Woman's death might hinder unsolved case of girl's killing

Police await DNA tests to identify child's bones

March 27, 2000|By KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

LINCOLN, Neb. -- The death of a 66-year-old woman late Friday in a hospital here raises the likelihood that the decades-old mystery of a girl's life and death might never be resolved.

An investigation begun in December after the discovery of a girl's bones buried outside a Chicago apartment building led police this month to the Lincoln hospital bedside of Joan Miller, who detectives believe was the girl's mother.

Miller's lapse into a sudden, life-threatening illness shortly before police arrived to question her added a bizarre twist to a death that had apparently been undetected for three decades.

Last weekend, as Miller held on to life with the aid of a machine that helped her breathe, police took DNA samples from her to determine whether it was her 5- or 6-year-old child whose skeleton was found.

Miller, formerly Joan Blake, denied ever having had a daughter, despite a birth certificate that said she delivered a girl named Holly Blake on March 2, 1962.

As police awaited the results of the DNA tests, Miller died Friday night, ending the possibility she could help solve the mystery.

Police said the woman's death, apparently of heart failure, would not end their inquiry. They are still waiting for the DNA results.

"It changes absolutely nothing," said Chicago police spokesman Pat Camden. "The investigation continues."

For others -- neighbors of Miller in Nebraska, a landlord in Chicago, a son in Texas -- the questions about a little girl named Holly will linger.

Scott Blake plans a private funeral for his mother. "Now that she's dead, I believe she's at peace with what happened," he said. "I'm always going to wonder what happened."

The trail that led to Lincoln began in the yard of a Chicago apartment building, when landlord Larry Vincent tapped a bag while excavating dirt for drainage. A skull rolled out.

"It didn't scare me," Vincent said. "But it certainly concerned me. It wasn't right."

Dr. Edmund R. Donoghue, Cook County medical examiner, said DNA from the skeleton was used to establish the child's gender.

Donoghue's office ruled last week that the girl had been killed and listed the cause of death as asphyxia.

Authorities have said the skeleton -- which had a broken jaw and showed signs of severe malnutrition as well as retarded growth -- was that of a 5- or 6-year-old girl buried between 1968 and 1979.

Miller once lived in the building for three months with her husband, Thomas Blake; a daughter, Holly; and two sons, Scott and Kevin, police said.

The intervening years seem to have erased all signs and memories of the little girl.

Thomas Blake died in 1987. Scott Blake, who lives in Converse, Texas, told police he cannot recall having a sister -- although he reported vague memories of hearing "a lot of crying" when he was a child.

Blake told police his mother was a violent person.

In an interview with the Chicago Tribune, Blake, a 36-year-old father of three, said of the mystery, "I look back on it, and it gives me an eerie feeling. It's a sister I didn't know."

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