Thirty-three years later, after a young woman was strangled to death and her body left on Mount Vernon sidewalk, is no more a Jane Doe. She was last seen by her family in Brooklyn in late 1987 before she was found dead.
The woman killed on Valentine’s Day 1988 was identified as Veronica Wiederhold thanks to advanced DNA analysis, the first success for new cold case units in the Westchester County District Attorney’s Office and the Mount Vernon Police Department.
Her identification has reactivated an investigation that had been largely dormant for several years. The ultimate goal, according to Assistant District Attorney Laura Murphy, is to find Wiederhold’s killer, but the DNA result has shown that success in cold-case work can take many forms.
The case is one of the first in New York in which the identity of a murder victim was determined using investigative genetic genealogy, a process that connects unknowns with relatives.
It’s a technique that has gained traction in cold-case investigations across the country, particularly since it assisted in the identification of the so-called Golden State Killer, ex-cop Joseph DeAngelo Jr., who confessed to more than two dozen killings in California in the 1970s and 1980s.
“If we can identify a victim, we’ve done good work,” said Murphy, chief of District Attorney Mimi Rocah’s cold case bureau, which she established when she took office this year.
Det. Brent Gamble contacted the FBI in the summer of 2020 in the Mount Vernon case to see if genetic genealogy could help identify Jane Doe.
The FBI’s genetic genealogy unit was able to link the victim’s DNA to possible relatives who had submitted their DNA to a genealogy website after the Westchester forensics lab determined that it had enough DNA from the victim.
Murphy said it was fortunate that there was enough DNA to test because DNA collection in criminal investigations was in its infancy in the late 1980s.
Wiederhold’s body was discovered near a junkyard on Carleton Place, an industrial, often deserted stretch off South Columbus Avenue in Mount Vernon, a quarter-mile from the Bronx, just before noon on Feb. 14, 1988.
Her legs were crossed at the ankles and she was naked, with reddish-pink press-on nails. She had ligature marks on her neck, wrists, and ankles, indicating that she was bound while being transported to the location where she was discovered.
An autopsy revealed that she had recently engaged in sexual activity, but whether she had been raped could not be determined. The victim had a trace of cocaine in her blood as well as broccoli in her stomach.
According to a passerby, police suspect Wiederhold was placed there sometime after 10:20 a.m. that morning. The medical examiner estimated she was murdered between the hours of 12 a.m. and 6 a.m.
Within a few years, it was suspected she was the victim of a Yonkers serial killer wanted in three murders between 1989 and 1996, all of which were posed in death. However, when a DNA match led to Francisco Acevedo’s arrest in those killings in 2010, it was discovered that he was incarcerated in Connecticut at the time of Wiederhold’s death.
Wiederhold’s DNA was positively identified in April, and her family was notified. On Tuesday, family members could not be reached for comment, and Mount Vernon police declined to comment.
In recent months, investigators have begun following up on leads as to who might have murdered Wiederhold, and the “Jane Doe” death certificate is being updated to include her name.
Wiederhold had last been seen by her relatives in Queens and Brooklyn at the end of 1987. When Wiederhold’s identity was confirmed, Westchester investigators discovered no record of him in missing person databases.
Investigators learned from relatives that they attempted to file a missing person case in New York City. The NYPD, however, conducted a thorough search in recent months and found no such record, according to Murphy.
Wiederhold’s identification leaves at least 16 Westchester cases that have gone unsolved since the 1970s.
Six of those cases are classified as homicides, including the April 23, 1978, discovery of a gunshot victim in a cedar chest along Saw Mill River Road in Hastings-on-Hudson. The DA’s office released a photo of that man on Tuesday in the hopes that it would jog someone’s memory.