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After Saving For Big Birthday Trip, Woman Instead Uses Money To Fund DNA Research Giving Young Murder Victim Her Name Back
Rather than take a blowout vacation for her 40th birthday, Catherine Serbousek decided to use the money to fund research into a 1982 Mississippi cold case victim known as "Delta Dawn."
A New York City mother who had saved up money to do a blowout vacation for her 40th birthday instead used the money to fund research into an unsolved child murder case, which has led to the identity of previously unidentified remains.
Catherine Serbousek, an audiobook editor and mother of two young children, told Oxygen.com that a particular unsolved crime struck a chord with her while she was growing up in Arkansas. When she was about 8, she was watching the local news and saw a story about a murder that had occurred in the bordering state of Mississippi several years earlier.
A truck driver found a possible body in the Escatawpa River off the Interstate-10 bridge near Moss Point, Mississippi in December of 1982, private DNA lab Othram Inc said in a Friday press release. Investigators responding to the tip discovered the body of a 2-year-old girl caught in the brush downriver who they believe had died a few hours earlier. Sadly, they were not able to determine her identity and they nicknamed her Delta Dawn, which remained her name for decades.
Years later, as Serbousek watched the local news story about this mysterious case, “it just clicked in my mind that she was my age.”
She added, “I thought she could have been my friend. It wasn't a stretch that she could have moved here and I could have known her.”
When Serbousek turned 40 last year, Dawn resurfaced in her mind. Serbousek, whose own father died when he was 40, was experiencing some existential dread around her birthday and didn’t feel like taking the big birthday trip she'd saved for. Instead, she decided to use the money to contribute to assisting unsolved crimes. For her, it was no question: Dawn had to be the first case she wanted to see movement in.
So, Serbousek called the local sheriff’s department that investigated Dawn’s death and told them she wanted to help. They then transported Dawn's remains from Mississippi to Othram Labs in Texas, which analyzed them thanks to the funding Serbousek provided. Othram, with assistance from Jackson County Sheriff's Office and the FBI, were able to provide a genetic profile suitable for genealogical research. In doing so, they were able to find a relative of the child in Missouri, and in turn were able to identify her.
“Delta Dawn's name was restored as Alisha Ann Heinrich, daughter of Gwendolyn Clemons, both of whom vanished in 1982,” Othram stated.
Clemons was last seen in Kansas City, Missouri in November 1982 but there was a possible sighting of her a month later in Jackson County, Mississippi. At a Friday news conference, investigators urged any other law enforcement agencies that have come across remains that match Clemons' description to reach out to them. Investigators said that they do not know if the mother is dead or alive, but they are assuming the worst. Investigators noted during the news conference that there was a possible sighting of an adult body floating down the Escatawpa River the day that Alisha was discovered.
They said they have a suspect in Alisha's death; they didn't name the man, but said he's deceased. Clemons had told her family that she was going to start a new life with this man before she disappeared.
While the full mystery of what happened to the mother and child has yet to be revealed, Serbousek is happy that the girl she figured she could have been friends with now has a name.
"People should be buried under their real name," she told Oxygen.com.
Serbousek said she is now starting the process of funding another case: the body of a Black male, aged 18 to 21, who was also pulled from the same body of water as Heinrich in 1982. He has never been identified. Investigators believe that his body was there for six months before Heinrich's, local outlet WLOX reports. She also plans to fund a case of an unidentified kidnapping victim from the 1940s.
“They aren’t going to be solved without money,” she told Oxygen.com. “A lot of places just don’t have the funding.”
She said that the research into Alisha's real identity cost her about $2,600. Costs can vary depending on a range of factors, however. David Mittelman, CEO of Othram, told Oxygen.com that they try to cap private contributions at around $5,000.
Serbousek said that if someone wants to fund such a project, they should reach out directly to the police department or sheriff’s department investigating the case.
“The big takeaway is just how important it is to never put these cases down regardless of when they happened, regardless of the obstacles,” Carol Schweitzer, who supervises the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children's forensic services unit, told Oxygen.com. “These cases are solvable. You put different eyes on it and you put current technology on it and you’re going to find a resolution.”
Anyone with information about Heinrich or Clemons is urged to call the Jackson County Sheriff's Department at (228) 769-3063.