For 13 years, a young woman, who was found dead in a small town in Texas, remained unnamed. She was nicknamed “Lavender Doe” because of the purple shirt she was wearing when she was found. Her real name and identity remained a mystery. That is until amateur genealogists took up her case.
This is the story of Lavender Doe and everything it took to finally reveal her real identity. It’s a journey that took a group of individuals out of their armchairs to the doorsteps of family members and proves that law enforcement indeed needs the help of web sleuths and DNA technology to uncover the truth. And, most importantly, it’s a story about what it truly means to put a name to a forgotten victim and discover the unfortunate life she led.
The victim’s flawless teeth were one thing that so many of the strangers obsessed with her case online noticed. It’s also one of the very few things that could even be noticed, unfortunately. Her body was so badly burned that she was, in effect, unrecognizable when she was found in the early morning of October 29, 2006, near Longview, Texas.
Two men walking by saw the ghastly sight, but they thought they were looking at a mannequin that had been set on fire (perhaps an early Halloween prank, they figured). The smell, however, signaled them that something a lot more sinister had happened in the woods. Only once they stepped closer did they realize the horrible truth.
Judging by the smell and sight, the two men figured that not much time had passed since the body was ablaze. When law enforcement came, officials started noting the few facts that would come to cover the identity of the poor woman. They were able to determine that she was young, between 17 and 25, with strawberry blonde hair and had $40 in her pockets.
She was wearing a pale purple shirt and size 7/8 jeans with “One Tuff Babe” branded on them. One online commenter on the discussion forum Websleuths remarked, “Sadly ironic, considering her fate.” That same commenter would end up giving the victim the nickname of “Lavender Doe” because of her shirt.
Days, weeks, and then years passed, and nobody came forward with a name for this nameless victim. No friends or family reported anything to the sheriff’s office in Texas. A missing person’s report was never even filed. Lavender Doe, a name given by a stranger on the internet, was the only name she had.
In November 2018, 12 years and a month later, Lavender Doe was found. A reporter named Sarah Zhang (from The Atlantic) went to Longview, Texas, with a group of volunteers who claimed to have uncovered the real name and with identity of Lavender Doe. Seven months earlier, the same volunteers succeeded in putting a face to another nameless victim.
In the spring of 2018, a genetic genealogist led police to a suspect in the infamous “Golden State Killer” case (from the 1970s and ‘80s). A group of volunteer genealogists with a novice nonprofit called the “DNA Doe Project” teamed up to help Ohio law enforcement identify an unidentified murder victim who, up until then, was known only as the “Buckskin Girl” (because she was wearing a buckskin jacket at the time).
Cold cases, like Lavender Doe’s and Buckskin Girl’s, have always attracted internet sleuths — as well as psychics and self-titled forensics experts. While it can sometimes lead to fruitful developments, it can also irritate actual law enforcement.
But genetic genealogy is different… because it works. Genetic genealogy is a combination of traditional genealogy and DNA tools. It is a successful method that led police to the arrest of the Golden State Killer, for example. After that cold-case turned solved-case, the floodgates opened.
Ever since, amateur and self-taught genealogists have been helping authorities identify both criminals and victims almost by the week. Suddenly, it seemed like anyone who was internet savvy, with time on their hands, and a good connection was able to solve cold cases right from their warm living rooms.
The reporter Sarah Zhang met three of these amateur genealogists (of the DNA Doe Project) in Texas. There was Kevin Lord, a 35-year-old black-bearded man studying to be a private investigator, Missy Koski, a 55-year-old “search angel” who helps adoptees find their birth parents, and Lori Gaff, a 49-year-old genealogy enthusiast with an incredible memory.
The three volunteers had anxiously exchanged messages on Facebook — with each other and a handful of others in the project — but none of them had ever met in person until they met together with Zhang in a parking lot outside of Austin.
When the three sleuths finally met, they hugged. “It’s so weird,” Missy said. “We stay up all night on our laptops and everything. My husband’s like, ‘Who are you talking to?’”
Over the six weeks that led up to that moment, the volunteers traced the origins of a woman they believed to be Lavender Doe. They managed to go as far back as over a century and all the way to Europe. They traced the outlines of her life, too, by searching public records and MySpace profiles.
All the work they did from their living rooms and cafés was now becoming even more real in Longview, where they were about to retrace her final steps. She was someone they had come to know so intimately, as strange as it is.
As the four were driving to Longview in one car, Kevin explained why and how he first became obsessed with Lavender Doe’s case in 2017, a year or so before. At that point, he was one of those people watching Investigation Discovery, trying to solve cold cases by himself.
He found himself becoming preoccupied with two separate disappearances of two women close to where he lives, near Austin. When Kevin tried matching their cases to unclaimed victims’ bodies in Texas, he came across the case of Lavender Doe.
That’s when he found the Websleuths thread — the one that gave Doe her nickname— as well as the 30-plus pages of speculation about her death. On Reddit, in 2015, a woman began making posts about the “girl with the perfect smile.” She would meticulously cross off missing persons that were ruled out.
Doe’s perfect teeth made the Redditor wonder if someone in Doe’s family was a dentist. While these posts never had much news to report, they did indeed keep Doe’s case alive in the public imagination. For Kevin, it was also the teeth that made him take a closer look.
Aside from her lack of cavities and fillings, Doe still had two baby teeth, which was particularly unusual for her age. One of the two missing Texan girls that Kevin was investigating also had distinctive teeth. He then posted his theory on Reddit – that the missing girl was Lavender Doe.
Kevin didn’t just share his theory with fellow web sleuths; he also brought it to the attention of the lieutenant who was assigned to Doe’s case at the Gregg County Sheriff’s Office, a man (appropriately) named Eddie Hope.
Hope was accustomed to getting long-shot tips from armchair sleuths. In fact, the missing girl had already been ruled out as Lavender Doe. Still, he was grateful that people still cared. Hardly anything was happening in the Doe case, which was haunting Lt. Hope. “I’ve probably got five more years before I retire,” he told reporter Zhang. “It will consume you.”
Kevin also had trouble letting cold cases go. During his free time, he hoarded court documents, filed public-records requests, and even went so far as to interview the missing girls’ friends and family. Whereas some were happy to hear from someone who cared, others weren’t as receptive and simply blocked him on Facebook.
But that’s just part of the web sleuth package. Kevin, who left his programming job two years before, started selling T-shirts on Amazon, which paid the bills but was less satisfying in terms of his passion. So, he decided to start a new career: private investigation.
Kevin was always interested in genealogy, and when his PI program required an externship, his first choice was to bring Lavender Doe’s case to the DNA Doe Project – a project with volunteers who use genetic genealogy to solve cold cases.
Margaret Press, one of the amateur genealogists and a crime novelist, was the one who initially came up with the idea while reading a Sue Grafton mystery novel. She then recruited Colleen Fitzpatrick, an actual forensic genealogist who worked with the police. Together, they co-founded the DNA Doe Project in 2017. The goal was to convince law enforcement to test DNA samples from unidentified bodies.
The point was to use technology that mimicked popular DNA tests, like 23andMe and AncestryDNA, which is a heck of a lot more powerful than the methods forensics labs had access to. It just goes to show that law enforcement is not the only way to go when it comes to solving crimes (which is something many people are still trying to digest).
Law-enforcement DNA databases have traditionally looked at only 13 to 20 markers in the genome, which is usually enough to match siblings, parents or children. But when it comes to 23andMe and AncestryDNA, they look at different types of markers and test up to 700,000 of them.
With such tests, third or fourth and even more distant cousins, who share less than 1 percent of their DNA, can be revealed. With these kinds of connections, genealogists can cross-reference census records, obituaries of family members, Facebook profiles, and other public documents to create giant family trees.
Back to the car ride: It was Missy’s turn to tell Zhang about her road to sleuthing. Missy, the “search angel,” told her that she was adopted and found her birth father through genealogy; it’s what got her hooked. Soon enough, she started spending 12 to 16 hours a day helping adoptees find their birth parents.
One of the adoptees she helped ended up being distantly connected to another DNA Doe Project case in West Virginia, which only intrigued Missy even more. She joined the project as a volunteer genealogist in early 2018, eventually landing on the Lavender Doe case after the group officially took it at Kevin’s urging.
In August of that year, DNA Doe crowdfunded $1,400 to re-analyze Doe’s DNA to reveal those 600,000 markers. Among those who pitched in were Reddit’s web sleuths who were following the Lavender Doe posts year after year. Meanwhile, the local sheriff’s office had an unrelated but major breakthrough in the case.
According to Lt. Hope, back when Doe was found, semen was traced and matched — via the old-school forensic methods — to a man named Joseph Wayne Burnette. He actually admitted to picking up a young woman in the area for sex but confessed nothing else.
Fast forward to the summer of 2018, and a woman living with Burnette disappeared. Hope and two colleagues found her body with her purple nails sticking out of the leaves on the ground. Once Burnette was questioned again, he started talking. He confessed to having killed her, as well as Lavender Doe.
However, Burnette insisted that he didn’t know Lavender Doe. She was just an unlucky stranger in the wrong place at the wrong time who crossed his path in a Walmart parking lot in Texas. Burnette chose to plead not guilty to both murders. His trial is pending.
Still, the confession didn’t yield any new clues to Doe’s name. In fact, the murder indictment filed in August of 2018 listed the victim’s name only as Lavender Doe. At the end of the day, her identity was still a mystery, and thus the family was still left without any closure.
The mystery of who she was only deepened after the confession. After all, girls like Doe — blond with perfect teeth — don’t typically disappear without someone noticing. Back in the car, on the highway to Longview, Lori made sure they stopped to get breakfast in the small part of Texas known as the Czech Belt.
The area was named the Czech Belt because of the immigrants who brought polka, folk dancing, and pastries called kolaches. The breakfast stop was deliberate: It turns out that Lavender Doe had Czech ancestry. This was one of the first things the volunteers discovered about her.
When they got Doe’s DNA back from the lab, they uploaded it to a genealogy database called GEDmatch – the same one investigators used to find the Golden State Killer. The results produced thousands of matches, but most of them were too distant to be useful.
Among the closest matches were what seemed to be a second cousin once removed, as well as third and fourth cousins. The volunteers started building family trees for closer matches to see how they connected, and they kept finding Czech ancestry. One volunteer tracked down baptism records of Doe’s long-ago ancestors.
A descendant of those ancestors, a woman in her late 50s, was still living in Texas — only 30 miles from where Doe was found. Kevin then alerted Hope, and the answers to the mystery suddenly seemed very close.
When Hope drove out to meet the woman, she was (understandably) hesitant. She never heard about any missing person in her family, and it was hard to imagine that she wouldn’t know of such a thing in her own family. “It still seems like a lot to be just a coincidence, but stranger things have happened,” Kevin wrote.
The woman eventually warmed up to the DNA Doe Project once she got a grasp of the unusual situation that had brought law enforcement to her doorstep. She decided to let the volunteers compare her DNA directly with Doe’s.
The resulting genetic connection was unmistakably strong: The two distant family members shared enough DNA to be established as first cousins once removed. Doe was likely to have been the child of the woman’s cousin — a cousin she never knew even existed. And just like that, the branch on the developing family tree grew.
When genetic genealogists started using DNA to construct family trees in the 2000s, they consistently stumbled into family secrets. You can just imagine all the affairs, previous known/unknown marriages, children secretly placed for adoption, and sperm donations kept hush-hush.
Those investigating Doe’s identity had been working in their armchairs up until that point. And now, here they were, making contact with her family (albeit a family that didn’t know her), and they had to rummage through that family’s “dirty laundry” to find her. Once the first cousin was established, they started looking for more.
One of Doe’s uncles, it turns out, had a daughter named Robin from a previous marriage – something the Texas woman didn’t know about either. Kevin found Robin’s death certificate in Indiana. She had died of an illness at age 50 in 2006, a month before Lavender Doe was found.
With all these new connections being made, more and more questions were raised. Was Robin actually Lavender Doe’s mother? Could it explain why Doe was never reported missing? Robin’s death certificate and everything that came along with it (which the volunteers pieced together from police records and newspapers) told a sad yet familiar story.
“We saw that she was not stable, had a lot of alcohol-related arrests, had a bunch of different husbands,” Kevin told Zhang on the drive to Longview. Zhang then felt the mood shift as he said it. After a pleasant breakfast in the Czech Belt, everyone in the car was reminded that there was always going to be a girl, dead and abandoned, in the end.
It was, after all, the only reason these four individuals even knew each other. Kevin told Zhang about their process and how they kept researching Robin. The leads piled up quickly.
The DNA matches meant they could zero in on this particular branch of the family tree. The work involved digging through social media, newspapers, legal records, and people-finder databases that collect an unbelievable amount of personal information.
They found marriage records for two husbands and assumed that she had a third husband with the last name Dodd, who occasionally appeared in newspaper articles about her arrests. Kevin then googled “Robin Wilma Dodd” and came across a site that listed her as living with a man named Johnny Dodd. The connection was weak, but it would be enough…
Kevin then searched “Johnny Dodd” in Google and found a daughter who looked to be Doe’s age. It was his next search that gave him chills. He put the daughter’s name into a database (Delvepoint) for private investigators, which revealed that her Social Security number was no longer active.
It looked like she had completely dropped off the map right in 2006, the year Lavender Doe was found dead. Kevin then searched more databases and learned that Dodd had children from another marriage in Florida, and those children had their own children.
Kevin found a MySpace profile that might have belonged to Doe herself. He showed it to Zhang in the car ride, and suddenly it was thought they were in a time capsule from the early 2000s. There she was, a blond with perfect teeth, hugging a dog.
The last place Doe was likely seen alive was a Walmart parking lot in Longview. When the group of four arrived in town, Lt. Hope led them to retrace her steps. He recounted what Burnette stated in his confession: “She came up to him selling magazines. He didn’t want ‘em. Then she tried to try to sell him some lingerie out of a magazine.”
Burnette didn’t want that, either. “She asked if she could get in the truck with him. He let her in,” Hope said. She agreed to have sex with him, according to Burnette but stole his money. It’s the reason he allegedly strangled her, despite having left $40 in her pocket. “That was money she had earned,” Burnette told Hope.
From there, as Hope explained, Burnette brought Doe’s body to a patch of trees where he burned her. The road that he reportedly took no longer exists today, so Hope led them through someone’s yard to a wooded area.
Hope showed the group where the body was burned. “I just expected it to be a little more dense,” Missy said. There was a visible house through the bare trees. “How could he have thought no one would notice? They’re just right there,” Missy repeated.
Doe was evidently surrounded by people, but so alone. After the autopsy, Gregg County buried her in a small cemetery on December 23, 2006. Her headstone listed that date only, as her birth date was unknown. The name on the headstone reads: Jane Doe. Missy brought lavender flowers, which she set on the grave.
The group then made a Facebook live stream video for their fellow sleuths back home. A volunteer who worked on the Doe case with them, who couldn’t come on the road trip, watched the live stream and left a comment that stuck with Lori.
The volunteer had observed that they were the first people in all these years to stand at the grave and to know Doe’s real name. So, what was her name?
Dana Lynn Dodd. And she was barely 21 when she was murdered in the fall of 2006.
In May 2019, after DNA proved that the volunteers were right about her name, Zhang went to Jacksonville, Florida, to meet Dana’s family and best friend. Then, the DNA Doe Project mailed her half-sister Amanda Gadd an AncestryDNA kit.
A few months later, the results came back and confirmed that Dana was indeed the girl found near Longview, Texas – the blonde with the MySpace page. The one with perfect teeth. The news created a strange mix of happiness and sadness for the volunteers. The puzzle, as gruesome as it was, was finally solved. But it also meant that a family was now in mourning.
“You want to have a party, jumping up and down,” Missy said. “And, oh wait, wait, we can’t have that kind of attitude.” She struggled to let go of the case that consumed her every waking hour for about six weeks.
Missy couldn’t stop thinking about Dana’s family and about the circumstances – how Dana died nearly 900 miles away from home and that her family was left in the dark for all those years. Dana’s family never asked for strangers to dig through their history, nor did they ask for the attention of the media.
Dana’s case was simply plucked from an unfortunately large pile of the unsolved and the unnamed. Once it got in the hands of true-crime obsessives, it caught the attention of genealogists, and then Zhang, a reported for The Atlantic.
By the time Zhang left for Florida to speak with Dana’s family, she knew enough to know she was definitely not the daughter of a dentist (one of the proposed theories). Her perfect teeth were likely just a lucky perk.
Dana’s mother had died at a young age and far away from her. And according to police records, Dana’s father was homeless.
Dana’s father had been arrested numerous times for public drinking and disorderly intoxication. Neither of Dana’s parents raised her, according to Amanda, Dana’s half-sister (nine years older than her) of the same father. They weren’t close when Dana disappeared, but the long silence signaled to Amanda that something was wrong.
Amanda told Zhang that Dana spent her young life going from household to household. Her mother left her when she was a baby; her father, not long after that. Dana lived with a stepmother in Arizona until age 14, until her stepmother decided to send her to family members in Florida.
Before then, Amanda had only met Dana twice. At 23, Amanda was a young mother herself, but she took Dana in. As she recalled, her younger half-sister showed up with only one backpack containing all the possessions she had.
Amanda got her into therapy, and there was even a period of stability for a while. But there was also the typical stage of teenage rebellion. Dana fought against curfew and chores. She eventually went to live with her older half-brother, Amanda’s full brother, but she didn’t stay there for long, either.
Dana experienced things any troubled teenager would: drugs, bad boyfriends, and run-ins with the police. She soon dropped out of high school and moved in with her best friend before skipping town to join a traveling magazine sales crew.
It was the kind of group that would lure workers in with the promise of travel but would then trap them with violence and drugs. No one was able to track down the specific group Dana joined, but other workers spoke of beatings and denial of food for not meeting sales quotas.
The version of the story Amanda told Zhang matched the version Burnette told Lt. Hope in his confession – that Dana tried to sell him magazines and then lingerie. When he declined both, she asked to get in his car.
The fact that Dana would climb into a car with some creepy stranger – that she was as desperate as that was extremely difficult for Amanda to learn. “I think, after all the years, she thought she had nobody,” Amanda said. “I think that’s why she didn’t reach out to us.”
Amanda also revealed that her brother felt that he let Dana down. When Zhang asked her if she felt the same, she said she does. “I did my best. I feel like I didn’t do enough.” Bobbie Lynn Hodges, Dana’s high-school best friend, was the one who kicked Dana out of her home.
“I almost wish I never told her to leave,” she said. The two teenagers met in 10th-grade health class and became fast friends after bonding over their troubled family backgrounds. Bobbie showed Zhang her old high school yearbook, in which Dana wrote an entire page. There was also a photo of the two girls in matching T-shirts that read “frick and frack.”
According to Bobbie, they were living in a duplex together when Bobbie discovered she was pregnant after partying on her 18th birthday. Dana was with her when Bobbie took the pregnancy test the next morning. That moment ultimately became the crack in their relationship.
Bobbie wanted to have the baby and get clean. However, Dana didn’t. That’s when Dana starting doing heroin and stole a PlayStation from their apartment. So, Bobbie kicked her friend out. “When she left, she said, ‘You’re my last person. Nobody else will help me.’” Soon after, Dana joined the magazine crew.
Dana’s last words to Bobbie really weighed on her, especially once she heard what happened to her best friend. “If I wouldn’t have kicked her out, like, where would we be now?” she asked. “I’d be right there with her… I would probably be dead too.”
In the 12 years that Dana was only known as Lavender Doe, Dana’s family searched online and made phone calls. They wondered, in their more hopeful moments, if Dana had started a new life. Dana’s nephew said he had messaged countless “Dana Dodds” on MySpace. Once Facebook came along, he looked for her there, too. But they were never Dana.
In September 2019, for what would have been Dana’s 34th birthday, Amanda and a few other family members traveled to Texas to visit her grave. They brought flowers and a balloon for each birthday they missed, as well as a new headstone. This time, her real name was on it.
“She was given that name when she came into the world,” Amanda said.
The DNA Doe Project has solved more cases, and the volunteers recognize that they have entered into something a lot more complicated than just reuniting grateful families. There are Does who have no one alive to miss them at all.