HILLSBOROUGH, N.C.-- Nearly three decades since a woman’s body was found on the side of Interstate 40 near New Hope Church Road in Hillsborough, Orange County Sheriff’s Office investigators are still working the case with a new set of eyes on the evidence.
A three-person inmate work crew picking up garbage found the body of a woman who had been strangled and dumped just feet from the eastbound I-40 guardrail near New Hope Church Road 27 years ago.
Investigators believe she was there four to six days before that discovery on Sept. 19, 1990.
“I catch myself wondering how many people, how many people have driven by since then?” said Troy Williams, an Orange County Sheriff’s Office investigator, who said he was among those drivers.
He spent the better part of his 14 years with the agency on patrol and unaware of the gruesome discovery years earlier. “I never had a clue this happened in our county,” he said.
That was until the box of evidence landed on his desk. It was filled with more questions than answers, including the most basic of all: who was the woman?
“I thought it was a bit odd that it had been that long that nobody, not one single person, had come forward for this young lady,” Williams said.
“I’m having an issue knowing that that nobody came forward to say that this is somebody to me.”
He received the box just months ago in late 2017.
Inside were investigative documents related to the case and a few items from the victim – including a bracelet and a ring.
“The fact that it didn’t have a stone and the way that it was shaped for her little finger at the time, they thought was very unique. So, somebody who knew her would recognize that immediately,” Williams said.
“The fact that she went away from here only having this, I think, is just heartbreaking. Absolutely heartbreaking. Somebody should be able to recognize one of those. Somebody.”
An examination showed she had dentistry work, but she was not able to be identified through that.
The woman had a three-inch scar on her abdomen where her appendix was removed. That did not help in identification either.
She had never given birth.
Her toxicology report was clean.
The woman had dye in her hair, Williams said, leading to a blonde color, though she was naturally a brunette.
The woman, believed to be 18 to 20 years old, wore just socks, a bra and a sweatshirt.
As part of the investigation, the sweatshirt was reproduced. It replicates the original bright pink color and unique design showing three bunnies on bicycles and a unicycle. To this day it’s one of the most unique and identifying pieces of evidence.
“We had people from the FBI, the NCIS, we had everybody and they all said at same time, ‘I’ve never seen anything like that. Somebody has to know where this sweatshirt came from,’” Williams said.
During the investigation 27 years ago, two people said they saw a woman in the shirt at an Alamance County truck stop.
“At the end of the day, when everything was all said and done, that was really the only good lead that they had,” Williams said.
“Because of the circumstances at the time, and the area where the witnesses say or may have seen her or observed her, she may have been asking for a ride. It could have been as something as simple as, ‘Can you give me a lift?’ which turned into, obviously, something very bad.”
Williams can’t rule out that the woman might have been a prostitute.
“We never want to bring bad light on somebody, especially someone who has lost their life in a manner like this, or for their family or who might be surviving or who might ever be seeing this, but the facts are that you have to do what you have to do to survive. And, if this poor young lady was having to do those things, that’s how she was able to get by.”
If that’s the case, it makes the investigation harder, Williams said, because men she may have interacted with will likely never come forward.
The investigation, many years ago, led deputies to a taxi cab driver sitting in the Guilford County jail charged in a similar case and suspected in another.
“He would pick up these rides and then, obviously, kill them. They were able to validate these suspicions through his logs in the cab – the mileage, the meter.”
Both of those cases occurred relatively nearby and just months after the discovery of the mystery woman in Orange County.
“He said, ‘No. I have nothing to say.’ At some point, he was able to get word to the investigators here in Orange County that he did want to speak with them. And, apparently, when they were en route, they got a call that he had took his own life.”
The woman’s body was cremated and scattered at sea, as was standard practice in the state at the time.
Through the years, various renderings were created as to what the woman might have looked like, including a composite sketch that Williams said makes the victim look too old.
A clay model also falls short of helping give an accurate idea of what she might have looked like, Williams believes.
“I can’t go around showing this to people. Their brain won’t accept it. They need something that looks like a photograph.”
Now Williams has hope through new technology.
He’s hoping experts can create a more photo-like rendering using photos of the skull and X-rays.
“Unbeknownst to me, that was more important than the physical skull,” Williams said.
“The forensic imaging division that I spoke with thought that that was just above and beyond because normally all they have is a skull. They don’t have the luxury of having all these other elements.”
Williams also hopes his fresh perspective, and those of others, will turn up something.
“My biggest surprise was at the time, it was only a male perspective. There was no female perspective on what happened to this young lady,” he said.
“Why was she wearing this type of clothing? Why would she wear this dainty little ring on her finger? Why was her hair colored this certain way? What was the mindset of a female? That was one of my light bulb moments. Never asked a female.”
Asked if the case will ever be solved, Williams discusses his goal from the moment he received the case.
“I haven’t concentrated on who took her life. I’ve only concentrated on how we can identify this poor young lady. Somebody, somebody has to know who this young lady is. I would really, really love to put a name with this female and bring some closure for someone.”
North Carolina has 120 unidentified person cases dating back to the 1970s.
Since this case, the state has changed practices and now keeps the cremated remains of unidentified people, and in some cases, skeletons.
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