TAMPA — Mississippi authorities plan to test DNA from a woman found slain and set afire in 2003 to see if she is the long-lost sister of a Brandon man.
Arthur Jones, 40, has not seen his sister, Asenath Mary Woodin, in 11 years. He never reported her missing, he says, because her behavior was unpredictable and she sometimes fell out of touch. Then, a few weeks ago, he called the St. Petersburg Times for help.
Public records show no trace of Woodin beyond the early 2000s, when she lived briefly in Louisiana. Her estranged son tried finding her there in 2005. Had she died, perhaps, in Hurricane Katrina? He wondered.
A reporter combed through online databases of unidentified human remains, including the Doe Network. Woodin did not seem to be among Louisiana storm deaths.
But a deceased Mississippi woman shared physical traits. The woman was the victim of an unsolved homicide, and a reconstructed image of her face had been posted by detectives in search of her identity.
Jones thinks he knows.
"I am absolutely certain that this 'Jane Doe' is my sister," he said upon seeing the photo.
Investigators in Hancock County, Miss., contacted by the Times, subsequently ordered a test to compare Jones' DNA with that of the unidentified woman.
He spoke of an unusual bond he and his sister shared growing up in a household he described as rife with abuse and neglect. The two became each other's source of strength and comfort.
"It was me and her against the world," he said.
When his sister turned 15, she became a ward of the state and lived in a boarding home for girls, Jones said. When she became an adult, she married and then, in 1987, gave birth to a son, Thomas Woodin III.
In the years that followed, her brother saw mental illness and alcohol consume her life, he said. She and her husband divorced in the early 1990s. Her son was raised by his father's relatives.
Woodin wandered from relationship to relationship, her brother said. She was arrested at least twice in Hillsborough County on domestic violence charges.
The last time Jones saw his sister was in October 2000. She had just been released from jail, after violating probation.
She was broke, sober and homeless when she showed up on his Brandon doorstep. Jones did what he could, offering money and food and getting her a place to stay.
He was a specialist in the Army then, and later that year he was dispatched to Korea.
While he was gone, she worked as an exotic dancer at the Pink Pony in Tampa, he later learned.
When he came home for a visit on Dec. 9, 2001, his sister was nowhere to be found.
Through the years, he wondered what happened to her.
Public records offer a few clues. In 2001, she approached a deputy on Interstate 4 in Hillsborough County and said a man had stabbed and beaten her. Authorities could not find her for a follow-up investigation. The case was dropped.
In 2002, records put her in New Iberia, La., where she lived with a man named Montgomery Daigle. The two met at Mardi Gras in New Orleans, Daigle told the Times. He remembers her as "beautiful and extremely talented," but troubled.
Daigle says he last saw Woodin in 2002 or 2003, carrying her pet dog as she walked a Louisiana highway trying to hitch a ride.
"This girl would hitchhike like nobody's business," he said. "Given her lifestyle, it would not surprise me if she was deceased."
About that same time, Woodin's phone calls to her son stopped. He last heard from her in 2003, he said.
Three hours east of New Iberia by way of Interstate 10 and Interstate 12 is Hancock County, Miss.
On May 10, 2003, authorities there investigated the death of a woman found in a field frequented by transients. The woman, whose body was burned, had been seen at truck stops along I-10 and I-12 in Louisiana, according to a description on the Doe Network.
Her age and height range at the time of death — age 32 to 42, 5-feet-1 to 5-feet-4 — could describe many people, including Woodin, then 34 and 5-feet-4.
Hancock County sheriff's investigator John Luther declined to speak publicly about the case, citing the ongoing investigation.
But last week, he contacted Jones to arrange for him to provide a DNA sample. The sample will be sent to a laboratory at Louisiana State University, where it will be compared with DNA from the dead woman.
It is unclear how long the DNA testing will take.
Jones is not naive. He knew when he began his search that his sister might have died.
He hopes he's wrong.
"Either way, at some point I'd like to know," Jones said.
"It's like the old military adage — prepare for the worst, but hope for the best."
Times news researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Dan Sullivan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.