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The mystery surrounding the identity of a woman who took her own life in a Virginia cemetery is finally over, thanks to genetic genealogy.
For more than 25 years, the Fairfax County Police Department painstakingly sought to learn about a Jane Doe found dead on Dec. 18, 1996. The elderly woman was found at the Pleasant Valley Memorial Park in Annandale, Virginia, leaving behind two envelopes and a small, decorated Christmas tree found near her body.
On Thursday, police announced they finally identified the woman dubbed “The Christmas Tree Lady” as 69-year-old Joyce Meyer (some outlets name her as Joyce Marilyn Meyer Sommers).
“Family members believe Meyer may have moved to the Virginia area sometime after the mid-80s,” said police. “At the time of her death, Meyer was not reported missing and did not have family in the immediate area.”
Police stated they were able to raise funds “entirely by anonymous donors” through DNASolves crowdfunding to enlist the help of Othram Inc., who used advanced forensic genetic genealogy to link Meyer to “long-lost siblings.”
“Our Cold Case Squad detectives work diligently and are committed to bring[ing] each case to resolution,” police continued. “Occasionally, our detectives are assigned cases that are not criminal in nature but are deserving of their attention to help families who may have unanswered questions.”
One week before Christmas 1996, a groundskeeper came upon the then-unidentified woman in a section of the cemetery reserved for interred infants. The location of the body gave no indication if she chose one gravesite in particular as a place to take her own life, according to DNASolves. The woman had a bag over her head, and it was later determined her cause of death was suffocation.
Postmortem testing revealed she had alcohol and Valium in her system.
Investigators found two envelopes in the Jane Doe’s pocket, with one containing a suicide note.
“Deceased by own hand… prefer no autopsy,” the letter stated. “Please order cremation with funds provided. Thank you. Jane Doe.”
The other envelope contained money, according to police.
Investigators spent years trying to figure out the identity of Jane Doe. According to a public appeal in March, detectives compared her physical description to “numerous” missing persons cases, but to no avail.
In 2000, police released a colorized sketch of the woman in hopes of someone coming forward, but it yielded no results.
“The loss of a loved one can be difficult no matter the circumstances. However, losing someone with unanswered questions can lead to an increased sense of unpredictability and a decreased sense of safety,” Major Ed O’Carroll said in March. “Our detectives want to do what they can to identify Jane Doe and bring her family answers.”
Thanks to donations through DNASolves, investigators submitted the Jane Doe’s DNA to Othram to develop a comprehensive genealogical profile in January, according to DNASolves. Police confirmed the DNA matched a close relative on May 11 and later followed up with corroborating statements by Meyer’s siblings.
Meyer was the oldest of five children and was originally from Davenport, Iowa, according to DNASolves. Relatives said they did not report Meyer missing but did spend years searching for her, going as far as to hire a private detective.
“After decades of wondering what happened to their loved one, Joyce’s family is finally at peace, thanks to the dedicated work of several generations of FCPD detectives, anonymous donors, and Othram,” said Major O’Carroll. “Our detectives never stopped working for Joyce and her family.
“Advances in technology will continue to help close cases and prove answers to victims’ families.”
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