Thursday, February 22, 2018
Public safety

DNA tests ID Mississippi murder victim as Brandon man's sister (w/video)

BRANDON — A decade after her charred body was found in Mississippi woods, authorities have confirmed that a once-nameless murder victim is the long-lost sister of a Brandon man.

For two years, investigators have run tests to determine if the unidentified woman known as "Rosa Doe" was Asenath Mary Woodin, who lived in Hills­borough County in the 1990s.

The effort began in 2011 when Woodin's brother, Arthur Jones, phoned the Tampa Bay Times and asked for help in locating his sister, whom he had not seen in 11 years.

A reporter discovered the Rosa Doe case and noticed physical similarities between the unidentified woman and Woodin. The similarities were compelling enough that detectives ordered a DNA comparison.

A final round of tests in November confirmed Rosa Doe was Asenath Mary Woodin. Now detectives are looking for her killer.

"Obviously, we don't yet have enough to make an arrest,'' said Detective John Luther of the Sheriff's Office in Hancock County, Miss. "We're working an angle and we're not going to risk jeopardizing that."

But as news of Woodin's identification has come to light, the story has taken yet another strange turn.

• • •

It began with a call.

In August 2011, Jones phoned the Times from his Brandon home to see if the paper would help him find his sister.

He told of their childhood, which he described as rife with abuse at the hands of family members.

The chaotic upbringing led his sister to develop bipolar and post-traumatic stress disorders. It also led her to substance abuse and a handful of run-ins with the law, he said.

Jones endured similar struggles and, through it all, said his sister was the only person he could trust and lean on for support. "It was me and her against the world," he said in 2011.

They had last seen each other in 2000, just after Woodin was released from jail for violating probation, and just before Jones, a specialist in the U.S. Army, was sent to Korea.

She showed up on his doorstep, homeless and penniless. He helped her find a temporary apartment in Brandon and gave her some money, he said. When he returned more than a year later, she was gone.

• • •

A reporter combed through public records to track Woodin. She was last known to be living in New Iberia, La., in 2002. After that, all traces of her ceased.

The Doe Network and NAMUS.gov — two online databases of missing and unidentified persons — held records showing similar physical characteristics for Woodin and "Rosa Doe,'' the body found in May 2003 in woods in Hancock County, Miss.

The body was in an area known as the "buffer zone," an isolated stretch of land that NASA uses to test rocket engines and other aerospace technologies out of the nearby John C. Stennis Space Center.

The area is less than 200 miles from New Iberia. And Rosa Doe's estimated age and size — 32-42, 5-feet-1 to 5-feet-4 — closely matched a police description of Woodin, who would have been 34 and 5-feet-4.

Then, there was the picture. A composite reconstruction of Rosa Doe's face bore a strong resemblance to Woodin.

When Jones saw the image, it left little doubt.

• • •

Jones submitted a DNA sample to an anthropology laboratory at Louisiana State University, which facilitates forensic testing on unidentified remains. The results revealed similarities, but ultimately proved inconclusive.

To be sure, investigators needed a sample from another relative. They managed to track down Woodin's estranged son, Thomas Woodin. He, too, gave them a sample. It, too, proved inconclusive.

But when lab analysts examined Thomas Woodin's DNA, something gave them pause. It wasn't enough to declare a match, but his sample shared exactly 50 percent of the genetic traits as those of the unidentified woman.

That, experts said, suggested that the woman could have been Thomas Woodin's parent. Still, they needed more.

In September, detectives with the Polk County Sheriff's Office obtained DNA from Woodin's mother, Asenath Jones of Winter Haven. Two months later, Rosa Doe finally had a name.

• • •

For those who knew her, news of Asenath Mary Woodin's fate is bittersweet. Until the Mississippi case emerged, Thomas Woodin speculated that his mother may have perished in Hurricane Katrina.

Knowing what became of her offers closure, but a desire for justice looms.

"My mother and I had a rocky relationship, but she did not deserve this," Thomas Woodin said. "Knowing that she can finally be put to rest after (being) missing for so long is a great comfort."

At the same time, her story is unfinished. Aside from the open murder investigation, there is the matter of Arthur Jones.

Jones' wife, Renee, has not seen him since Sept. 17. That day, Renee Jones said, he drove her to work and dropped off their daughter at school in Brandon. Then, he disappeared.

No argument preceded his disappearance, Renee said. But he had been troubled.

In May, he was taken into protective custody under Florida' Baker Act after he phoned 911 threatening suicide. In recent months, he had also been using drugs, his wife said. She has heard reports that he is homeless. She suspects his sister's ordeal may have led him to a breakdown.

"He felt guilty about his little sister," she said. "He couldn't save her."

Dan Sullivan can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3386. Follow him on Twitter @TimesDan.

 
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