Originally created 11/17/99

Techniques help identify Aiken victim



AIKEN -- The mysterious woman whose reconstructed face has been on the mantle in Coroner Sue Townsend's office for years finally has a name: Jackie Council.

The Aiken County woman was 30 when she disappeared in 1986, leaving behind four children and a family who needed her.

That family gathered in a grand jury room of the Aiken County Courthouse on Tuesday morning to hear the coroner's devastating news: that woman whose face looks so familiar to them is their beloved Jackie.

And she probably was slain.

On March 22, 1991, loggers found the woman's body in the Shaw's Creek area near South Carolina Highway 191 near Eureka.

"Yes, I suspect foul play. Emphatically, I suspect foul play," Mrs. Townsend said. "She was found nude on Shaw's Creek. We have two other women who were also found along that creek. None of these women had clothes on.

"It's not a place you would go for a Sunday walk. We were in deep woods, deep terrain."

In 1993, facial reconstruction allowed the public to get a glimpse of the mystery woman's face, showing what she probably looked like. After the bust was shown on television and in newspapers, the coroner's office got calls from residents saying she looked like Ms. Council.

Since then, with the help of Dr. Ted Rathbun, a forensic anthropologist and professor at the University of South Carolina, the coroner was able to identify the skeletal remains with scientific accuracy. Dr. Rathbun used a process called superimposition in which computer equipment was used to superimpose a photograph of Jackie Council over an image of the skull, comparing several points.

"Much like the number of points of match on a fingerprint, the same are the matches of the eight basic planes of the face," Dr. Rathbun said. "If they superimpose, there is a probability of over 99 percent that that is the individual."

The original identification was made in 1997.

When attempts in 1998 and 1999 to match DNA from the skeletal remains to Ms. Council's family members were inconclusive, Mrs. Townsend conferred with Dr. Rathbun. They agreed to use his findings alone to positively identify the woman as Ms. Council.

Family members were devastated by the news Tuesday.

The woman's mother, who lives in New York, had received information years ago that her daughter left Charleston on a boat and the family clung to the hope she was still alive, Mrs. Townsend said.

About 12 family members were there, including the woman's four grown children, two sisters and two aunts.

Family members were shown the facial reconstruction.

"Several children could relate to her teeth. But I wanted them to feel, to understand that this was their mother," the coroner said. "After all, when you are given back the skeletal remains -- how do you relate to bones? You don't even want to see that."

To help family members deal with the news, the coroner had mental health officials and social workers available.

Family members have begun to plan a burial, but no funeral date has been set.

After grieving, family members can help with the investigation, Mrs. Townsend said.

Having closed the book on one mystery Tuesday, the coroner opened yet another leaving sheriff's investigators with a tough question to answer: Is there a serial killer out there responsible for the deaths of three women?

And are there other bodies in Shaw's Creek still undiscovered?

"We've just opened a file on a murder," the coroner said. "And this murder could lead to resolving three homicides."

Capt. Bryan Oliver of the sheriff's criminal investigation division is laying groundwork for reopening the investigation. But it has been 13 years since Ms. Council was reported missing, meaning the missing person report might be hard to find.

The next step: trying to identify the other two women found along Shaw's Creek. All three bodies were found within a half-mile during several years. Officials gave these details on the other two:

On Nov. 16, 1987, two hunters spotted skeletal remains near Shaw's Creek. Officials estimate the woman was about 22, although she could have been anywhere from 17 to 25. She was 5 feet 8 inches to 5 feet 10 inches tall with a lean build, weighing 140-160 pounds. She had a pronounced overbite and her high cheekbones indicated European or Indian heritage.

Her hair tested positive for cocaine. She had a healed fracture on the left side of her nose and a healed injury on her right knee.

Because she was found close to the Edgefield County line, officials speculate she might have come from a migrant camp in peach country.

On Jan. 25, 1993, the skeletal remains of a black woman were found near Shaw's Creek, probably two to five years after she was killed. There are indications she was shot or stabbed, perhaps both, officials say.

The woman was 5 feet 4 inches to 5 feet 7 inches tall, age 25-32 and was right-handed. The woman had protruding teeth.

Identifying Ms. Council should help in identifying the others, Mrs. Townsend said.

"Clearly, we have somebody who has dumped three bodies in Shaw's Creek. This is the first step to find out who did that," she said.

Identity process

Here is a time line in the disappearance and identification of Jackie Council:

November 1986: Jackie Council disappears after dropping her 5-year-old son off at school. The family reports her missing to authorities.

March 22, 1991: Loggers find the skeletal remains of a young woman off South Carolina Highway 191 just south of Eureka near Shaw's Creek. The nude body has been there for several years, Coroner Sue Townsend tells local media.

1993: A plastic cast of the skull is used to make a bust, or facial reconstruction, to show what the unidentified woman might look like. Mrs. Townsend calls a news conference to show the bust. Several people call her office, saying the woman resembles Jackie Council.

1997: A scientific process known as superimposition is performed by University of South Carolina professor and forensic anthropologist Dr. Ted Rathbun using the skull and a photograph of Ms. Council. He concludes that the woman is probably Ms. Council, giving a 95 percent certainty.

1998-1999: Attempts to match DNA from the remains to Council family members are inconclusive because the remains are too brittle to provide the needed samples.

November 1999: Mrs. Townsend confers with Dr. Rathbun and agrees to go ahead and use his findings without the support of DNA to positively identify the woman as Jackie Council.

Nov. 16, 1999: The coroner and Dr. Rathbun meet with the Council family to announce the identification. Family begins plans for a funeral and burial.

Reach Greg Rickabaugh at (803) 279-6895.