A-L-I-S-H-A, My Namesake

Interviews with Gwendolyn Mae Clemons’ family start to offer a glimpse into the lives of the young mother and her baby daughter, Alisha Ann Heinrich.

Episode Info

Episode Transcript

Greg Bodker: On the last episode of Solvable…

Investigators following a promising lead about Baby Jane’s family tree took a trip from Mississippi to Missouri, but what they encountered wasn’t quite what they expected.

Joe Bignell: Right off the bat the first thing she says, I hope you all found my sister Gwen. She’s been missing since 1982, and at that moment we knew we were going to identify Baby Jane.

Greg Bodker: Officers spoke with a woman named Teresa. A woman who they believed genetic genealogy research indicated was Baby Jane’s mother.

But Teresa was not the baby girl’s mother. She was her aunt.

By the time investigators walked out of Teresa’s house, they learned that Baby Jane’s name was Alisha Ann Heinrich and her mother was Gwendolyn Mae Clemons.

Teresa was Gwen’s sister.

Joe Bignell: Teresa had an amazing memory, dates, and times, just recalled it from 1982. She was just spouting off the dates. She knew when Alisha was born, birthdates, the time that Gwen had disappeared, she was really good with providing details that helped us out later on.

Greg Bodker: Genealogy research on Baby Jane’s DNA had narrowed down a family group, but before meeting Teresa, investigators were working off an assumption that Teresa was the missing mother they’d been looking for all these decades.

When authorities spoke with Teresa in August 2020, she explained that she hadn’t seen her sister Gwen, or Gwen’s daughter Alisha in 38 years.

Detectives took DNA samples from Teresa to make sure what she’d told police was true.

And from there the case made massive strides.

Amanda Reno: I think it’s worth taking a minute here to explain the science behind how this all came to play out. Just so it’s clear for everyone listening.

One of the limitations of genetic genealogy and researching using public or law enforcement databases is if there is no trace of the individual, in other words, no record that says “this person is the daughter of this couple” then no one knows for sure.

As a genealogist you can spend weeks, even months, or years scouring over the same family group, looking at every record type publicly available, and you can still have an incomplete family unit.

A common hurdle is what’s referred to as misattributed parentage.

This term covers things like for example if a child is born as a result of an affair and that affair is never acknowledged, the father on the birth certificate is often listed as the man whom the mother was married to…not to whom she could have conceived the child with.

That’s one of the reasons why genetic genealogy can only be used as a tip or a lead, you never know what is missing. It could be a child that left the family, either disowned or purposefully disconnecting – or placed for adoption – or simply relationships not well documented – or the family resides in an area with poor public records availability.

For example, while researching this case I found that the state of Missouri has limitations to their public records for the years that Gwen was alive but the state of Texas, for example, has many more records accessible for that time frame.

Access varies widely state by state and year to year.

Greg Bodker: In 2021, law enforcement databases house information that connects identities to license plates, automated fingerprint systems, DNA, and even facial recognition, but in 1982 these connections were much more difficult to come by.

Especially when crimes crossed state lines.

I mean, just think about it, genetic genealogy didn’t exist in the 1980’s. Fingerprints were manually compared, and computerized criminal databases were essentially non-existent. 

If someone disappeared or changed their identification information back then, the lack of data sharing between law enforcement agencies made it very difficult to find a person.

Amanda Reno: In our research for this podcast, we looked tirelessly for public records hoping something could tell us more about Gwen and Alisha’s lives, but we often came up empty-handed.

Missouri isn’t a complete public records desert, but it is extremely limited.

One thing I did find was Gwen’s 1978 Webb City High School yearbook.

Her picture in that publication shows her smiling with strawberry blonde, shoulder-length hair parted down the middle and feathered at the sides in swooping waves.

She has hazel eyes and a fair complexion.

The picture is on our website solvablepodcast.com.

Gwen has perfectly straight teeth, which really makes her smile stand out.

Unfortunately, nothing else in the yearbook revealed anything useful that helped me determine who she was, or where her journey had taken her and baby Alisha.

Next, I scoured obituaries in Missouri because they’re usually a wealth of family information for a genealogist like me, but the only obituary I found with Gwen’s name in it was one for her father who recently passed away.

Greg Bodker: Just like us, and what felt like a dead-end search for information about Gwen in Missouri, after their first visit to Joplin in 2020, investigators from Jackson County were launched into a mystery twice as big as the one they’d started off with.

The identity of baby Jane was glaringly clear, her real name was Alisha Ann Heinrich.

But police still had no idea how she’d been killed or why she’d been placed in the Escatawpa River in December 1982.

The whereabouts of her mother, Gwen Mae Clemons, was a complete question mark, but technically Gwen was still a missing person.

Authorities needed to figure out what happened to her, but first, they needed to officially make Teresa, Gwen’s sister, and the rest of Gwen’s family in Missouri aware of their findings.

We interviewed a current investigator on the case named Eddie Clark who was one of the people who traveled back to Missouri during a second visit to Joplin to provide the formal ID of Baby Alisha and Gwen to Teresa.

Remember, the first time the Mississippi investigators spoke with Teresa and asked her for her DNA they didn’t reveal all of their cards.

They didn’t specifically tell her what the age or gender was of the body that had led them to Missouri.

All Teresa knew during that first visit was that police were investigating a body in Mississippi from 1982 and that they needed her DNA for comparison.

Teresa assumed on her own that the police were there about her missing sister Gwen.

As a law enforcement investigator, there are so many different kinds of interviews you have to conduct.

Sometimes you may be interviewing a suspect, a witness, or a victim and you only get one crack at it. Sometimes you have to make an initial visit to a family to first gather information and then second, maybe make another trip to provide life-altering, horrible news.

You may initially think you’re going to interview a murder suspect, for instance, the mother of Baby Jane, only to find out moments later that Gwen is missing and you are actually interviewing her sister.

As an investigative team, you have to discuss these possibilities and play them through while preparing for an interview like this.

Oftentimes you can leave the first interview wondering if the information that’s been provided to you is true.

Sometimes you leave the second interview feeling drained that you just made a largely negative impact on an entire family.

Here’s Sergeant Eddie Clark…

Sgt. Eddie Clark: The second trip was just to notify the family.

We didn’t know what to expect, we were going up there with extremely bad news.

It wasn’t 100 percent confirmed but we honestly believed that Teresa was the aunt. We knew the grandmother was gonna be there. We thought grandfather was gonna be there. He had talked with his daughter before she left and we really, really wanted to talk to him, because he had a lot of information.  Well, we found out on the way up that he passed.

Amanda Reno: When Mississippi investigators first interviewed Teresa she explained in detail the timeframe of Thanksgiving 1982 when Gwen and Alisha first disappeared.

She shared a lot of memories of what the months and years had been like after her sister and niece vanished.

Teresa said that she’d thought about dozens of different theories as to what had happened to them.

She dreaded the notion that they were dead or had suffered some horrible fate.

She always held out hope that even if something terrible had happened to Gwen, maybe it was possible that Alisha was spared somehow, maybe she’d grown up to be a beautiful young woman and was out there living her life, somewhere.

However, we didn’t have to rely on what Teresa told police to get the full story.

We were able to learn about Gwen and Alisha directly from Teresa.

*Phone dialing and ringing*

Greg Bodker: In the fall of 2020, shortly after the death of her father, and several weeks after investigators from Mississippi interviewed her a second time, we reached out to Teresa.

During the first few minutes of our phone call, I explained that we wanted to help bring attention to Gwen and Alisha’s case, and hopefully that would generate new leads for law enforcement.

She graciously gave us part of her Sunday afternoon to provide us with some background information about Gwen’s life in the 1980’s.

Teresa: Well, she was the wild child and didn’t have a good way of picking men, always hanging with the rough crowd.

Greg Bodker: According to Teresa, hanging with a “rough crowd” started when Gwen was in high school.

Not long after graduating…she met a man named Richard Clyde Heinrich.

Richard often went by the nickname “Rick.”

Amanda Reno: So, she was first married to Rick Heinrich?

Teresa: Yes, and he’s dead. No, the FBI said he’s dead.

Amanda Reno: And they lived in Joplin, and he’s Alisha’s dad, right?

Teresa: Yes, and then yeah he’s on the birth certificate.

Amanda Reno: Teresa was able to put us in touch with Rick’s sister, a woman named Alicia.

For the sake of not getting Baby Alisha and Rick’s sister Alicia confused, we’re going to call Rick’s sister “Aunt Alicia”.

The first thing we learned while interviewing Aunt Alicia was that she and Gwen got along really well and had a good relationship.

So much so that Gwen didn’t bat an eye when she found out that she and Rick were going to have a baby girl together.

Aunt Alicia: She named her after me, I’m kind of her namesake, but uh our first names are spelled different. But she wanted to spell hers A-L-I-S-H-A

She got her daddy’s eyes.

She was good, she was a sweet baby, she had a smile that would melt your heart. And like I say, Gwen was a good momma to her, she just that baby was her whole life.

Amanda Reno: Aunt Alicia remembered a lot about Gwen. Even after so many years of not seeing her.

Aunt Alicia: Her hair was about shoulder length and she just wore it down. She was never fancy or nothing. Just down and she was a casual dresser she was a blue jean person. Blue jeans and tops.

She just was a small framed person. She wasn’t one to wear make-up. Like I say, she didn’t drink, didn’t smoke to my knowledge either one. She was very quiet, she was kinda sit back observe things.

Amanda Reno: That was a pretty different description than what Teresa had told us about Gwen.

But after talking with Aunt Alicia, it became clear that once Gwen found out she was pregnant she took her life and motherhood very seriously.

Baby Alisha became the center of Gwen’s world and Gwen put away the things and behaviors that Teresa says made her a “wild child who hung out with a rough crowd.”

Aunt Alicia: She was a very caring mom.

I know the baby was her whole life. I mean she loved that baby with all of her heart. She would never, never let nothing happen to that baby or any harm come to it if she could help it. ‘Cause the baby was her life.

Amanda Reno: A happy family life wasn’t a reality for Gwen, Alisha, and Rick though.

Their marriage was short-lived and they divorced not long after Gwen gave birth to Baby Alisha.

Aunt Alicia: She was young, she was like 10 years younger than my brother.

Amanda Reno: Did she and Rick always live in the Missouri area?

Aunt Alicia: Yes, they always lived up there by Joplin.

Amanda Reno: What was their marriage like?

Aunt Alicia: Her and my brother weren’t married very long. We weren’t close, but we communicated with each other.

My brother was an alcoholic, so they had a lot of stormy times together, and he just um, was a hard worker. And he cared about the baby, but him and Gwen just didn’t get along. Alcohol was more important than his marriage, unfortunately.

They had some good times but the alcohol just got in the way with their marriage and they split up.

Amanda Reno: Teresa, Gwen’s sister, told us that Rick struggled to keep a job and after the divorce Gwen was often going to court for child support.

Aunt Alicia: He didn’t work, and she was trying to get child support. And so, he had moved to Kansas City with his dad, I heard and was hiding out there because she threatened to put him in jail for not paying child support.

Greg Bodker: What we learned from talking with Teresa and Aunt Alicia, is that things definitely became a bit chaotic in Gwen’s life after she divorced Rick.

Based on interviews both on and off the record with family members, here’s what we know.

At some point after divorcing Rick, Gwen moved to Michigan. Now, it’s not clear where in Michigan she lived, or if she moved there with someone else.

Teresa seemed to indicate that Gwen may have moved there with a boyfriend, but that’s unconfirmed.

Gwen definitely stayed in touch with Teresa though by writing letters.

Based on the contents of those old letters and Teresa’s memory, Gwen only stayed in Michigan for 4 or 5 months after moving there.

The timeline gets a little hazy at that point, but sometime before moving to Michigan Teresa believes Gwen married a second time.

This second husband was one of her high school classmates from Webb City, a man we’ll refer to as James.

We’ve decided to use the pseudonym James to identify Gwen’s second husband because he’s still alive and investigators have never publicly revealed his real name.

So, for the purpose of this podcast, we’re just calling him James.

And man, does James have a story to tell…

James: She was outgoing with me. We had a good time together, We dated for about 2 or 3 months before we got married.

We had a good time together. We knew each other from high school, we had classes together in school and we also sat next to each other and talked. She was very friendly, outgoing, she wasn’t any kind of depressed person or anything like that.

Greg Bodker: James, Gwen’s second husband spoke with us last fall.

He shared some memories about his former wife and how they fell in love fast …but to our surprise, we learned their union was brief…

James: We were married, I was working as a disc jockey, I found out a Webb City Policeman was making routine visits to my house & partaking in extracurricular activities with my wife. Well, I basically caught them in the act.

Greg Bodker: James said it didn’t take long after discovering Gwen was having an affair, for him and her to split up for good.

It wasn’t until decades later that James would get an unexpected visit from police officers.

They were looking for Gwen.

James: Here’s what happened, I was in the shower, and I heard, “Bam. Bam. Bam.” You know how cops knock, and I’m naked in the shower taking a shower, I couldn’t do anything. My roommate was asleep at the time. She wakes up and answers the door. And there’s 4 cops standing there, and they ask for me, and she says let me go get him. She comes back to my room and says, “What are you doing?” “I’m in the shower.” “Well, you need to get out because there’s 4 cops here. Well, they tell me you aren’t in any trouble but they need to talk to ya.”

It didn’t shock me, but I was sure as hell curious as to what the hell they wanted, and the local deputy said we’re here about your ex-wife, and I said “Which one?” and they said Gwen. And I said, “Oh my what’s going on?” And they go, “She’s missing and no one has seen her or the baby and the family, none of them have seen her since she left.” I said I would tell them what I know.

Greg Bodker: According to James, the police officers at his door were trying to kickstart a missing person investigation for Gwen, but they had no clues to pinpoint her last known location.

James: From what the cop told me, no driver’s license, no marriages licenses, no taxes, no job info, she hadn’t filed federal taxes. That’s why they were all involved. She and her daughter just disappeared off the face of the earth.

Greg Bodker: The only thing James could offer the detectives was the fact that in 1982 he knew Gwen had left him for another man.

A man who’d been a police officer in Webb City.

A man who James believed had to have been the last person to be with Gwen and Baby Alisha.

Turns out, James was right

Aunt Alicia: Her boyfriend was in the car with the baby, and she came in.

She was excited the last time I seen her cause she says they gonna move and make a new life for themselves and she said she thought it would be best for her.

Greg Bodker: That’s next time on Solvable…