For nearly 40 years a teen found dead on Valentine’s Day along an Arizona highway was known by authorities only as “Valentine Sally.”
Now, she has finally regained her name.
The Coconino County Sheriff’s Office announced Monday that investigators were able to use DNA technology to positively identify the teenager as 17-year-old Carolyn Eaton.
Eaton had reportedly run away from her St. Louis-area home around Christmas in 1981, just several months before she died.
Her body was discovered on the north side of Interstate 40 at mile marker 151.8 on Feb. 14, 1982 by an Arizona Department of Public Safety officer who had pulled over a motorist along the highway, authorities said.
Investigators determined that Eaton was a victim of a homicide, but for decades her identity remained a mystery.
The Coconino County Sheriff’s Office was finally able to identify Eaton with the help of a grant from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. The grant allowed them to enlist the help of a private firm who used DNA samples from her body to complete a familial DNA search for her relatives.
Using online ancestry databases, officials were able to match the DNA to one of Eaton’s first cousins and investigators traveled to St. Louis County to interview the family with the assistance of the St. Louis County Police Department and Bellefontaine Neighbors Police Department, according to The St. Louis Post Dispatch.
Coconino County Sheriff's Office Lt. Jason Lurkins told the news outlet that Eaton’s relatives were able to immediately confirm that they had a sibling who ran away in 1981 from the family’s Bellefontaine Neighbors home.
“The family members were awestruck,” Lurkins said. “We told one family member we were investigating a missing person case and they asked: Is this about Carolyn?”
Detectives are now working to determine potential suspects in the homicide and plan to “vigorously work” the case.
“At this time, there are no suspects identified but the case remains under investigation as a homicide,” the sheriff’s office said.
An Arizona waitress, Patty Wilkins, reported seeing a girl matching Eaton’s description while she was working the night shift at an Arizona truck stop on Feb. 2, 1982, according to the St. Louis Post Dispatch.
Wilkins reported seeing the teen with a man wearing a cowboy hat with a peacock feather in it and remembered Eaton because she had complained of a toothache. Wilkins gave the teen an Aspirin before she left the truck stop.
She was later found dead about a mile up the road.
Wilkins told The St. Louis Post Dispatch she continues to wonder whether she could have done more to help the teenager.
“I could have pulled her off that truck,” she said. “I could have forced her to stay with me. I could have called 911. I could have done a million different things that I didn’t do. The only thing I did was put that aspirin on her.”
The “Valentine Sally” case would continue to baffle investigators for years and “generated a great deal of local and statewide interest” in the years that followed, authorities said.
While questions still remain about who killed the 17-year-old, Lurkins said investigators are pleased they have finally solved at least one piece of the puzzle.
"I've been with this department 23 years now and every so often we'd hear about the Valentine Sally case," he told The Post. “So when it broke like this, it was a big deal and I’m sure it’s bringing up a lot for her family.”
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