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Published: Friday, 7/20/2012 - Updated: 2 years ago

Body remains found in Monroe 30 years ago identified as Indiana woman

BY TAYLOR DUNGJEN
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Kimberly Wuerthele. Kimberly Wuerthele.
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In February, a package from Portage, Ind., arrived at the University of North Texas.

It looked not much different from hundreds of other packages the Health Science Center gets annually from across the United States.

But inside was a clue that would help solve a mystery that baffled the Monroe County Sheriff's Office, the Portage (Ind.) Police Department, and an Indiana woman's family for 30 years. Now investigators have a new puzzle to solve: Who killed Kimberly Wuerthele?

On Feb. 26, 1982, Miss Wuerthele decided she'd had enough. Addicted to drugs at 21, she jumped from her mother's vehicle as they, along with her eldest brother, drove through Chicago to a rehabilitation center.

The family reported her missing to the police in Portage, in northwest Indiana, on June 22, 1982. The case quickly went cold.

Several hundred miles away, Monroe County sheriff's deputies were investigating a homicide. On March 31, 1982, a young woman's body washed onto the Lake Erie shore near Detroit Edison's Monroe power plant. The body was naked except for a shirt tied around the waist. Officials said the woman had been strangled. The body was buried in an unmarked grave in nearby LaSalle as Monroe County Jane Doe 1982.

When Janis Regnier became a Portage detective in 2007, she began digging into her department's cold-case files. In 2008, she came across Kimberly Wuerthele's case.

"I thought, 'You know, she's got to be somewhere,' " Detective Corporal Regnier recalled during a phone interview Friday. "Someone's got to know something."

Using new networks of people and investigative tools, Detective Reg- nier tried to trace any leads authorities might have missed earlier.

A woman she knew at the Indiana State Police lab told her about the Center for Human Identification at the University of North Texas, which processes hundreds of DNA samples a year. She obtained a buccal swab -- DNA collected from inside a person's cheek -- from one of Miss Wuerthele's brothers. The sample was sent to the university in Denton, Texas.

This month, the center notified Detective Regnier and Monroe County Sheriff's Detective Jeff Pauli that their cases were a probable match. "I was shocked," the detective said. "It … was such a long shot."

The Portage detective had no way to know that in 2009, Monroe County Jane Doe 1982 was exhumed and some of her bone and tissue were sent to North Texas for DNA identification, said Dixie Peters, technical leader of the identification center's missing-persons unit.

"It wasn't until the family reference sample that we received this year that we made an association," Ms. Peters said. "And this case was a cold association, meaning the agency didn't know, and we didn't know, that these two could be known to one another."

The Monroe County medical examiner confirmed Miss Wuerthele and Jane Doe 1982 were one and the same. Miss Wuerthele's family could not be located for comment Friday.

"It doesn't give complete closure," Detective Regnier said. "Now we have to figure out who killed her."

The Monroe County Sheriff's Office asks that anyone with information about the case call detectives at 734-240-7530.

Contact Taylor Dungjen at: tdungjen@theblade.com, 419-724-6054, or on Twitter @tdungjen_Blade.



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