Mary Jane Croft VanGilder, a mother originally from Fairmont W.Va., moved to Plymouth, Ohio, in the 1940s where she worked at an Air Force depot in Shelby. VanGilder corresponded with her children through letters until 1945 when the letters stopped. VanGilder was 33 when she disappeared.
At the urging of family, efforts were made of find the woman through letters to various police agencies and the FBI. But no clues turned up.
Shelby Police Department Detective Adam Turner was assigned to the case in recent years after the department was contacted by a grandchild of VanGilder.
Turner said he began looking at the database of unidentified remains and thought the Preble County Jane Doe could be a match. He believes it’s possible VanGilder moved to the area to take a job at Wright Patterson Air Force Base.
Turner said VanGilder filed for divorce in February 1945 and quit her job about a month later. The divorce was granted a month later, but VanGilder wasn’t present for the decree.
The 1968 coroner’s office investigation determined the Preble County Jane Doe was between 5′2″and 5′ 6″ tall, weighing 130-140 pounds. That matched the recall from family members of VanGilder.
Turner said investigators estimated Jane Doe could have been buried 12 to 18 months prior to discovery, but it was later believed that she could have been dead for 15 years. They estimated her age at 40 to 55 years old.
The coroner believed, based on the pelvic structure of the the Preble County Jane Doe, that she had had difficulty in childbirth, Turner said. Although VanGilder had children that lived into adulthood, she lost twins at birth.
That’s when the detective reached out to Preble County authorities including coroner’s investigator David Lindloff. He said a collaboration of the departments led to the exhumation of Preble Jane Doe, he has nicknamed “Penny Doe”, in August 2019 from Mount Hill Cemetery.
Lindloff, a Preble County native, said he remembers when the bones were found. The thought then was that the remains had washed out of a grave due to a flood, or that they may have come from an old family cemetery.
“It was a collaboration between the agencies that thought the only way to identify this person is through an exhumation and we had enough circumstantial evidence to do it,” Turner said. “We sort of looked at it as a win-win. If it is her, great, I solved a missing person case. If it’s not, then we are going to solve someone else’s missing person case and give some closure to a loved one.”
The Bureau of Criminal investigation was present and the bones were photographed and extracted. BCI took both femurs as well as multiple digits of the feet and hands. But no skull was found.
The original coroner’s report has a notation that the skull was “kept in the private collection” of the original coroner’s investigator, Tim Miller.
Lindloff said he has investigated further, reaching out to the Miller family with no luck of finding the skull or even what the note meant. Miller died in a car crash in 1993.
“Maybe Tim had some foresight to think that maybe something could be done with the skull like photo overlay or other technology or to do a clay model, that’s why he kept it. I have heard he was a very good investigator,” Turner said.
DNA testing has been ongoing after being slowed down by the pandemic. Redgrave Research Forensic Services will begin forensic genetic genealogy in an attempt to discover her identity.
“We are moving forward and hopeful by the end of the year we know who this person is,” Turner said.