PASCAGOULA, Miss. — It was two days after Christmas 1977 when Mississippi hunters stumbled upon the skeletal remains of a woman who became known only as “Escatawpa Jane Doe.”
Now, more than 43 years after her murder, Jackson County authorities have used DNA and genetic genealogy to identify the slain woman as Clara Birdlong.
Birdlong, who was 44 in 1977, is believed to be a victim of serial killer Samuel Little, who the FBI has described as the most prolific serial killer in U.S. history. Little, who died in prison in December at age 80, confessed to committing a total of 93 murders in 19 states between 1970 and 2005.
One of those murders was of Escatawpa Jane Doe.
At the time of Little’s death, investigators had verified nearly 60 of his confessed killings, and FBI analysts believe all his confessions were credible. According to The Associated Press, the majority of the murders took place in Southern California and Florida.
Little was serving multiple life sentences for three California murders when he confessed in 2018. He was ultimately convicted of at least five more killings before his death.
Pascagoula police investigators determined that Little, who created detailed drawings of many of his victims, was in the area in the time frame of Birdlong’s murder. A booking photo shows he was arrested there for petty theft in August 1977.
When Birdlong’s remains were discovered that December, it was determined that she’d been dead for three or four months, putting her murder around August.
A long-ago discovery
Jackson County Sheriff’s Department officials said last week that Birdlong’s remains were found around state Route 613 and Interstate 10, which was under construction in 1977. The bones were located near the Escatawpa River Marsh Coastal Preserve.
“A medical exam revealed the remains belonged to a small-in-stature African American woman with a distinctive front gold tooth, and possibly wearing a wig,” investigators said in a news release.
Over the years, facial reconstructions and computer composites were created to help identify the woman, but they resulted in few leads. In 2012, Pascagoula police Detective Darren Versiga, who specializes in cold cases, discovered Jane Doe’s case file.
He uploaded her data into the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System, or NamUs, but got no hits. Efforts using early DNA technology had also failed to produce a name, authorities said.
Birdlong’s remains spent decades in the office of an Oklahoma forensic anthropologist who worked on the case. The bones were sent to the Mississippi State Crime Lab in 2017, according to the Clarion Ledger in Jackson.
This past January, authorities contracted with Othram Inc., a DNA research facility in Texas that used genetic genealogy to build a family tree for the unidentified woman. Othram found a potential distant cousin in Texas.
The cousin put detectives in touch with her 93-year-old grandmother.
The grandmother, who was born in Leflore County, Mississippi, told investigators about her own cousin, Clara Birdlong, who had left Leflore County in the 1970s and was never heard from again. Birdlong was never reported missing.
“Another distant cousin in Texas said Clara went by the nickname ‘Nuttin,’ and described her as a small woman who had a gold front tooth and wore a wig,” Jackson County investigators said.
By September, authorities had found multiple potential relatives and taken DNA samples from those people.
“After further investigation and elimination of all other living and deceased relatives, investigators concluded the victim known as Escatawpa Jane Doe, was Clara Birdlong, born in 1933 in Leflore County,” the news release said.
‘Right into my spider web’
For years, Little had denied the murders for which he was convicted. In 2018, however, Texas Ranger James Holland approached the serial killer about a murder committed there.
Little opened up, and over about 700 hours of talks with Holland, he poured out details of horrific violence committed against dozens of women. Most were prostitutes, drug addicts or simply poor, forced to live on the edge of society.
The killer used their status to his advantage, knowing that the women might never be missed.
“They was broke and homeless, and they walked right into my spider web,” Little told “60 Minutes” in a phone interview months before his death.
Many of the deaths were attributed to drug overdoses or accidents, and for some victims, the cause of death could not be determined.
Some victims’ bodies have never been found. Others remain nameless to authorities because they’ve never been reported missing and because Little could not remember their names.
That was the case with Escatawpa Jane Doe.
According to the Clarion Ledger, Little told investigators he met the Pascagoula victim in a bar in Gulfport, where he recalled that she lived in 1977. The woman had rough hands from working as a pipe fitter at Ingalls Shipbuilding in Pascagoula, about 35 miles to the east.
Little described the victim to Versiga as a “great woman” who would have made someone a good wife. He knew the moment he met her, however, that he would kill her.
Later that night, Little and the woman went to Pascagoula, where he bought her a meal in another bar. He then drove her into a rural area and strangled her before dumping her in the woods off a dirt road, the newspaper reported.
That description fits the area where Birdlong’s body was found months later. She also fit the physical description Little gave, though he did not remember the victim having a gold tooth.
Little did say that the victim’s hair was “plaited” under her wig, which he said fell off as he strangled her. The forensic anthropologist had told detectives the hair on the skeletal remains were in that same style.
“We’re comfortable now we have found (the victim Little described),” Versiga told the paper in 2019.
Below is a portion of Samuel Little’s confession in one of his earlier murders. Editor’s note: The video contains references to a violent crime and may be disturbing to some viewers.
Little, who was 37 years old when Birdlong was slain, was a transient with a long list of arrests for theft, assault and drug charges, the AP reported when he died. He claimed that he committed his first murder on New Year’s Eve 1970 in Miami.
His last murder was allegedly committed in 2005 in Tupelo, Mississippi.
In a phone interview with “60 Minutes,” Little said killing women became “like drugs” for him. He said he was in kindergarten when he developed a fetish for women’s necks.
Seeing his teacher touch her own neck aroused him, he said. Little said in order to keep from hurting his wives or girlfriends over the years, he avoided looking at their necks.
“I don’t think there was another person who did what I liked to do,” he told “60 Minutes.” “I think I’m the only one in the world. And that’s not an honor, that is a curse.”
Little told the news magazine he confessed, in part, to exonerate anyone serving prison time for a murder he committed.
“I say if I can help get somebody out of jail, you know, then God might smile a little bit more on me,” he said.
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