The mystery of Helen Doe: Kalama crash 1991

KALAMA, Wash. (KOIN) -- She was a passenger in a semi-truck headed south on I-5 near Kalama, nestled in the shadow of Mount St. Helens. That day -- May 14, 1991 -- there was a backup on the freeway. The semi was going full speed, but the driver wasn't able to stop and slammed into the rear-end of a paper-hauling truck blocked by the backup.

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"The vehicle immediately burst into flames," Washington State Patrol Detective Sgt. Stacy Moate told KOIN 6 News recently. "The fuel tanks ruptured and it just kept growing from there."

Both the driver -- 26-year-old Lester Harvel of Missouri -- and his passenger died.

"There were many people that tried to get in to help the driver and the passenger and they were just unable to."

"The trucking company had no record of an authorized passenger to be in the (truck) that day. So we assume that the truck driver had picked her up somewhere along his route," Moate said.

Investigators believe Harvel picked her up as a hitchhiker or at a rest area somewhere along the way, but they haven't been able to figure out when or where. They mapped his fuel receipts over the one-week trip: Missouri, Kansas, Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, Idaho, Oregon and Washington.

But she's never been identified.

"A few years ago we gave her the name Helen Doe. We were tired of calling her 'Unidentified Remains,'" Moate said. "Due to the proximity to St. Helens where the crash occurred, she was given the name Helen Doe."

Helen Doe's remains were buried in an unmarked grave at the Longview Memorial Park and Cemetery. 

"I believe the trucking company paid to give her a funeral and a burial site, and from there she just sat in an unmarked grave for many years," she said.

But Helen wasn't forgotten.

"A couple of decades later one of my detectives really wanted to work on it," Moate said. "He'd worked on it throughout the years and he wanted to figure out who she was before he retired."

Commonplace techniques today -- such as DNA profiles -- weren't common in 1991. "It just wasn't something we did or focused on," she said. 

So in early 2014, Helen Doe's remains were exhumed from her grave. 

Moate said getting some DNA from the bones or teeth that were in the coffin "was a huge step for us, and once that occurred we were able to get that DNA and get it into the system."

Even now, there is no DNA match, but investigators remain hopeful.

"If I can get one person to say, 'Wait a minute. My sister went missing or my daughter went missing, my cousin or my friend,' and that can reach out and put a sample of the DNA in CODIS, into the Missing Person's database, we'll get a hit because we have (Helen's) DNA," Moate said.

 

Other clues

Forensic artist Natalie Murry of Texas created a sketch of what Helen Doe may have looked like.

"I went down to the Medical Examiner's office and had a look at the skull," Murry said. "Somebody's going to know her when they see it, and hopefully someone will finally see it."

Helen Doe was likely a Native American woman in her 20s. Witnesses said she had a long, dark ponytail and a feather earring, was wearing a black vest and had multiple rings on her fingers. She had "a very long, slender nose and her face was very slender as well," Murry said. There was a space between her bottom 2 front teeth, and she likely walked with a limp from scoliosis.

Even the smallest tip could make all the difference in learning her name and finding her family, investigators said. Until that time, Helen Doe remains at the Cowlitz County Coroner's Office.

The quest continues

Detective Sgt. Stacy Moate is fueled by questions surrounding Helen Doe.

"I really just wonder who is she, where did she come from, what were her circumstances that led her to be where she was that day," she said.

"I don't think anybody should spend an eternity sitting on a shelf in a dark room at the Medical Examiner's office. Everybody needs to be able to go home."


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