southern California.”

Strangely, there was nothing else in her purse. But the map led Cullen to the last person who saw her alive:

“There was a phone number on the map. The phone number was that of a cab company.  And the cab company was contacted and they indicated they had a fare, picked up from the area and dropped off at the area of the Dana Point cliffs at about three or four that morning.”

When Cullen interviewed the cab driver, he described a woman who fit the Dana Point “Jane Doe.” She had wanted to go to Laguna Beach, but didn’t have enough cash. According to Cullen, the cab driver agreed to take her as far as the money would go:

“The only thing the taxi driver said was that she had very little to say other than that. She was very quiet and he didn’t notice anything really unusual about her.”

The next morning, the young woman’s body was found at the base of the cliff. She was 5’8” tall and weighed 127 pounds. She had light brown hair, brown eyes, and was wearing what appeared to be second-hand clothing, including a pair of men’s underwear. 

For Cullen Ellingburgh, the case of the unidentified Jane Doe has never left him:

“This is the first Jane Doe that I’ve had that I was unable to identify.  And I’ve continued to work this case and occasionally a new lead will come in and I’ll follow up.  But… to this date I have been unsuccessful. And there isn’t a week that I don’t go by the point without thinking about this lady. I want to identify her and find out who she is and who she belongs to.”