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Appalachian Unsolved: The Lady in the Lake

Fishermen spotted her nude body in March 2000 in Melton Hill Lake. Twenty-two years later she remains unidentified.

OAK RIDGE, Tenn. — Oak Ridge police have fielded hundreds of calls through the years about the young woman whose body washed up in 2000 along the shore of Melton Hill Lake.

Anxious mothers and fathers and fearful friends have all called offering details -- telltale birthmarks, tattoos and jewelry --  about the daughter or sister they're looking for.

None have ever matched the Oak Ridge Jane Doe. None of the close to thousand phone calls have helped police identify who she is.

They know she was about 5 feet, 9 inches and 140 pounds. She had medium-length brown hair, no scars, no tattoos and good teeth that had been cared for through her roughly 30 years.

Without a name, she's been known for years simply as "the Lady in the Lake."

Credit: NAMUS
Artist's rendering of woman found dead in 2000 in Melton Hill Lake.

"Unfortunately, we've not been able to identify who she is. But I do know she has a mother and father somewhere," Oak Ridge Police Department Capt. Mike Uher said.

It's one of just a couple of cases that remain unsolved for Uher and the department. Another is the identity of a newborn, mixed-race boy, found two years ago this month in the lake.

Uher wants first to know who the lady is. And then he wants to catch her killer.

The 36-year law enforcement veteran thinks she probably was held underwater until she drowned and then stripped of all possible identifying evidence, including clothing and jewelry. All in an effort to make it as hard as possible for anyone to find out who she is. All to take away her humanity.

LAST MEAL

Credit: WBIR
Oak Ridge Capt. Mike Uher looks at a reconstruction of the face of the Lady in the Lake.

Whoever killed her couldn't erase one very big clue.

Her last meal, based on an autopsy that looked at her digestive content, came from a Watt Road truck stop, Uher said.

It's what happened to her from that point in far West Knox County until two fishermen spotted her nude body several weeks later face-down in the lake the afternoon of March 6, 2000, that remains unexplained.

She may have been put in the water near Melton Hill Park on the opposite shore in Knox County, Uher said. She may have then drifted and floated until she reached the TVA shoreline in Oak Ridge.

Uher thinks she was a transient, passing through Knox County on her way to somewhere else. Her killer may have been as well.

"She was at the truck stop because we have some ladies that frequent these truck stops. Unfortunately, that circle is wide open across the country. You have truckers coming from everywhere.

Credit: Doe Network
Artist's sketch of Lady in the Lake

"Could this be somebody (the killer) who has done this in another state to a woman? Very, very much so.

"I hate to think that about someone, but that's most likely what happened."

The autopsy indicated she'd been in the water since about mid-February 2000. Her hair was falling out, part of the decomposition process. Algae had started growing on her body.

She had no obvious wounds such as a gunshot.

It appeared she'd never given birth. All that time in the water had washed away evidence that would have shown if she'd been raped.

Police were left with another decent clue to her identity -- she had one upper tooth next to her eye tooth that stuck out in a distinctive manner, Uher said. And she'd had crowns and a root canal.

She cared for herself, and someone cared for her.

SEARCH FOR IDENTITY

Back in 2000, police searched both sides of the lake, hopeful they'd find a personal item like a purse, backpack or clothing. They found nothing they could tie to her.

Over the years, investigators have uploaded information about the case to several websites including the Doe Network, an international site for missing people, and NAMUS, or the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System, a clearinghouse of missing and unidentified people across the United States.

You can see more about the Lady in the Lake's entries here and here.

"We put everything we could out in the media," Uher said.

The TV crime show "America's Most Wanted" included her case once, the captain said.

Police also had artist reconstructions done of her face with clay to give the public a sense of what she looked like.

The woman's dental work is also available for authorities elsewhere to help with a potential match.

An Oak Ridge police investigator is today taking another look at the case to see what he can develop, Uher said. Her remains are held by University of Tennessee forensic anthropology experts.

Credit: Submitted
Woman's upper tooth one clue to her identity.

Today, unlike years ago, there are websites like 23AndMe and Ancestry.com that keep genetic information and can link customers to genetic relatives if a customer is interested.

WBIR recently reported about an adopted North Carolina woman who submitted a DNA test to one of those sites and ended up finding distant cousins in New England. That ultimately helped her learn that her birth father was a fugitive mass murderer.

Uher said he'd have to check on whether that's worth exploring. Her DNA information is in the Doe Network, he said.

"Knowing that all of that's in the Doe Network and some of these other places, I'll have to see what these other connections are," he said.

There are companies who will take an upfront fee to try to match a person's DNA with potential relatives, Uher said. He wouldn't mind working with one if the city could pay a partial fee and then pay the rest if there's a positive identity.

But he doesn't think it's a wise use of money to give a company something like $5,000 upfront if there's no match at all.

"You can't just hand $5,000 to every company -- if they don't get the results and it's not going to help your case," Uher said.

It bothers Uher that, 22 years later on a case he personally got involved with, they still don't know who she is.

"Being a father and a grandfather, I'm not just a policeman," he said. "I'm a human being. So was she, you know? That poor woman died there, and somebody needs to know it."

Credit: Doe Network
Description of unidentified woman found in 2000 in Melton Hill Lake.

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