Skull found at Government Camp in 1986 finally identified

KOIN 6 Unsolved

Wanda Herr vanished in 1976, skull found in 1986, identified recently

PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — Around June 1976, Wanda Herr was probably living in a group home in Gresham. The 19-year-old was raised in a different place than her sisters. She was likely a chronic runaway, had no driver’s license record, no bank account and no police reports about her.

But she was gone.

On August 2, 1986, two workers with the Forest Service found a partial skull, some bone fragments and one tooth near Government Camp, on Still Creek Road 2612 and Road 145. A week-and-a-half later, the Oregon State Police forensic examiner estimated the skull had been in the woods about 10 years and thought it was the skull of a woman or a small man in their 20s.

The Government Camp skull, as it came to be known, was never identified.

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Dr. Nici Vance, the State Forensic Anthropologist with the Oregon State Police, January 9, 2019 (KOIN)

In 2005 the remains were checked again and re-curated at the Clackamas County Medical Examiner’s Office. Three years later Dr. Nici Vance, the State Forensic Anthropologist with the Oregon State Police, re-examined the skull and with DNA analysis clarified the skull was a woman in her late teens to early 20s. But there were still no clues about who the young woman was or how she ended up alone in the woods.

That same year, the skull was facially reconstructed by Forensic Imaging Specialist Joyce Nagy, but because there were parts of the skull missing, there were no solid leads from this effort.

But all the information was put into the Combined DNA Index System — aka, CODIS — and entered into the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System (NamUs). Still, nothing happened.

Investigators at the Clark County Sheriff’s Office were able to conclude that the mystery skull didn’t belong to any of the many young teen girls who had been reported missing in the area.

Breakthrough

Months after specific DNA testing was used to track down the Golden State Killer in 2018, the Oregon State Medical Examiner’s Office got grants from the National Institute of Justice to use similar techniques on 100 unidentified remains.

The Government Camp skull was sent to the University of North Texas for testing. In December 2019, the testing revealed the young woman was of Northern European descent, had fair skin, hazel/brown eyes, brown hair, freckles.

That led to a name and birthdate: Wanda Ann Herr, born 1957.

Investigators tracked down her birth certificate and got in touch with her sisters. More DNA testing with family members confirmed the Government Camp skull was Wanda. Mary Nun, a detective with the Clackamas County Sheriff’s Office, said Wanda’s last confirmed sighting by relatives was in June of 1976. Nun said little is known about the teen — who her friends were, if she had a boyfriend or a job. What investigators do know is she had a rough life.

The case, though changed, remains open. Detectives want to know more about her and what led up to her death.

Anyone with information is asked to call the Clackamas County Sheriff’s Office Tip Line at 503. 723.4949 or by email. The case is CCSO Case # 86-025724.

“If you were her roommate in her group home, if you worked with her, if she was your friend, if you knew anything about where she hung out,” said Nun. “I’m looking for that needle in the haystack that can help us solve her murder. I’m looking at it as a murder right now because I have nothing to believe otherwise.”

There are currently 163 unidentified skeletal remains cases in Oregon. Investigators hope to use the same DNA testing used to identify Wanda to help solve 100 of those cases. You can help solve cold cases like Wanda’s by uploading your DNA profile from commercial kits like Ancestry.com or 23andMe to GEDmatch.

A skull found at Government Camp in 1986 was identified in October 2020 as Wanda Herr, who was 19 when she died in 1976. This photo of her is circa 1969. (Clackamas County Sheriff’s Office)

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