HARLAN, Ky. - Two women spent decades searching for the identity of the same murdered woman for different reasons. They only lived 60 miles apart. But it wasn’t until this September of this year, that they both found what they were looking for.
“When you hear her story, she takes hold of you. So many people have said, when you let her in, you just can’t let her go,” said Harlan historian and author, Darla Jackson.
In June 1969, reports said a man picking wildflowers discovered the nude and decaying body of a young woman dumped in the woods off a trail on Pine Mountain in Harlan, Ky.
Police found she had multiple stab wounds. In 1969, DNA testing hadn’t been discovered, and her body was so decomposed that no one could identify her. The people of Harlan buried her in the woods in the pauper’s grave with an unidentified marker.
“Buried with her was the mystery of who is she and what happened to her,” said Harlan historian and author Darla Jackson.
For the next 47 years, she was known as Mountain Jane Doe.
As Jackson rediscovered the unidentified grave next to her family’s property and started researching the murder for her book, Harlan County Haunts, she couldn’t let it go.
“I’ve always been one, I don’t like unsolved mysteries. I knew this girl had a name, I knew she had a life,” Jackson said.
Jackson made it her goal to give Mountain Jane Doe back her name. At times, Jackson got discouraged.
“When I would visit this place and I would see the grave, it made it real to me again, and I would say she’s still here she’s still marked unidentified you can’t stop,” said Jackson.
Daughter Searches for Answers
Karen Stipes grew up without so much as a picture of her mother or a grave site to visit. She was adopted by her paternal grandmother when she was a baby.
“When I was little I always thought maybe she [her mother] would come and get me,” Stipes, 48, of Coeburn, Va., said. “Then when I was 10 or so I heard that she was killed on Little Shepherd’s Trail.”
Stipes was told not to talk about it or look into it any further.
For years, she researched the rumor. She gathered birth and marriage certificates for her mother, but could never find a death certificate.
For decades, Stipes had no way to prove it was her mother buried in the woods in Harlan, Ky. Stipes did not have access to the internet or DNA testing at the time.
“I just knew it’s her with every bone in my body. I just knew it,” Stipes said. “Everything that I ended up finding kept leading me that that was her.”
By 2009, she had her children searching the internet any chance they could.
In the same year, the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System or NAMUS posted the Mountain Jane Doe description.
“They had my mother’s height and her description on there, and it basically matched me,” Stipes said.
Stipes called NAMUS, who quickly put her in touch with Kentucky State Police. The family gathered DNA samples from Stipes and her children.
In 2014, NAMUS worked with the Harlan County coroner to dig up Mountain Jane Doe’s grave. The first grave they exhumed turned out to be a man who had been buried unidentified. Mountain Jane Doe’s marker had been placed on the wrong grave.
They went back in 2015 and found the grave they were looking for. They sent the body to the University of North Texas, who partners with NAMUS.
In September 2016, Stipes got a phone call.
Mountain Jane Doe is Sonja Blair Adams.
“I used to pray that she would come and get me, and it never happened," Stipes said. "Now, getting the proof that it was her I know why she never… why she couldn’t. I know that.”
Since then, Stipes found some of her mother’s siblings, who have given her photos of Adams.
“I would rather I was abandoned and she’s alive you know. I’m just glad I know where she is now. I can bury her,” Stipes said.
Karen also has had to come to terms with the violent death her mother endured.
“You think about it. She had a brutal murder. It doesn’t matter what happened. She didn’t deserve that. Whoever done it needs to be caught,” Stipes said.
Finding the Murderer
Now the question is: who killed Sonja Adams? Detectives have a nearly 50-year-old crime scene to work with and very little evidence.
“Today, where we would take maybe a thousand pictures of a crime scene. There weren't any pictures to show in this particular case,” said Kentucky State Police Detective William Howard, who was assigned the case in 2012.
However, the lack of evidence doesn’t mean Howard is stopping. Howard said this is the closest authorities have been to finding Adams' murderer.
Howard is actively interviewing suspects, and investigating leads that have started coming in from media coverage. So far, none have led to any suspects.
“I think there’s somebody out there that knows something. What we’re asking is for them to come and talk to us,” Howard said, “We’ve put so many hours into it now we’re not giving up on it by any means.”
Two women who’ve spent decades searching for Adams aren’t giving up hope either.
“We took care of her after she died. Here in Harlan she actually got her name back,” Jackson said.
Stipes recognizes how far she’s come, but she can’t rest until they find her mother’s murderer.
“I just want them to find who killed her. They’ve already got away with it for 47 years,” Stipes said.