On Christmas Eve in 1992, a young mother named Susan Lund left her home in Clarksville, Tennessee, for a quick trip to the grocery store and never returned.
What happened to Lund was a mystery for almost three decades—a mystery that has now been solved thanks to an increasingly crucial investigative technique known as genealogical DNA research.
Authorities announced this week they have determined Lund is a murder victim whose head was found in a state park in Illinois a month after she vanished and who remained a Jane Doe for the next 29 years.
Despite those gruesome details, Lund’s family is relieved to have at least some pieces of the puzzle that has haunted them for years.
“I’m just speaking on behalf of her three children,” Lund’s sister, Pamela Reyes, told The Southern Illinoisan.
“They just really want people to know that they’re grateful to find out that they weren’t abandoned by their mother. She didn’t leave her kids, not willingly. For her 6-year-old, her only son, it was really important for him to come to grips that his mom didn’t abandon him.”
Reyes said she talked to Lund the day she disappeared.
“I’m probably the last person to speak with her in the family. We were making plans to talk, and I was trying to make plans to come down and visit her. It’s just like we were celebrating Christmas and then all this,” she said. “It’s never been the same. We’ve always had a piece of our family missing.”
When Lund did not return from the grocery store that Christmas Eve, her husband quickly reported her missing. Clarksville police spent months investigating but the trail was cold.
“Her family never stopped looking for her,” Jefferson County, Illinois, Sheriff Jeff Bullard said at a news conference on Friday.
The story might have ended there if not for an anthropology professor at the University of New Hampshire who grew up in Illinois and knew about the case of an unidentified homicide victim from years back.
Amy Knight offered the sheriff’s office help in re-analyzing the remains: the head found by two little girls in the woods of Wayne Fitzgerrell State Park in Ina on Jan. 27, 1993.
The victim had been dubbed Ina Jane Doe, and a sketch that was circulated in the 1990s did not result in anyone coming forward to identify her.
Knight’s team began an anthropological study that helped develop a more accurate sketch, which they then began comparing to missing persons cases and unsolved homicides.
Meanwhile, Redgrave Research Forensic Services began looking at Ina Jane Doe’s DNA for clues. They uploaded her genetic profile to a massive database called GEDMatch and searched for others with shared ancestors.
Before long, they had a number of hits and began building family trees with an eye toward seeing where Ina Jane Doe might fit it. The sleuthing led to one family and a woman who did not have any public profile after 1992 but had not been reported dead.
That was Susan Lund.
DNA was obtained from a close relative to confirm that she was, in fact, Ina Jane Doe.
The news stunned the family.
“I cried most of the day,” Reyes told The Southern Illinoisan. “We had been looking on and off, when we could, to find her. She was just very kind-hearted, very not judgmental and down to earth. Just a really sweet person the whole time and everyone… really loved her. Then I was angry. I was angry because she’s been there for 29 years. But we’re relieved now.”
For relatives and police, however, there are still many open questions: Where did Lund go after she left home? How did she end up dead? And who killed and decapitated her?
Bullard said putting a name to Ina Jane Doe was only the start of the investigation. “That doesn’t stop our mission…to find the truth of what happened to Susan,” he said.
His office is in touch with Clarksville police in hopes of giving Lund’s loved ones the answers they need.
“We’re going to roll up our sleeves and start digging into it again,” he said.