The Head With No Body—and No Answers

Jane Doe was embalmed, decapitated, and given red rubber balls for eyes. Was the woman found in rural Pennsylvania murdered, missing, or something else entirely?


Photo Illustration; Elizabeth Daley/Reuters

ECONOMY, Pennsylvania — The head looked up at the boy with eyes made of red rubber balls.

The face was frozen in a fixed glare thanks to embalming and the chill of death. The neck had been roughly sawed; inside, the tissue was severed with surgical precision. The hair was snow white with curls. The resting place was a field where horses and adventurous children roam.

The body was gone.

On Dec. 12, 2014, a boy named Charles got off his school bus and began walking down Mason Road, a barely two-lane strip of asphalt that leads to only a few homes.

By chance or fate the boy wandered from the road and into the field of overgrown brush. At first he thought it was an animal, dead or dying in the winter cold. But it turned out to be Jane Doe’s head, and it is how most people in Economy refer to what was once a human being.

“That’s where they found it,” a woman in a nearby home said, pointing to the field off Mason Road.

“Down there on the left?”

“Yeah, I think so,” she said.

Two days after Charles made his discovery, cadaver dogs and police were pulled from the field. That’s when the real work began.

Embalming and artificial eyes would seem to indicate the woman at least made it to a funeral home following her death. However, there’s no way to determine whether a professional or some sick amateur performed that macabre task. After consulting with area cemeteries, police have mostly ruled out the possibility that Jane Doe was taken from a grave or funeral home.

As for the devilish eyes, Economy Chief of Police Michael O’Brien said he consulted with national associations of funeral directors and medical examiners in an attempt to explain the presence of the red rubber balls. Both groups said that similar items can be placed in eye sockets if a person has donated their eyes, but the eye sockets are usually filled with flesh-colored balls accompanied by gauze.

Further investigation revealed that the balls are toys, mass-produced by thousands of companies worldwide. Maybe Jane Doe was never in a funeral home, the thinking went after this discovery. To make matters worse for investigators, the Chinese consulate told O’Brien that manufacturers in the country make so many of the balls that tracking down their origin would be next to impossible. The toys are found everywhere, including the quarter machines in the lobby of a local pizza restaurant that dispenses cheap trinkets for fidgeting children, O’Brien said.

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The presence of the balls means another thing, although O’Brien didn’t say it: If the head had been thrown from a moving car, say, the balls would’ve surely fallen out. That they remained in the eye sockets—and that there was no attempt to conceal Jane Doe’s head—means it may have been carefully placed in the field off Mason Road.

The embalming, the toys, the decapitation only deepened the mystery, but there was a break when investigators analyzed what Jane Doe drank before she died.

Namely, water.

Every water source contains minerals unique to specific areas. The minerals found in Jane Doe indicate that she spent the last seven months of her life in two areas of Pennsylvania not far from Economy, or in eastern Ohio, northern West Virginia, Maryland, or New York.

The woman’s dental fillings date from the 1980s or ’90s, O’Brien said, based on chemical analysis of the fillings. Further tests revealed the presence of two drugs used to treat an irregular heartbeat and heart rhythm problems.

Was Jane Doe’s death a murder, or did she die of natural causes?

A local prosecutor speculated that the woman—thought to be in her fifties, with white hair and with obvious health problems—may have been in the care of nursing homes, being moved around by family, which would explain the minerals found from different locations in the area.

It is one thing to shuffle an aging relative in poor health from home to home as her family members carry on with their lives, but how did Jane Doe end up decapitated? And how did she end up in the field off Mason Road?

Since Charles found her head, Jane Doe has been viewed by any number of local police, state and federal law enforcement personnel, at least one sketch artist, a mortuary scientist or two, and whatever technological whizzes put together the 3D clay rendering released in photos to the public in early December of last year—the latest attempt to identify the woman.

“It’s in good enough shape,” Economy Police Chief Michael O’Brien said of Jane Doe’s head.

Good enough for the sketch artist to perform their duty, O’Brien meant, and for the 3D renderers to do theirs. But for a picture to be taken? Not so much, O’Brien hinted.

Police dismissed the theory that Jane Doe could have been a missing person early on. If a missing person ended up at a funeral home—where she could possibly have been embalmed—surely someone there would have recognized the fact that a body had arrived with no identification or known relatives. But considering there is no way to tell whether the embalming work performed on Jane Doe was done by a professional or an amateur, as O’Brien noted, perhaps missing-persons cases should be considered in the investigation.

The same reason for ruling out a missing person was also apparently applied by police to hospitals from where the heart drugs found in the woman’s system likely came. How could a documented missing person be treated at a hospital without anyone catching on?

There are hundreds of open cases of missing women from the states in which Jane Doe may have lived: Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia, Maryland, or New York, according to the mineral test results. Those cases don’t include women listed as missing from the Rockies or the Northwest where the same minerals come from, cases that were immediately ruled out because Jane Doe wasn’t found there, but in western Pennsylvania.

A Daily Beast review of open missing-persons cases for the states in which police believe Jane Doe may have lived just prior to her death provided more than a few possible matches.

There may be no greater possible match than Tamara “Tammy” Porrin.

Porrin went missing from central Pennsylvania in 1986, and the photos of her on a national missing-persons database bear a remarkable similarity to Jane Doe. Both have the same short, curly hair, circular tip of the nose, and round, soft jaws and chin.

Porrin’s brother, Ernest Porrin Jr., agreed the renderings of Jane Doe look very much like his long-lost sister.

“I can see a huge likeness of what Tammy would have looked like,” Ernest wrote in an email. “But I personally believe she was killed back in 1986.”

Still, Ernest and his sister told The Daily Beast they are more than willing to submit DNA to eliminate Tammy from the pool of possible matches for Jane Doe.

When I told O’Brien about Porrin in mid-December, the police chief took down Ernest’s name and number—apparently interested in possibly putting an end to the mystery.

Weeks after leaving Pennsylvania I reached out to Ernest, who said law enforcement had not yet contacted him.

During our conversation O’Brien said 30 leads have been “exhausted or excluded.” Yet there remains some hope that the woman’s body might eventually be found—perhaps even in the area by a roaming hunter.

“But we’ve been through a spring turkey hunting season and a fall deer season,” O’Brien said, “and we haven’t found it yet.”

O’Brien could remember just two or three homicides in the last decade in the area. Economy is a quiet place, and for a head to show up with no body nearby and no one to claim it is beyond strange, O’Brien said.

Enough to leave a 25-year police veteran nearly speechless.

“It is very bizarre,” O’Brien said, shaking his head.

The woman whose head was found in the field just outside the small town could have been a missing person, but police have dismissed that possibility with the stunningly simplistic reasoning that a missing person would have been caught by the complicated system of coroners, funeral homes, cemeteries, hospitals, and law enforcement agencies that all become involved when one dies. Police are fairly certain Jane Doe is not a missing person, a strange funeral home mistake, or the victim of a body snatcher. These conclusions leave at least one more possibility: The woman was murdered and ended up being the subject of some ghoul’s sick experiment.

Whatever the case, Jane Doe is entirely a mystery. Maybe she was shuttled from one nursing home to another as heart problems caused her health to deteriorate. Maybe she wandered from one of those facilities at some point. Only to be embalmed and decapitated? Perhaps she was at a funeral home—her head strangely removed somewhere between the embalming table and the grave.

Worst of all, Jane Doe may have been a missing person, on the road for years only to be killed at an age when most Americans would like to be considering things like retirement and grandchildren; the slow years that allow us to reflect on the complicated beauty of a life filled with victories and losses, love and heartache, joy, pain, hope, and the wisdom that only comes when wrinkles like hers begin creeping across our faces.

The possibilities—murder and dismemberment, body-snatching, elder abuse, a missing persons case gone terrifyingly wrong, dementia-induced wandering, absentee family members—seem as endless as the winding roads outside Economy that lead only deeper into the hills of the Alleghenies.