Three freckles in a childhood photo were used to identify a Michigan woman who went missing in 1979 and was killed a few months later in a hit-and-run crash in Texas, the Houston Chronicle reported Saturday.
The finding by Houston forensic anthropologist Sharon Derrick ended a decades-long search by Paulette Jaster's family, who never knew what had happened to her after she disappeared from a small town in Michigan in May 1979, the newspaper reported.
Jaster's family is struggling with mixed emotions after the death was confirmed in January.
"As you can imagine, there was a mixture of sadness, because she was dead and that was finally confirmed. Sadness because it was a hit-and-run, sadness because she had been without a name so long. And, at the same time, we were thankful we finally had the truth, that we had found her and knew what happened," Jaster's sister, Peg Sperlich, said from her home in South Dakota.
Jaster had been buried in a pauper's grave after the March 1980 hit-and-run accident, and the victim was simply called Jane Doe. When Derrick started looking at old autopsy pictures of the unidentified woman she had no dental X-rays, DNA samples or fingerprints to help her identify the body. But an Internet tip led her to believe it was Jaster.
Derrick shared the autopsy photos with Jaster's family and they were convinced it was her, but the dental comparisons, while convincing, were not exact because of a lack of X-rays. It was when Derrick scanned the autopsy photos that she noticed distinctive freckles on the woman's cheek, and asked Sperlich for old pictures of her sister.
Three freckles were a match, and the mystery was solved.
"It makes me feel like my job is worthwhile, and I've really been able to contribute to a family's well-being," Derrick said.
Now, Jaster's family is planning a trip to Houston to both meet Derrick and visit Jaster's grave -- which will finally have a name engraved on the tombstone.
"It's important she has a name, that she's identified and we can go through our process to memorialize her," Sperlich said.