Poker Face

Investigators follow genetic genealogy tips to Missouri and one piece of the mystery finally comes together. At the same time, an entirely new mystery is revealed to the Solvable team.

Episode Info

Episode Transcript

Amanda Reno: On the last episode of Solvable…

Hope Manning: Lovie even said, that a biker by the name of Spider had actually thrown Delta over that bridge. He was in a biker club.

Amanda Reno: We explored the confession and subsequent recanting of self-professed serial killer, Lovie Riddle, in the case of Baby Jane / Delta Dawn.

But in the end, it led law enforcement no closer to identifying Baby Jane or her missing mother.

As our team was wrapping up a trip to Jackson County, Mississippi, the sheriff’s office called us with big news.

Investigators had made big strides in positively identifying / Baby Jane Delta Dawn.

Based on the results that had come in via the genetic genealogy report that Othram labs provided them, the sheriff’s office assembled a team and sent them up to Missouri to chase a lead.

One of the officers on that team, a man named Joe Bignell did an interview with us to explain why the group traveled so far away from Jackson County.

Joe Bignell: We had gotten the name of the potential mother, we had a Facebook page. We dug deep into that Facebook page and started going through everything that was on there. Family members anywhere that she might have been. We did law enforcement databases, we checked into those. We checked a lot of the open-source databases, then we tracked where a person has lived and what we were hoping and trying to find was some connection.

Between the potential mother and Mississippi, Alabama, Florida, somewhere down here.

Along the gulf coast, and Sam, I had come home and had her start looking through the archives in the newspapers which she’s gotten pretty good at over the years. and see if there was anything with the name we were given.

That would put the potential mother in south Mississippi or anywhere along the gulf coast.

Unfortunately, we were not able to make the connection, there was nothing.

Showing that she was ever here in the late 70’s to the early 80’s when the baby would have been born.

Greg Bodker: Joe referenced someone by the name of Sam in that last segment, and I think it’s a good time to give a little backstory, Sam is Joe’swife. 

Prior to our interview, we had no idea that Sam actually knew about this case long before her husband.

She first found out about the case of Baby Jane Delta Dawn nearly 12 years ago, while doing research on the unidentified victims of Hurricane Katrina.

Joe Bignell: So I learned about her case in, it was probably 2008. I had graduated high school in 2006 after Katrina hit. I was a senior when hurricane Katrina hit and there is still 2 does from hurricane Katrina. They are buried in Jackson County and I was researching that, seeing if everyone had been found. And when I started researching those does, I started researching and found all the other Jane Does in the area, and I realized she’s only 5 years older than me. I found her then, I found the other Baby Jane in Jackson County and I just went down a complete rabbit hole. That was back in 2008, I think it was, I first learned about it while working on shift with Lt. Vesiga. It was just one of the cases that had come up that he had always looked into. So it was probably, gosh it’s been, 7 or 8 years ago, when I first heard about the case and at the time I was a patrolman. I just kinda read what Darren had on it, that was about it.

Greg Bodker: Joe and Lieutenant Darren Versiga, who we interviewed last episode, both worked together at the Pascagoula Police Department.

They’re good friends and were actually even next door neighbors for a while.

Their interest in Baby Jane’s case grew more the longer they lived and worked together in Southern Mississippi.

Joe Bignell: Just constantly talking about the case it is kinda where it got brought back to my attention after originally hearing about it probably 7 or 8 years ago.

Greg Bodker: Here’s the thing…

Joe and Darren worked for the Pascagoula Police Department, not the Jackson County Sheriff’s Office.

And Joe actually went on to work for the FBI by the time he really got interested in the case.

So, I asked him how it even came to be that he started working on the Baby Jane / Delta Dawn investigation to begin with.

Joe Bignell: We had known Baby Jane was exhumed in 2008 and they had a DNA profile. So I reached out to Eddie Clark with Jackson County and just curious if they had sent the DNA off for her. If that was an option. And when I talked to him he said they were in the process of getting the DNA back from a lab and they were working on finding a lab to send it to do genealogy on it.  2020, it kinda died off after that. I think that was the end of 2019, so probably 6 months later. Again now I’m over at the FBI for about a year and a half, and I learned about an FBI case they had with three missing, err murdered women from Pascagoula between 1975 and 1979 and I had one of the Clara Turk. Well her and another black male was found skeletonized. I have to case file here in my office if you wanna come over here and grab it.

It wasn’t but a couple weeks before evidence technician Jeremy Miller called me and said they got the report from Othram and they identified a mother and father. So I went back across the street and sat down with Eddie Clark, Jeremy, and Captain Muffly and said, “If ya’ll don’t mind, I would like to help out with the investigation.” I said, “Think there is some resources we can bring to the table if ya’ll are willing,” and they said, “Absolutely.” So from that point forward, we were kinda working as a team to get this solved.

Amanda Reno: Together, everyone on the team began reviewing the new leads that had come in from the genetic genealogy results.

*Computer keyboard typing & mouse clicking*

After researching social media and ancestry sites, the officers narrowed down the possible identity of Baby Jane’s mother or close relative thereof to a woman named Teresa who lived in Joplin, Missouri.

Joe Bignell: I believe what the lab told us was, we believe this is the mother, it is possible that she could be an aunt.

Greg Bodker: How did you prepare for the trip to go up to Missouri?

Joe Bignell: I had gotten with one of the other special agents that I work with. It was again a lot of digging into the background of Teresa and trying to find potential family members of Teresa. Any family members she might have had, husbands. We really tried to dig into the family, Teresa, and her immediate family, we reached out to Jasper County, had them check all of their databases and the addresses we were finding for Teresa is the same addresses that they were showing in their local databases. So we thought we had a pretty good chance of locating her once we got out there.

We flew out of here, gulf port Mississippi directly into Joplin, Missouri. We each rented a car, myself and one of the special agents from the office went with me. We got in on a Tuesday evening, I reached out to Detective Paul Ayers with Jasper County, and then the following morning we went and we met with him. We told him what we had, what we were looking to do, and then for the next couple of days, we were trying to obtain Teresa’s DNA but were running out of time. We had a flight booked back Friday morning and come Thursday afternoon. We had the address but she hadn’t really left the house, so at that point we had Detective Ayers reach out to her over the phone and we told her that we would like to come and sit down and talk to her. Super nice. I think her and her husband at the time they were out at one of their rental properties and she said I will be back at the house in 30 minutes if you want to meet me there. So 30 minutes later, we went up to the house and they invited us in, they were super, super nice people.

Greg Bodker: How did you feel knowing that you were probably knocking on the door of the mother? How did you feel from a confidence perspective that, that was who you were approaching?

Joe Bignell: Based off her Facebook and all the pictures, like in the posts, I was not 100% that she wasn’t gonna be the mom. She just, we couldn’t find anything to tie her to the gulf coast. It was probably 80/20 that she was the mom, but there was definitely that doubt when we were walking up there that she might have been a family member.

Greg Bodker: The Jackson County Sheriff’s Office provided our team with an officer from that trip’s body camera footage that shows the moment authorities met with Teresa.

*Beeping of body cam turning on*

Since this is a podcast, we’ll play you some of the audio clips from the interaction but out of respect for privacy of the family and other individuals shown in the footage, we’re not going to publish the video on our website.

As the investigators walked up the driveway on that hot August day, Don, Teresa’s husband met them outside with a friendly wave and a little joke.

Paul Ayers: You Don? Talked to Teresa on the phone, she said she was working today.

Don: Paul Ayers, Don good to meet ya.

Don: That’s me. What am I in trouble for today?

Don: We don’t want ya. We don’t have room for ya.

Don: Dang.

Greg Bodker: After exchanging greetings, with the team, Don welcomed them inside where Teresa was waiting.

Officer Joe Bignell described them both as super nice people, and you definitely get that vibe while watching the video.

The couple made small talk about ongoing construction projects while everyone got settled in the living room.

Joe Bignell: We sat down in the living room and just explained what we had. We introduced ourselves. We said that we were here on behalf of the Jackson County Sheriff’s office for a case from 1982 where they had an unidentified person and through DNA we believe Teresa may be a relative.

Greg Bodker: During the meeting, the investigators intentionally withheld specific details of why they were there.

They only provided Don and Teresa with enough information to spark a conversation with Teresa on the topic of Jackson County and the year 1982. To see what she’d say.

Joe and his colleagues didn’t tell the couple the age or gender of the unidentified person they were looking into. All they said was that they believed the unidentified person could be a relative of Teresa’s

What Teresa revealed next, cracked the investigation wide open.

Amanda Reno: Fourteen minutes into Jackson County investigators’ initial conversation with Teresa from Joplin, Missouri, she said five words that changed the entire scope of the investigation. 

Teresa: I hope it’s my sister.

Amanda Reno: “I hope it is my sister.”

A sentence the team of officers were not expecting to hear at all.

Teresa went on to tell Joe and his colleagues that her sister, a woman named Gwen, and Gwen’s daughter, a baby girl named Alisha, had been missing since Thanksgiving 1982.

Joe Bignell: Right off the bat 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.

Amanda Reno: What a moment that must have been.

Joe Bignell: It was because she was still under the impression that we were there talking about Gwen, she had no idea at that point that it was her niece. Trying to not give it away with facial expressions, and the level of excitement of after 38 years we had found the answer. We are going to find out what happened so, it was trying to put on your best poker face.

Greg Bodker: In the bodycam footage Teresa provided the investigators with Gwen and Alisha’s dates of birth, and recalled what she remembered from the period of time right before they disappeared in 1982.

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 she had disappeared. She was really good with providing details that helped us out later on.

Greg Bodker: You also hear in the body cam clips Joe revealing to Teresa what the goal of the law enforcement team’s visit was.

Joe Bignell: We are asking you if you would be willing to submit DNA so we know if we are going in the right direction with this investigation.

Teresa: Yeah, can you tell me who though?

Joe Bignell: We don’t know, that’s the problem. the victim is unidentified. So they don’t know, all they know is that the DNA says that the victim could be related to you.

Amanda Reno: For the investigators, it must have been really hard to sit there, with poker faces, knowing what they knew in their hearts about Baby Jane’s case.

Joe Bignell: Just I was hoping going in we were going to get some answers, but I mean it was exciting after… I mean it’s been 8 years since I heard about this case. When you look into it and you see all the people that it touched down here in Pascagoula and Jackson County. The deputies that paid for the grave, all the investigators that have dug into this, back in 2008 they exhumed the body all the time and the effort and the amount of people that had put effort into this case. Then for me to be the one sitting the living room and getting the information direct knowing that we are about to make the phone call back to Jackson County and tell them, she has a name. Like it was overwhelming, but you couldn’t show that at the time.

Amanda Reno: The exciting part about it is that the Solvable team just happened to be at the Jackson County Sheriff’s office during a roundtable discussion with Chief Deputy Ledbetter and the other investigators when Joe made that call.

The following audio is the first time the Jackson County Sheriff Mike Ezell and the rest of the investigative team learned of the breaking discovery.

At that time, the initial information was relayed that the Baby Jane’s name was pronounced as Allisa but soon after learned to be pronounced Alisha.

Chief Deputy Ledbetter: Listen, listen to this…it’s Bignell. He made contact with mama and he said that went amazingly well. Went to the door, they had a body camera on and we are from the Sheriff’s office or whatever, we are from Jackson County, Mississippi investigating a cold case and we would like your DNA.

She said, “Really, I hope it is the case of my missing sister,” and she rattled off 37 years. It’s been 37 years ago, my sister went missing and her one and half year old daughter with her husband. It’s probably the guy they were headed to Florida, left Missouri, and were headed to Florida. And the baby’s name is Alissa, that’s what we got, but the DNA is not her mama. That is mama’s sister. That’s mama’s sister, sister went missing.

Greg Bodker: As Joe Bignell and the rest of the team collected Teresa’s DNA and continued talking to her about Gwen and Alisha. She mentioned that she had a letter that her sister had sent her in the months prior to her disappearance.

She also had old photos of Gwen and Alisha in boxes that she wanted to provide investigators.

*Screen door opening & shutting*

She disappeared out to a storage shed and then returned to search in another room of the house.

After a few minutes, Teresa emerged with the letter and photos for the investigative team.

They all gathered around her kitchen counter and Joe asked Teresa to sign paperwork authorizing him to collect a series of DNA samples from her.

He planned to use those to prove that Teresa was not Alisha’s mother, but in fact her missing sister, Gwen was.

Everyone sort of made light of the very official situation, by smiling and joking that it wasn’t near as bad as having a COVID-19 test.

*Car doors closing*

The moment the officers left and were in the silence of their rental cars, they were finally able to heave a sigh of relief and openly express how monumental and successful the visit was.

Joe Bignell: I think all three of us were just like, oh my god, like that just happened. Um, just complete shock that walked in there not really knowing what to expect, and came out with the story.

With what had happened and the names, and we had no idea about Gwen at that point so now we have a second missing person. We have one identified, but now we know who Alisha’s mom is and she has got to be out there somewhere as well.

Amanda Reno: How hard was it to get back on that plane the next morning and not move forward with investigating the information that Teresa had provided? Was that hard for you?

Joe Bignell: Yeah, well yeah, because I knew that next morning bright and early we were going to have to get on a plane and head back to South Mississippi and I was ready to go back out there the next week, but unfortunately, it wasn’t just me. We had other investigators that were needed too, from Jackson County.

Greg Bodker: The team was determined to keep the momentum of the investigation going.

But before pushing ahead, Joe personally took a moment to share the good news with the one person who’d appreciate as much as the investigators…his

As soon as the team that had gone to Joplin, Missouri realized Teresa had verbally positively identified Baby Jane / Delta Dawn.

*Cell phone dialing number / ringing tone*

Officer Joe Bignell’s first phone call was to his wife, Sam.

Joe Bignell: I knew I was excited to give the news, and she had so much more invested in identifying Baby Jane than what I did. I cried, she cried, she cried on the phone. It was amazing to be able to make that phone call home.

Sam Bignell: I wasn’t sure if he would get any information when he went up there, because whenever he goes on these types of trips, he is busy all the time, and we have a daughter. So we didn’t talk to him at all, I wasn’t sure that they would get a name or anything, or any types of leads. I really wasn’t expecting any information or that they knew the baby’s name. I was completely speechless, I just cried. I just cried. For so long she was called Delta Dawn or Baby Jane, and now had her name, Alisha, and so people could call her by her name and she was not forgotten. And she never was forgotten, by her family, they always looked for her.

Greg Bodker: After briefly celebrating on their trip home from Missouri, Joe and his colleagues turned their attention back to the task ahead of them.

While they waited for some more DNA results to come back from Teresa’s samples, they started following up on the other information she’d provided them about Gwen and Alisha.

*Pages turning*

Their notepads were filled with details of Gwen’s life, including information about where she was and who she may have been within the days leading up to her and Alisha disappearing.

There were several new avenues of investigation that had serious promise of holding new clues.

Including the fact that Gwen had been married a few times, her life had quite a bit of chaos. And most interesting of all, she’d had a tumultuous affair…

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

Greg Bodker: That’s next time on Solvable…