'The Jane Doe Murders': Does Yolanda McClary identify the victim? Genealogy may have solved 1996 case
McClary ropes in genealogy experts to track the DNA and closest relatives, from which she begins to build a picture of the victim's life
The latest crime special from NBCUniversal's Oxygen is 'The Jane Doe Murders', led by forensic specialist and television personality Yolanda McClary — the basis for Catherine Willows on 'CSI' played by Marg Helgenberger. In the special, McClary works with Polk County investigators in Oregon to uncover the identity of a woman whose remains were found in the wilderness. Through genealogy testing, and tracing the woman's history, McClary works to solve a decades-old murder investigation.
The special starts with McClary traveling to Polk County to learn about the case. The remains of a woman were found in Polk County in 1996 and were determined to be that of a woman who would have given birth at least once. The analysis also revealed that she would have had a cranial surgery and was in her early forties. However, because just the bones were discovered, the investigators were not able to figure out the cause of death or any other details.
Investigators also found a tarp and ropes, as well as a bag with blood-stained clothes in it. By going through the clothes, they believe that they belonged to the perpetrator who wanted to get rid of the evidence. They determined that the body and the clothes would have been left behind in July 1996 and the suspect was a man who was 6 feet tall.
Who was Jane Doe?
The first thing that needs to happen is to identify the victim. With the name, it becomes much easier to carry out the investigation and so, certified genealogist, Charles McGee, is brought in to conduct the analysis. DNA extracted from the bones showed that the woman was related to Claude Thomas and Tennie Fuller in Oklahoma. Only one of their seven children is alive and on talking to Billy Thomas, the investigators learn that his brother, Leo Thomas, had moved to Oregon with his little daughter Kathy Thomas after divorcing. Kathy was separated from her sisters, Linda and Sandra, who remained with their mother, Jessie Dodson.
However, all three sisters were abandoned by their parents. Sandra and Linda were adopted together to a loving family. One of the sisters, Linda Amsler, is identified and contacted and she takes part in the special. Kathy's situation was different. Leo was negligent and would often take her to bars where she was made to sing and collect money. When Leo left to look for a job, he did not return and Kathy was left behind with the family from whom Leo rented their house. Aileen Buxton sent Leo money and adopted Kathy. The investigators learn all this from Kathy's adopted brother, Richard Buxton.
However, Kathy would grow up scarred by the trauma she faced. At 16, when her adopted mother fell ill, she met 18-year-old Carl Tracy, got pregnant, and married Carl Tracy. The pair married less than a year later and after her first daughter, Tina, was born, Kathy met James "Jug" Gardner. With Gardner, Kathy had two more children: James Jr and Candice.
However, the family's cycle of abuse would continue and after she divorced Gardner, Kathy's children were taken away from her because she would leave them unattended. Tina was adopted first, while James Jr and Candice were adopted later. When her children were taken away from her, Kathy moved to Portland.
What happened to Kathy Thomas?
In Portland, Kathy met Brian Clifton in 1984, whom she married the same year and moved away from Portland. As McClary and the investigators continue to look for more information, they find it odd that they are not able to find divorce records for Clifton and Kathy, while they were able to easily find the records for her previous two marriages. They also consider it odd that Clifton never reported her missing.
On investigating further, they learn that Clifton was convicted of murder in 1973 and sentenced to life in prison, for strangulating a female motel clerk with the electrical cord of a vacuum cleaner, reportedly over $65 that was missing from Clifton. He was, however, paroled in 1981. In the period after Kathy's death, Clifton had moved back to Portland, where he had purchased a house with another woman listed as his wife in 2008. In 2016, Clifton was arrested in Oklahoma over a traffic violation.
As they track down Clifton, the investigators contact his sister, Brenda, who calls him the "scum of the earth," and that she would not be surprised if he killed her. Brenda is more than willing to provide her DNA to check if the DNA found on the clothes at the crime scene will match Clifton's DNA. When the results come in, Brenda's DNA is a 99 percent sibling match for the DNA on the clothes — all but confirming that Brian Clifton probably killed Kathy Thomas. Polk County officers are yet to interrogate or charge Clifton for the crime and he refused to provide a comment for the documentary.
Yolanda McClary was able to help Linda Amsler, Kathy's sister, connect with Kathy's daughters, Candice Thomas and Tina Lynn Grubb. The three had gotten very close since McClary first introduced them and Linda considers Candice and Tina as her "girls."
'The Jane Doe Murders' premieres on Oxygen, on Sunday, January 3, 2021, at 7/6c.