BLACK RIVER FALLS, Wis. (WEAU) -- For 25 years, her case remained a mystery. Who was the woman found in trash bags, dismembered and decapitated in Jackson County?
According the Department of Justice's National Missing and Unidentified Persons System, she's among 49 people in Wisconsin whose remains investigators can't identify.
But that's changed. Now, there's a name in their arsenal and a renewed push to find those responsible. The effort includes her daughters, speaking publicly for the first time, and a family member they never expected.
"It was kind of a weekly routine," Steve Schreiber of Black River Falls said, walking a familiar path through Riverside Cemetery. He'll be the first to tell you, names have special meaning.
For more than two decades, he's kept a focus on a certain Jane Doe, a total stranger, a mystery.
"I had to be her family, I didn't want her to be forgotten," Schreiber explained. Now the Fire Chief of Black River Falls, she has a place of honor on Schreiber's desk at the station. Along with his files, papers and pens, her framed photo sits across from him. It appears like any other family photo, but there's a dark story behind her smile.
"The body was dismembered," he said, shaking his head.
Schreiber was the county's coroner in 1990, when her remains were first discovered. Her skull has never been found.
"To kill a person and then dismember them and then throw them away like trash... is disturbing," he said.
At the time, investigators had no idea who she was, no witnesses, no matching missing persons reports, no DNA samples to help.
When detectives had exhausted every possible lead, the county buried Jane. Authorities opted not to cremate, hoping that someday new technology could bring additional clues.
Schreiber helped plan the funeral. As he recalls, he was one of about six people who gathered to pay respects on the cold, bitter and windy November day.
His connection to Jane didn't end there.
Schreiber visited not once, but regularly, every Christmas and every Memorial Day. He tended her grave laying wreaths, trimming flowers and talking.
"I'd say to her hopefully one day you'll have a name, and hopefully one day I'll get you back home," Schreiber explained.
Just a short drive across the state, her family was keeping vigil too.
Marisol was 14 and Julie just 8 when their mother, Julia Baez, disappeared leaving their Milwaukee home. Their brothers Julio and Jesus were even younger.
"It tore our world upside down, you know your parents are everything," Marisol, who wished to only use her first name, explained.
Now parents themselves, the memories are hazy. The pain is not.
"How am I supposed to explain what happened to their grandmother?" Julie said, wiping away tears.
"She was just gone, she went out and never came back," Marisol added.
Baez was 36 at the time, originally from Puerto Rico. Her mother and most of the adults in the family spoke little English. The language barrier made it tough to reach out to police.
"She was very loving, she was," Marisol said. "Always helping people, very trusting, that I remember. Of course you don't realize that until you really look at it, now that we're adults."
The disappearance of Baez split up the children. They were cared for by their grandmother, aunts and uncles. Some in the family assumed Baez left by choice, Marisol knew differently.
"There was just no way she would abandon us," she said.
The Milwaukee woman approached police several times over the years. In 1998, she was told to hire private investigators. She poured over national missing persons databases, like NamUs and the Doe Network, but nothing seemed to match.
Her quest was renewed in September of last year, when Julie found their mother's birth certificate. Armed with real paperwork, the sisters went to police again and offered a DNA sample. This time, officers listened.
"I said I know my mom's a Jane Doe somewhere, we need to know what happened," Marisol said.
The wheels were also turning in Jackson County.
"We needed something, we needed the next step," Sheriff Duane Waldera said.
Investigators landed a grant from the Center for Human Identification at the University of North Texas.
"The institute gave us the ability to work this case without having to think about a financial situation," Waldera explained. The department has just two detectives and limited resources. It can only work on the Baez case, after day-off work is finished. In a way, the grant was like adding another staff member.
The county exhumed Baez's body and the center used a bone fragment to create a DNA profile. The information went into national databases, and this time, with a profile on the other end, found a match. It was perfect timing, but a painful answer for the sisters.
"The way she was found, that was not a way for a person to die," Julie said.
It was a hard pill to swallow, but unexpectedly as they witnessed the worst of humanity, they also saw the best.
"I'm probably going to get teary eyed just by looking at it again," Schreiber said, reading a card from Marisol and Baez.
"What can I say, you're awesome, if you even need anything don't ever hesitate to contact us," he read, glancing down at the card they gave him, Baez's picture and a serenity prayer tucked inside.
"I told him, he's part of our family," Julie said.
That feeling is mutual. After 25 years, Jane's longtime care-taker, delivered Julia home. He took her ashes to her family in Milwaukee. The sisters have created a memorial in the corner of Marisol's home. Family photos, flowers and messages line the urn holding Baez's remains.
"She's here with us now, but more closure is when they get the justice for what they did to her," Julie said.
She and her sister wear lockets holding their mother's ashes above their heart. Their brothers also have a pendant to have her with them.
They plan to start a new tradition with Schreiber. Every October they will visit the place where Baez was found, then spend time with the man who stood by her those long years.
The two families, now forever intertwined.
Jackson County investigators say this is very much an open case, now that they have a name. They're interviewing the last people Baez spoke with before she disappeared.
At this point, no one has reported seeing her alive in the county. Detectives believe she was killed somewhere else, then dumped in Western Wisconsin. If you have any information, no matter how small the detail, investigators are urging you to call the Jackson County Sheriff's Office at 715-284-9009.
A BROADER PERSPECTIVE
Jackson County is also working with the University of North Texas to identify another homicide victim. Sheriff Waldera says the case is a sharp contrast to that of Baez. In 1978, investigators found a man's skull, but no body. An earring was left nearby in the Town of Knapp. According to the Wisconsin Division of Criminal Investigation, there are six other unidentified remains cases in Northwest Wisconsin.
Waldera says geography may play a role in that.
"We're remote, we have an I-94 interstate interchange that's readily accessible for on and off," he said. The world of the unidentified can be a hazy jurisdictional maze, he says. The Department of Justice calls it our nation's silent mass disaster. On any given year, there are approximately 40,000 sets of human remains waiting for identification in the U.S.
Why so many? Investigators say every case is different, but adults who vanish, often aren't reported missing. Families might assume they left by choice, wanted to escape their lives, or were starting over. Illegal immigration, language barriers and human trafficking also complicate the picture.
The closer you get to national borders, the more cases you see.
Jodi Emerson with Fierce Freedom, an Altoona-based organization that advocates for trafficking victims, says the crimes go hand in hand.
"They're completely isolated from the people who've cared for them their entire lives, so who do you turn to for help?" she said. In those cases, it's easier to disappear than you might think, she adds.
"They're taken from their home, they went here and then they move on again, somewhere from point C to D, maybe they were murdered and the body just dumped somewhere, mom and dad are never going to know, their friends are never going to know," Emerson said.
Of Wisconsin's 49 unidentified remains cases, some are murders, others accidental deaths or suicide. In many cases, investigators just don't know.
"You don't know where to start," Waldera says.
That said, cold case detectives are a determined bunch and he is determined to crack Jackson County's open crimes.