It is the 9th of November, 13:50 my time, and I am still in bed.
Well, technically, I have been out of bed already today – I’ve taken a brisk walk down to the sea, like I do most mornings. It was around 07:30 when I got to the coast. I like to keep going past St. Andrews castle – I don’t stop to look at the sea there. Follow the spine bone curve up of the hill, past the winking, milky lamp lights to the sheltered (not really sheltered, it’s still windy, I don’t want anyone suing me on this claim of wind-protection, if you go up there be prepared to be absolutely blown to bloody bits) nook of two benches. The headland juts out a bit there, and you can see the weeping cliffs, you can see the dandruff sprouts of beach grass clinging boldly to the rock scalp, you can see white lace waves and endless, whirling birds. On the 9th, the sky was a silvery blue – most winter mornings it is a vivid pink and orange, a ‘shepherd’s warning’ sky, my Mum would call it, a sky that sparkles effervescently in beauty and then kicks you right in the crotch with its searing cold – and I was staring at it, that silvery, silvery sky. The clouds were pregnant with what I hoped was snow but realistically knew was just damp rain that would make my hair frizz out into a million refractions of fluff. I didn’t think then that the 9th of November would be a special day.
So, back to bed (get your mind out of the gutter, reader!). I have my hot water bottle pressed against my belly – can you feel how it makes the skin almost pulse with its handprint heat? My hands are the only inch of skin visible above the duvet, clutching my phone to my myopic eyes. Very womb-like, this scenario, but you can forgive me (I’m telling you you can, not asking) because it’s Scotland and we’re having a cold snap that is fastening its jaws around my student apartment with a vengeance.
In Walker County, Texas, it’s relatively okay. Their blizzard hasn’t hit – I can imagine the sky is light there too, yellowy, shot through with bleeding wounds of tangerine. It’s not 13:50 in Walker County, Texas. It’s 07:50, and the Sheriff’s Department is giving a press conference.
On the 24th of September Walker County Jane Doe disappeared from the NamUs (National Missing and Unidentified Persons System). On the 25th the Facebook group Who Was Walker County Jane Doe made a post, telling all the dedicated watchers of faces in train stations, the dedicated scanners of missing lists, the dedicated piece-togetherers of family histories and photographs and half-forgotten witness recollections – telling them all that the admin had received word from the family of Walker County Jane Doe that she had finally, finally been identified.
Then – silence.
Over a month of silence. We waited, us watchers and scanners and piece-togetherers, across Reddit and Facebook and Instagram. We knew the family must be shell-shocked, reeling from the news that their daughter – their sister – their niece was found, not living somewhere in San Jose or rainy Washington, waitressing or running a hair salon. But by a trucker, left under a muddy Texas sky, beneath the timber trees of Sam Houston National Park, next to the grey and rotten back-bone of Interstate Highway 45, forty-one years previous.
We sent messages – if the family were reading, we wanted them to know that we cared for whoever they had lost. We had wanted to bring her home. A lady who lived in Huntsville brought her flowers and kept her unnamed marker clean, ready for them to visit. We wanted them to know that she had not been alone in spirit, all those years unclaimed. She had been the subject of more sketches than the Mona Lisa, she had been tracked and traced, she had been prayed for, she had been loved – by faceless strangers who wanted to give her her story back.
And then the 8th of November, we got word. KAGSTV, a local news site, promised that tomorrow – November 9th – the Sheriff’s Office was releasing new details. Tomorrow.
And so, I am in bed, screen too close to my face, ignoring the work that is calling to me from the other room. My room is quiet – which is rare. Normally there is Springsteen or Futurama or tuneless singing and the rattling of wardrobe doors.
My room is quiet now, remembering.
STANDBY FOR A LIVE EVENT, KBTX Media tells me. When it starts, I almost fall out of the covers. Nothing is happening still – just rustling. A red-faced man standing uncomfortably under a white leather cowboy hat hovers above the press microphones. Someone talks to him off screen, and he says ‘alright’, and moves off the podium. He looks pleased to be out of the way.
The American flag and the Texas lone-star flank the stage. They are folded and drooping, not raised. No-one wants to focus too much on the colour red, today. There are people beneath the stage – their chairs are placed a few metres apart, as a nod to the virus that lingers in the air ducts of this municipal building. Still, I cannot see any mask straps around their ears. They are murmuring, now and again – none of them too loud. What do you talk about, before this comes to pass? The regular questions take on a bit of a milk-sick lilt, don’t they? Children okay? How’s everyone? Then you think – this child wasn’t okay. How lucky am I to be able to answer back, yes, we’re all good. Are her family in the room?
The door swings open – held by the uncomfortable man, and an older gentleman strides in. He has a cowboy hat on too (is that a Texas thing? Do all American police wear cowboy hats? I don’t know, but it does make me trust him – as does his leather waistcoat, his faded blue shirt, his lack of tie. His hands, in my mind, are rough. His face is sunburnt. He feels real, and worn-out. It is a feeling that echoes among the room, I think. It echoes among the faces watching the broadcast, too). He must be the aforementioned Sheriff of the Sheriff’s Office. He’s followed by a very bald, very professional man; a state trooper with her hair pulled back severely (she’s the only one in uniform); and another cowboy-hatted-man who I immediately dislike because he is smiling. Then I feel guilty for doing so because he is smiling at the state trooper – he reaches out a hand to touch her elbow. She is nervous. The smile drops quickly.
My stomach is roiling. I’m not excited – that’s the wrong word, but rather, invested. The older man takes a moment to unfurl his reading glasses (which makes me like him even more), and he starts –
‘Good morning, everyone.’ He drawls. His voice is slow, smooth. Eastwood. I found out later that his name actually is Clint. Life works, sometimes.
He tells her story. I’ve read it a thousand times before – but I haven’t heard it said.
I knew she was found on November 1st, but I didn’t realise she had been killed on Halloween. She’d only arrived in town that day, he tells us. She was seen at a truck-stop (why are they always at a truck-stop?). She asked for directions to the prison. She said she was from Rockport, near Aransas Pass.
The next day, she was found on the shoulder of the I-45 (‘just north of Hunstville’, the Sheriff adds).
Cause of death was strangulation by ligature.
He doesn’t go into the worst bits – the blood, or the violence she went through before she died. I’m glad of that. That’s not what today is about.
No prisoners knew her, no officers of the law. Why was she going to the prison?
It is the forty-first anniversary, today, he tells us. She has been identified.
‘Sherri Ann Jarvis, date of birth 03/09/1966’
I have to take a moment to work out if that means that she was born on the third of September or the ninth of March (the latter). It doesn’t change 1966. Fourteen. She was fourteen.
Sherri Ann Jarvis.
Uncomfortable man holds up a picture of her and I have to rewind the video to hear what the Sheriff is saying because she has a wide smile – her front teeth are the first thing you see, because her mouth is open. I’ve never seen a picture that looks like it’s moving before. Like she’s laughing right there. Her eyes are dark, dark brown almost black, and glittering. Her hair is curly – nicely done by her Mom, for the picture, you can tell, it’s a professional one, maybe from school? – and brushed back from her forehead in Farrah Fawcett waves. She looks so young. She has a large dimple – one that would have already been in her cheek, made wider by smiling.
This doesn’t look like a girl who isn’t alive anymore. Who hasn’t been alive for forty-one years.
1966. She’s two years younger than my Mum. She would have been fifty-five, now.
She was from Stillwater Minnesota. Uncomfortable man is handing out pictures.
The Sheriff talks about Detective Bean, Texas Ranger Doolittle, Othram Labs – the people that in July 2020 decided to give Sherri her name back. How, all those years later, do you turn back to that case? So many bodies still with no identity. I’m glad they chose her.
The DNA profiles they connected led Othram Labs to six individuals who were direct descendants of Jane Doe, or aunts and uncles. Detective Bean and Detective Phelps used the internet to build out her family tree. They combed names and dates and Facebook profiles, until they found one name that had nothing. No footprints across the online sand. My stomach turns.
‘It was discovered that she had actually run away in 1980, and she was fourteen years of age.’
Never have I been so unhappy to have my mathematical ability proved correct.
DNA samples were taken from her family (imagine that conversation. If my stomach is turning, I can’t think about the drop you must feel in your belly with that knock on the door. Will you provide DNA? We think we might have found your runaway sister. I can hear wailing in my head, distant as bells, while I watch on.)
Sherri Ann Jarvis.
The Sheriff – he breaks, a bit here.
‘It has never been a cold case. It has always been a top priority.’ He won’t look up. ‘We loved her, as well’.
We loved her as well.
Uncomfortable man is blinking. Is he Detective Bean? Or is the professional bald man Detective Bean? I want to see the man who kept it going. The man who wanted to find her.
Othram Labs walks onto the stage. This is the scientist who pulled a birth certificate, who pulled brothers and sisters, from bone dust. Hair strands. Scabs and nameless tissue.
He is approachable too – his black jumper sleeves are pushed above his arms. His eyes are wide and serious, under heavy dark brows. Give him a lab-coat, and yes, this makes sense.
‘David Mittelman’, he names himself. Bean, Mittleman, Doolittle. Names. Names. Names.
Sherri Ann Jarvis.
‘We can pull genetic markers’, from air. From dust. From sand. He has to spell Mittleman and Othram for the press.
Ranger Doolittle – he was the smiling man – thanks Othram. Bean must be professional bald man.
Will Durham – district attorney – he’s the most comfortable man on the podium. He says he remembers this, as a child, in 1980.
‘From a prosecutor’s perspective, I just hope that this information will lead us to whoever did this.’
He’s mentioned it. The fact that she is a Jane Doe victim. An unidentified victim. She wasn’t a decedent, who had curled up from the cold and stayed there. Or hadn’t eaten until her heart couldn’t move from lack of energy. Somebody did this. On purpose. Somebody killed her.
There is a ripple there, in that place. We can feel it. I can feel it, watching the screen. From a prosecutor’s perspective. This isn’t about the hands that did this. This is about her. Let her have the moment. Sherri.
‘If they’re still alive, they will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.’ If they’re still alive. He brought the killer in and in four words robbed us of the crumbs of even restorative justice.
It feels wrong that the family’s statement comes next.
It’s the nervous girl with the severe bun – she’s a deputy, not a state trooper.
‘Deputy Wells, spelt W-E-L-L-S,’ she tells us.
She’s nervous, and makes more than a few mistakes. I can hear her gulp. She’s trying not to let any emotion seep in, and her voice is flat and toneless as a result.
‘We lost Sherri more than forty-one years ago. We have lived with the bewilderment every day since – until now. She has finally been found.’
2021 has been a season of names.
Francis Alexander (suffocated, victim of John Wayne Gacy. Never reported missing, as in his last phone call to his mother in 1976 he told her he was moving to California).
Clara Birdlong (victim of Samuel Little. Identified by a 93-year-old distant relative – how close did Clara come to disappearing forever?).
Stevie Crawford (a toddler who died in 1962. He had Down’s syndrome, and was wearing a red-and-white-sleeved pullover. His mother took a trip and returned without him. She told relatives ‘not to worry about Stevie anymore’. She was dead when he was identified).
Carolyn Eaton (another heart-wrencher for me. If you read my first article on Jane Does, she was Valentine Sally. She was from St Louis, Missouri. How did she end up in Arizona, with a rotten root canal and her throat closed?)
There are tens of them – pieced together from long-dusted DNA samples, or from family tree combing, or from a miniscule remembrance from an ancient witness that cracked the code. Unlike any year before, we – the watchers, the scanners, the piece-togetherers – have heard the news roll in that now – now they have a home.
Sherri Ann Jarvis.
You see, everyone has one Doe. One Doe that pulls at them in the night like a toothache. One Doe that they can’t quite forget. One Doe that they would give their right arm for, if only to know their name.
Walker County Jane Doe was mine.
Sherri Ann Jarvis.
Why do we do this? There are networks of Doe-watchers around the globe. Some are so good at science or researching or shredding apart cryptic police documents that they go into it professionally – David Mittelman at Othram works solely to identify Does and their killers, and the DNA Doe project has scientists who give up the chance of real big money in order to piece together old photos and paper trails and fragments of fibula into a person. Others just trade information on Reddit or Facebook. People pull apart pictures, try to track down sound bites of news, comb through missing person lists with photos and police sketches in hand to compare them to. When there’s an identification – we celebrate. They’re found! Thank God, we type. I’ve been thinking about her for years.
Sherri Ann Jarvis.
Why? Why when Sherri’s name – her real name, her date of birth, her life – was read out by a Stetson-ed Sheriff with weepy old eyes and a faded shirt did I feel something crack into place in the universe? Why did I want to know her? Why did I feel so totally, totally glad that I did?
It wasn’t just me.
To the Jarvis Family, You may have lost a family member. But you have gained an entire family with us…I care for Sherri like an aunt or family member. I love you all and pray you find some comfort.
She was 14…when they said that I broke down. I’m heartbroken but elated she has her name.
To the Jarvis Family and her Friends. I just want to say I truly feel your pain and heartache. For the last 10 years I have been putting flowers on her grave every holiday and sometimes for no reason at all.
May God Bless you Sherri. I hope you can rest peacefully knowing your name.
Over eight hundred comments on Facebook. More on Reddit. Spiralling in.
I wanted to know her story – I was consumed by the need to match this girl to her life, to hear her in the words. Her family said she was taken by the state for truancy, and though her family loved her dearly and wanted her back, the state refused. She hated foster care – she wanted to go home, but thought the state would seize her again. She wrote to her mother that she was going to run away for a while, but then come back to them. Maybe when I’m eighteen.
She never did. Her parents are already gone. They died not knowing.
She was known as Totti to her friends. She liked children and animals – particularly horses. She listened to music with her friends. She went to Central Junior High in Forest Lake.
Why are we like this? Humans? Why do we want to know?
Why do I walk through the graveyard at St Andrews and burn to put stories and photos and lives to names in stone? Why do I want to know why ‘artist’ was placed before wife on Wilhelmina Barnes Graham’s grave? Why do I want to know how a mother who lost all five of her children to a cholera epidemic (based on the dates in the cemetery) coped?
We piece together stories.
I don’t want to know how Sherri was killed. I do know it, but I’m not curious about it anymore. I want to know her. Her life. Her patterns.
I think there is a stage past acceptance, when it comes to grief. Or maybe we can consider it acceptance part deux: acceptance, Appendix A.
We learn to accept – we learn to understand that the person we love is no longer there. We can recognise it. No more denying. No more refusing.
Even when you have accepted it, though, I think that memory can remain a bruise to press. When you think of them, it still lances through you. Still makes you hurt. The walls of my grief, at the start, were small. I could barely move without brushing up against them. Now, they are larger. But when I bump into them, it is still painful – and I have to deal with the shock of it, now, too.
It’s only when we move beyond that lancing pain (and there are times where it will return, over and over again, like a heart under the floorboards, waiting for the wrong thought he’ll never meet my partner he didn’t get to see my graduation he can’t admire the blooming bursts of yellow-eyed daffodils across our garden lawn to start burning at your fingertips once more) that we get to the next stage.
Let’s be honest – being optimistic about the human condition has rather gone out of fashion, these days. And why, in the name of all that is bleak and unholy, shouldn’t it? The state of the world presses in on us, ringing alarm bells of glacier crashing mouths wagging parties-in-the-garden horror. We see human unkindness, human badness to an extent we have never seen before. Have you been to a supermarket recently? People have become cruel and closed off from the light. I’m not denying that, reader, please don’t take me for one of those there’s good in all of us types because that is absolutely, incomprehensibly untrue.
But I do think that the spots of good – the ink-blots of niceness and kindness and pure human spirit – I think that they get lost. We don’t talk about them.
And one of those moments of the human spirit, one of the things that motivates us to be good, to be kind, to care is our simple drive to know everything all of the time. We’re nosy! As a species, we stick our collective noses where they don’t belong. We get poisoned and drowned and set alight for being curious about the wrong natural phenomena, but we also produce incredible triumphs of invention because we were too bloody interfering not to.
More than anything, as well, is that we’re curious about each other. We want to know why and when and how – where did you come from? What are your heartbreaks? Tell me about your eyes – are they your mother’s? Endless scouring for information, scything off bits of stories in conversations between each other. Wanting to know. Wanting to squirrel away and store facts, moments in other people’s lives. Store them in the gnarled oaks of our consciousness, nibbling on them for sustenance and to pass the time. We, as a species, are far more interested in each other and each other’s business than any other animal on the planet. There are industries built on it – publishing, journalism, films. We want to know.
My family don’t talk about my grandfather much.
If we do, it’s a half-phrase here and there. A glass raise where it feels appropriate. But we don’t talk about him – what he did, what he said. Where was he and when? Why did he do this and not that? Do you remember the shirt that he used to wear there? None of that. My gran can often only talk about the lack of him – not his presence.
I want to talk about him. I want to know about him. I want to understand who he was, his story, who was the face behind John Whiteley.
I. Am. Curious.
It’s why I and so many other people wanted Sherri to go home. To be her. They wanted to know – because as a curious species, the idea of not knowing was a blister. To deprive someone of their life, their histories, the self they carry in their arms and elbows and knees and nostrils, to deprive someone of their name is one of the most ignominious, brutal things a human can do to someone else. It is beyond a physical insult, it is a spiritual one. A psychological one. Your name carries everything behind it, and everyone on the podium on November 9th knew it. They introduced themselves with care, making sure to give each person their proper title, their proper respect. Their names meant something. They’re a starting point to learning everything you can about a person.
And to see someone have that taken away? We can’t stand it. We want to give them it back. We need to know. We think about it and toss and turn about it and we become scientists or professional sleuths to find out about it, or, if we can’t do that, then we walk miles to place flowers on their unmarked graves as a placeholder until we can find out about it.
This is my hope for us – and I feel bloody silly, I don’t mind telling you, saying that I have any hope at all. I believe in individual kindness, in individual wonderment and care, but in humanity at large? Yikes. Where is the evidence? But I believe that if there is hope to be found, it is in the fact that thousands of people for forty one years have been thinking, praying, looking for a name for no other reason than they thought it was right to know. They thought they should know. They wanted to know.
We can’t let it go. Can’t leave the baby in its bassinet. And look at what is happening as a result; names and backgrounds and stories falling down like leaves around us, palm-shaped maples and feathery birch and long, sprawling figs. For bodies that have been lost for so long. Bursting from the ground with new lives – all because we were too curious to leave it be. I think if there’s a remedy for global warming, it might not be found because we want to bring the new generation peace of mind or prevent death, but because some bugger was too curious not to try to create this machine at this time. It can be the end of us, curiosity – it can make us do some god-awful things – but it can make us grow, too.
Sherri Ann Jarvis.
9th of March, 1966.
We know you. Now.
Caitlin is the Editor in Chief at BRIZO. She studied Modern History and English at the University of St Andrews. Caitlin was born and raised in the green valleys of Wales and consequently has a love for nature, poetry and cultural tradition not only of her own but across the world. Her great loves are writing, Mary Shelley and her three presidential dogs.