The Enduring Mystery of Pennsylvania's Twin Tunnels and the 'Suitcase Jane Doe'

iStock
iStock

On a warm July day in 1995, a fisherman cast his line into the waters of Brandywine Creek, about 30 miles west of Philadelphia, and settled in for what he probably hoped would be a relaxing few hours. But it wasn't long before he realized something was off—a foul stench was saturating the air. The fisherman traced the odor to a green garbage bag half-submerged in a muddy area near the creek. When he cut it open, he made the worst possible kind of discovery.

Inside the bag was a maroon suitcase, and inside the suitcase was the top half of a dead woman. The body was naked except for a bloodstained bra, and bruised near the right eye and on the back. Packed around the lifeless corpse were the remnants of the life the dead woman might once have lived: a denim blouse, a headband, a quilt, and bloody sheets.

The fisherman quickly summoned the police, who soon began delving into what has become one of Pennsylvania's most frustrating cold cases.

THE TWIN TUNNELS

It was not lost on anyone—not the police officers who soon arrived, nor the fisherman who found the body—that the creek was in the shadow of the Twin Tunnels. Just the mention of these tunnels can make the blood of Chester County locals run cold. Built to accommodate the railroad tracks running above, they're in a lonely but picturesque area just a few miles east of central Downingtown, in a spot frequented by drunk teenagers and urban explorers looking for a good scare. Two of the graffitied, gray-brick tunnels have been abandoned for decades, while one carries minimal traffic. Part of the reason the abandoned tunnels are so eerie is that they bend, so that when you enter at one end the exit isn't visible; it's all just claustrophobic darkness.

The other reason the tunnels have such a dark reputation are the legends. For years, stories about the Twin Tunnels have circulated among locals. One says that a distraught young woman hanged herself in one of the tunnels while holding her baby—she died when the rope snapped her neck, and her infant plummeted to its death on the hard surface below. Some claim to have seen the mother's body swinging in the darkness, or heard her child's cries echoing throughout the underpass. Another piece of local folklore insists that a man shrouded in darkness roams the tunnels aimlessly. The phantom is said to be related either to a father who beat his son to death and hid his battered body in the tunnels, or an Irish railroad worker who died in an accident when the tunnels were under construction.

The discovery of the murdered woman in the suitcase seemed to throw the mythology of the tunnels into stark relief, especially because she seemed to be such a mystery. A forensic investigation established the basics: She had been dead for between three and seven days, was between 17 and 40 years old, white or Hispanic, about 5 feet 3 inches tall, and roughly 130 pounds. There was no sign of sexual assault. Her legs appeared to have been severed after she was killed, and her death seemed to have taken place in a different location from the creek. But she had no tattoos or visible scars, and there was no identification (such as a driver’s license) with the body. Her fingerprints did not match any found in databases around the country. The summer heat and water of the creek had accelerated her decomposition, making her features difficult to identify. There were no leads to go on.

Seven months after the fisherman's disturbing discovery, another piece of the puzzle emerged. In January 1996, a jogger stumbled upon the victim’s severed legs nearly 50 miles away from Brandywine Creek. Like the head and torso, they had been wrapped in garbage bags, and there was also another trash bag nearby containing women’s and girls' clothing. Medical examiners weren’t able to match the legs and torso with DNA evidence due to the decomposition, but the severed right leg bone fit perfectly into the hip of the torso. Investigators were convinced the legs belonged to the woman the press would begin calling Suitcase Jane Doe.

AN ENDLESS JOURNEY

Law enforcement professionals who have worked on the case say it's among the most frustrating of their careers. "These are cases that bother us because we can't even begin to investigate why they're dead until we figure out who they are," police corporal Patrick Quigley, one of the original investigators, told the Daily Local News of Chester County in 2011. Part of the problem, Quigley said, is that "Adults have a right to disappear ... people walk away all of the time without it being suspicious."

And in some cases, people may not have close family or friends who would report them missing. America’s Most Wanted producer David Braxton told the Philadelphia Inquirer: “[Jane Doe cases] slip through the cracks because you don't have that advocate, that family member to keep the case alive ... and it is hard from a storytelling and crime-solving standpoint because you have few clues."

That doesn't mean the police haven't tried. In 1997, they commissioned Frank Bender, a forensic sculptor from Philadelphia, to create a clay reconstruction of the murdered woman's face. Bender had been sculpting busts of criminals and victims since 1976; his most famous creation is a sculpture of John List, who murdered his family in 1971 and was captured in 1989 after his story—and Bender’s likeness of him—aired on America’s Most Wanted. By commissioning an image of Suitcase Jane Doe, police hoped to spark the public’s interest yet again.

While the police received calls from all over the world after a photograph of Bender’s Suitcase Jane Doe bust ran in several publications, none of the information led anywhere promising.

Over the past 23 years, police have appealed to the public repeatedly for information. The case was even featured twice on America’s Most Wanted. Investigators say that all tips have been followed up on, but they haven’t produced any solid leads. Around 2000, there was a glimmer of hope when the victim's dental records seemed to be a possible match for a missing woman from Virginia, but the physical descriptions of the two women didn't add up.

REASON TO BELIEVE

As disheartening as the case has been, for the authorities working on it, there will always be a reason to hope for a resolution. Cold cases are sometimes solved decades later: In September 2018, a Jane Doe found in Tennessee in 1985 was identified as Tina Marie McKenney Farmer, a woman who had been missing from Indiana since 1984. The break in the case happened after investigators stumbled across a blog post about Farmer, contacted her family, and ran DNA and fingerprint tests. (While her identity was established, the question of who killed Farmer and why remains a mystery.)

There's also always the possibility that forensic genealogy—which has solved crimes thanks to DNA entered into genealogical databases, as happened with the Golden State Killer—may one day provide a break in the case. (In April 2018, the body of a young woman found in an Ohio ditch in 1981, known as "Buckskin Girl" for her distinctive fringed jacket, was identified in four hours thanks to genetic testing.) It all depends on whether the right kind of sleuth decides to tackle the mystery.

For now, the murdered woman's fingerprints, DNA, and dental records have been added to national and international databases, and there's always a chance investigators will get a hit matching another crime scene or criminal.

In the meantime, a lot of questions remain unanswered in Chester County. Who was the woman who was dismembered and discarded along a lonely creek bed? Why did her killer, or killers, dump her body near the Twin Tunnels? Were they taking advantage of the disturbing reputation of the place, thinking no one would investigate a half-submerged suitcase?

Regardless of the intentions, the crime's many mysteries have only added to the area's chilling associations—a legacy that will likely linger even if Suitcase Jane Doe can one day be identified.

10 of the Best True Crime Documentaries You Can Stream Right Now

HBO
HBO

Is the true crime genre going anywhere? Probably not. Since Errol Morris’s The Thin Blue Line premiered in 1988 and helped free an innocent man accused of murder, filmmakers and viewers have developed a bottomless appetite for movies based on true stories that shed light on some of the darker sides of the human condition. Check out 10 of the best true crime documentaries you can stream right now on Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu, and other platforms.

1. The Seven Five (2014)

Crooked New York Police Department cops get a filmed perp walk in this examination of the city’s infamous 75th precinct, which was a hive of corruption in the 1980s. Ringleader Michael Dowd talks about how taking money from drug dealers to offset his salary woes led to an increasingly complex and dangerous web of deceit.

Where to watch it: Netflix

2. Amanda Knox (2016)

College student Amanda Knox grabbed headlines in 2007 and beyond when her roommate, Meredith Kercher, was found dead in the apartment the two shared in Italy. What follows is a grueling path through an often-impenetrable Italian justice system.

Find It: Netflix

3. The Central Park Five (2013)

Director Ava DuVernay’s When They See Us limited series on Netflix has brought renewed attention to the Central Park Five case, which saw five minors wrongly convicted of attacking a jogger in New York’s Central Park in 1989. This feature documentary co-directed by Ken Burns, his daughter Sarah Burns, and her husband David McMahon examines the case, from the coerced confessions of the boys to their attempts to clear their names.

Find It: Amazon Prime

4. Long Shot (2017)

Though it’s more of a short film than a feature, this examination of Juan Catalan’s fight to be recognized as innocent of committing murder is notable for his attorney’s methodology: Catalan couldn’t have done it because he was at a baseball game. How they go about proving that turns into one of the biggest left-field twists you’re ever likely to see.

Find It: Netflix

5. Killing for Love (2016)

When married couple Derek and Nancy Haysom are found dead in their Virginia home in 1985, suspicion falls on their daughter, Elizabeth, and Elizabeth’s boyfriend, Jens Söring. Was Jens a co-conspirator, or just a pawn in Elizabeth’s game? Watch and find out.

Find It: Hulu

6. Brother’s Keeper (1992)

Before garnering acclaim for their Paradise Lost documentaries, filmmakers Bruce Sinofsky and Joe Berlinger captured this portrait of four elderly brothers living in rural Munnsville, New York. When one of them turns up dead, police believe it could have been murder. As one brother goes on trial, the others close ranks and try to keep family secrets from leaking out.

Find It: Netflix

7. Without Charity (2013)

In 2000, police discover a trio of construction workers have been murdered at an expensive home in Indiana. As police dig deeper, they discover the puzzling presence of Charity Payne, a woman who might have helped a group of robbers to break in and commit the murders.

Find It: Amazon Prime

8. Gringo: The Dangerous Life of John McAfee (2016)

Antivirus pioneer John McAfee reinvents himself in Belize, becoming an armed leader of a makeshift militia before later being implicated in the death of his neighbor.

Find It: Netflix

9. I Love You, Now Die (2019)

Teenagers in love Michelle Carter and Conrad Roy nourished their long-distance relationship via text messaging. But as Conrad’s mood grew darker, Michelle believed the best way to help her boyfriend would be to encourage him to take his own life. That dynamic sets the stage for a dramatic trial in Massachusetts that ponders the question of whether it's possible to be responsible for taking someone’s life via text.

Find It: HBO

10. Out of Thin Air (2017)

In 1974, two men in Iceland disappeared. A police investigation led to six men, who were all eventually sent to prison after confessing to murder. Decades later, new evidence casts doubt on their version of events—and whether they killed anyone at all. 

Find It: Netflix

10 Facts About Alcatraz

Robyn Beck, AFP/Getty Images
Robyn Beck, AFP/Getty Images

At 9:40 a.m. on the morning of August 11, 1934, Alcatraz's first group of prisoners—137 in all—arrived at the soon-to-be-infamous prison. For decades, it was known as the site of one of the most unforgiving federal prisons in the country. “Break the rules and you go to prison,” went one anonymous quote. “Break the prison rules and you go to Alcatraz.” But San Francisco Bay’s Alcatraz Island has a history that goes far beyond its infamy as a criminal commune. Check out some facts about its origins, its history-making protest, and signing up for a tour.

1. Alcatraz was a military outpost in the 1850s.

Described by Spanish explorer Juan Manuel de Ayala in 1775, Alcatraz Island is the Americanized name of Isla de los Alcatraces (Island of the Pelicans). Following the end of the Mexican-American War in 1848, California became property of the United States. In the 1850s, the island was earmarked by U.S. forces for a military citadel. Outfitted with more than 100 cannons, it monitored activity in San Francisco Bay to thwart foreign invaders looking to cash in on California's gold rush. (Later, it was used to discourage Confederates from trying to seize control of San Francisco in the Civil War.) That presence led to some federal prisoners being housed on site—a foreshadowing of the general-population prison it would one day become.

2. Alcatraz inmates were forced to build their own prison.

An aerial view of Alcatraz circa the 1930s
OFF/AFP/Getty Images

When the need for armed monitoring of the bay ended, the U.S. Army deconstructed the fortress, leaving only the basement foundation intact. From 1909 to 1911, the military prisoners were put to work building a new structure that would house disciplinary barracks for the West Coast. (That building is the one standing today.) The military transferred ownership of the island to the Department of Justice in 1933, which is when Alcatraz became synonymous with the worst of the worst, housing notorious criminals like Al Capone and George “Machine Gun” Kelly.

3. Life at Alcatraz wasn't always so bad.

Known as the “Rock,” Alcatraz developed a reputation for segregating America’s incorrigibles from the rest of the population. Sometimes, rules dictated that prisoners couldn’t even speak to one another. But conditions inside the prison weren’t as harsh as movies and television would later portray. Inmates often got their own cell, and some even asked to be transferred there because the potential for violent trouble was low. The reason some of the more notorious criminals of the era were sent there was usually due to the facility’s strict routine. Prisoners had little leeway or privileges outside of the four basics: food, shelter, clothing, and medical care. One perk? Hot showers. Inmates got warm water to use for bathing, although it wasn’t for altruistic reasons. A theory has it that if prisoners got used to warm water, they’d freeze up if they ever made an escape attempt in the bay’s frigid conditions.

4. Odds of escaping Alcatraz were slim.

Swimmers run across the water near Alcatraz Island
Donald Miralle/Getty Images

Many know the story of Frank Morris, John Anglin, and Clarence Anglin, who famously attempted to escape the prison island in 1962 using a raft made out of raincoats. No one knows whether the men made it, but the odds were stacked against them. Of the 36 men who fled from the site in the 29 years it was open (1934 to 1963), 23 were recaptured, six were killed by guards, and two drowned. The remaining five—including Morris and the Anglin brothers—made it to the water and disappeared.

5. Softball was a popular pastime.

Though Alcatraz would never be confused for a country club, inmates still had outlets to pursue physical activities. Softball was the most popular pastime, with prisoners using a diamond in the recreation area. Organized teams played using shorter innings; balls going over the barricades were outs, not home runs. But not every game went smoothly. The teams were integrated, and that occasionally to racial tensions. During one May 20, 1956 game, tempers flared and makeshift knives were pulled before guards could restore order.

6. Alcatraz's prison guards lived on the island with their families.

A camera peers through a chain-link fence inside Alcatraz
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Life at Alcatraz wasn’t isolated just for the prisoners. Guards and other prison employees lived on the island in separate housing that was once Civil War barracks. Their kids fished in the bay and passed time in social halls that had pool and bowling. Families often took weekend boat trips to nearby Marin to stock up on groceries and other essentials. While they were forbidden to make contact with inmates, a few made a spectator sport of watching new arrivals come in wearing shackles.

7. Alcatraz was closed in 1963 because it was too expensive to maintain.

Alcatraz didn’t get shuttered over human rights issues or because the prison was too hardcore even for society’s worst. It closed in 1963 for the same reason it was so distinctive: the location. Saltwater continued to erode structures, making the cost of maintaining the buildings excessive. On a day-to-day basis, Alcatraz cost $10.10 per person to maintain in 1950s dollars, three times as much as most other federal prisons. It also needed freshwater brought in by boat at the rate of a million gallons a week.

8. In 1969, a group of college students occupied Alcatraz in protest.

A man stands on Alcatraz Island during a Native American occupation
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

In 1969, a group of college students stormed the abandoned prison. Their cause: to draw attention to the United States government's policy of terminating tribal sovereignty and relocating Native American residents to cities. Richard Oakes, a student at San Francisco State College, led the occupation, which lasted a total of 19 months. Authorities moved in 1971 when the group—which was 400 strong at its height—had dwindled to just 15 people. During their protest, Richard Nixon reversed the policy in 1970, effectively ending government seizure of Indian lands.

9. Alcatraz is now one of San Francisco's most popular tourist attractions.

Alcatraz Island was converted into a park and made part of the U.S. national park system in 1972. If you want a tour, you can make advance reservations and book a ferry. Once there, an audio tour will take you through the grounds, including the cells of luminaries like Al Capone. More than 1.5 million people visit annually.

10. Alcatraz has literally gone to the birds.

Alcatraz sits in the background of two birds flocking nearby
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Without a permanent human infrastructure, Alcatraz Island has slowly been engulfed by nature’s squatters. One of the first sights visitors see is a surplus of Western gulls taking up residence on almost every surface. The park service even offers a tour of the avian life, which includes 5000 birds across nine different species. The population is fitting, since the prison’s most famous inmate is widely considered to the “Birdman of Alcatraz,” Robert Stroud. After being sentenced for murder, Stroud took up ornithology and was considered to be an expert by the time he arrived on the island in 1942.

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