Police are hoping that traces of pollen found only in the Southwest will finally help them identify a woman whose body was found in 1979 on an upstate New York farm.
After the pollen was found on the victim's pants using new technology, the Livingston County Sheriff's Office in Geneseo, N.Y., enlisted Albuquerque police in trying to identify the woman who also wore replica American Indian jewelry typically sold in New Mexico, Utah, Colorado and Arizona.
"We're not any closer to solving this crime than we were when it happened years ago, but we think this new information might help," said Livingston County sheriff's investigator Tom Dougherty, whose rural department rarely has to investigate even one homicide a year. "We'd love to just identify the girl then maybe find her killer."
Palynologists, or pollen experts, now have the ability to compare microscopic pollen samples to determine where the material originated. Among other things, they have identified pollen grains trapped in illegal drug shipments to help federal authorities against drug traffickers.
The victim found in New York was believed to be 13 to 19 years old when she was shot, pulled into a cornfield, shot again, and stripped of any identification. A farmer discovered her body in November 1979 while checking his fields off Route 20 in Caledonia, N.Y., about 20 miles south of Rochester.
The woman was described as 5 feet 3 inches tall, weighing about 120 pounds with brown eyes and brown frosted hair. She also had a bikini tan line and was wearing a red nylon-lined wind breaker made by Auto Sports Inc.
Authorities have received hundreds of tips and tracked more than 10,000 leads across the U.S., Europe, Mexico and elsewhere. But no arrests have been made.
John York, the first investigator on the scene in 1979 who is now the Livingston County sheriff, reopened the case and believes the new discovery might yield clues to help solve the case.
Dougherty said the body was recently exhumed to pull DNA evidence and send the information to a new national database. That's when the pollen was discovered thanks to a forensic study by Texas A&M University, he said.
Soon after the pollen discovery, authorities contacted Rich Lewis, a detective with the cold case unit of the Albuquerque Police Department. Lewis visited American Indian jewelers who told him that, according to photos, the jewelry found on the woman was likely replicas of Native American turquoise and silver jewelry.
"So this stuff could have been purchased anywhere, even made from a kit," said Lewis. "Or it could have been made by hippies in northern New Mexico, which was very common at the time. We just don't know."
Still, Lewis said investigators have an obligation to re-examine the case, especially because of the new evidence that points to the Southwest.
Lewis said he doesn't believe the woman was homeless or forgotten based on the new evidence.
"She was somebody who had a life," he said. "And someone is missing her."
Follow Russell Contreras on twitter at http://twitter.com/russcontreras.