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Jim Ross: Investigators hope to identify Belle in the Well

October 9, 2018

Her large brown eyes stare out from a face that is supposed to be devoid of expression, but somehow it seems to reflect the terror she may have felt before she was killed and her body dumped in a well in rural Lawrence County.

Since 1981 she has been known as the Belle in the Well. Some girls playing near the well found her body. Authorities recovered it, but the woman was never identified.

For nearly four decades, the woman has remained an anonymous, faceless person to those who remember the story of how she was found. But now officials of the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation hope a new facial reconstruction will provide leads to the woman’s identity.

Officially, she is known as Jane Doe, but she has been nicknamed the Belle in the Well. She was found in a cistern in the Dobbstown area, which is along Ohio 217 between Scottown and Willow Wood, a few miles north of Proctorville and Chesapeake.

Authorities who examined the injuries on her body said it was a homicide. At the time they suspected her death was connected to a motorcycle club that had been active in the area.

Samantha Molnar, a criminal intelligence analyst at the BCI, did the most recent facial reconstruction to give the best guess yet of Jane Doe’s appearance. Molnar said Jane Doe’s body had been in the well for six months to a year. By then it was decomposed but not completely skeletal, Molnar said.

Jane Doe was from 30 to 60 years old, probably at the higher end of that range, Molnar said.

Jane Doe’s discovery at the southern tip of Ohio near West Virginia and Kentucky complicates the search for her identity, Molnar said.

“You are looking for a missing person who could be from any of those states. Technically, she could be from anywhere,” Molnar said.

For her work, Molnar had Jane Doe’s skull scanned with a CT machine, after which a 3D print was made for the reconstruction work.

With no identification, there are no dental records to work with, but Jane Doe apparently had an overbite, Molnar said. Molnar reconstructed face that way although two front teeth were missing.

“Since Jane Doe had some teeth missing when we recovered her, I wasn’t able to sculpt her with her mouth open,” Molnar said.

The brown eyes are just a guess, as the body had decomposed too far to determine the true color, Molnar said.

Molnar said identifying a person from nearly 40 years ago is hampered by the lack of technology investigators had to work with then compared to today. Everything today is digitized, but paper records from the 1980s and earlier could have been lost, or they are difficult to access, she said. Also, the investigators from that era are likely retired or deceased, she said.

Also, anyone who remembered Jane Doe while she lived probably is elderly now, Molnar said.

Molnar said anyone with a missing relative should reach out to law enforcement agencies. DNA testing can help identify remains, she said. DNA testing has been done so far, but nothing has led investigators to a solution, Molnar said.

While the trail to solving Jane Doe’s identity may have grown cold, authorities are still hoping to learn who she was and how she died. Molnar said anyone with information may contact the Lawrence County sheriff’s office or other law enforcement agency.

The BCI has had one recent success using Molnar’s reconstruction work to identify a missing person, but this case may prove more difficult. Meanwhile, Jane Doe’s face will stare at people who see her photo and wonder about the woman who became the Belle in the well.

Jim Ross is a Huntington resident and former reporter and editor for The Herald-Dispatch.

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