PHOENIX — A murdered young woman buried as Jane Doe in Colorado 55 years ago. An Arizona family puzzled and saddened as Dorothy Gay Howard's disappearance stretched into decades.
It took a historian, a detective and a determined family member to make the connection after more than half a century that these two people were one and the same.
Howard's younger sister, Marlene Howard Ashman, the last surviving member of the immediate family, was relieved last month when authorities announced the identification.
"It was just complete and utter shock," said Ashman, who lives in Mena, Ark., but spoke to the Associated Press from Newport, N.C., where she was visiting her daughter.
"All these 55 years, I guess I learned as a child to put it in an abstract form so I could deal with it; it's easier to accept," Ashman said.
But the younger sister is grappling with the fact that Howard was murdered and is aching to know who killed her.
"Now that I know, it isn't so much that she died, but the horrible death," she said.
Boulder County sheriff's Detective Steve Ainsworth, the lead investigator in the case, said Howard died of blunt-force trauma. She couldn't be identified because her body was found a week after she was killed, and animals had gotten to her face and fingers.
At the time, the mystery made headlines across Colorado, and Boulder residents raised enough money to buy her a gravestone, which read "Jane Doe — April 1954 — Age About 20 Years."
Boulder County sheriff's officials have credited historian Silvia Pettem with encouraging them to renew efforts to identify Jane Doe. Pettem became interested in the woman and her story after visiting the cemetery in the 1990s and writing the book "Someone's Daughter, In Search of Justice for Jane Doe."
Meanwhile, Howard's grandniece Michelle Marie Fowler decided to contact Ainsworth after reading an article about Jane Doe and suspecting for years that Howard had been killed.
Ainsworth asked Ashman to provide a DNA sample, and the family learned Oct. 23 that Ashman and Jane Doe were related.
Ainsworth said it was gratifying to tell Howard's family what had happened to her, but he now has a new focus.
"We know who she is, but there's still another mystery and that may be the biggest mystery of all, and that's who did it," Ainsworth said.
Ashman said all she wants is justice for her sister.
She said Howard was extremely strong-willed and lived quite a life in her 18 years, including marrying twice. "Once she decided on a course, it would take heaven and earth to stop her," Ashman said.