Minute Mystery

The Lady in The Box – Unsolved Benton County Jane Doe | Minute Mystery Episode 5 |

On the mild fall evening of October 8, 1976, farmers were finishing out the season, harvesting their crops. But one farmer would get more than just corn from his field that evening, and 45 years later, we’re still not entirely sure what happened.

Get ready for Minute Mystery Episode 5:

aitoff | pixabay

Norman Skoog, a farmer in Benton County, Indiana, near the town of Otterbein, was headed out to his corn field on his combine. On his way out to the field, he passed his 16 year old son Curtis mowing the lawn. He was heading to a more remote area of his farm bordered by the gravel Benton County Road 200 South, about 2.5 kilometers (1.6 miles) from the Skoog home.

Around 5-5:30pm, on October 8th, 1976, Norman was combining about nine rows in from Road 200 South, roughly 14 meters (15.31 yards) when he noticed something white just in front of his combine that didn’t belong there. He quickly stopped the combine and hopped out to investigate. Sitting between rows of corn in his field was a white cardboard box, wrapped in foil tape and rope. He tried to lift it to move it out of his way, but it was too heavy for him to lift alone. Obviously not wanting to drive over something that’s *not* corn and risk contaminating his crop with who knows what, he left in his pickup truck to get his father-in-law, Everett Daulton. The pair returned to the combine and together lifted the heavy box into the back of Norman’s truck.

Curtis, still mowing the lawn, saw his dad come home from the field early with his granddad in the pickup. He watched them drive by and up to the house, and that’s when he noticed a box in the back. Curious, he went after them and hopped up into the back of the truck- that’s when they noticed that the box smelled. It was almost like a woman’s perfume, but there was something off about it.  Curtis began to cut open the box, and as he pulled one of the flaps back, they were overpowered with the strong, strong scent of women’s perfume that had gone bad. The box was stuffed full of bundles wrapped in thick plastic, tied closed with ropes. Lying on the top of the bundles was a broken bottle of women’s perfume.

Norman told Curtis not to open the box any further, not to touch anything, and called the police. It’s a good thing he did.

Sheriff Donal Steely answered Norman’s call. When he arrived he began to investigate, cutting into and pulling back layers of thick plastic sheeting. They immediately understood why the contents of the box had been doused in perfume as the true scent overwhelmed them- the unmistakable smell of death. Sheriff Steely stopped what he was doing and instead of opening the box any further, called the state police.

Indiana State Police arrived to the Skoog home quickly and opened the box. They cut ropes and pulled back the thick plastic sheeting to find the body of a woman, in the fetal position, bound tightly with rope crammed into the 3’x2’x1’ box.

Her head was wrapped in paper towels, a small white cloth towel, and two small light-coloured trashcan liners. She was a Caucasian woman dressed in light green pants with a matching light green and tan knit top. She had no shoes on and no jewellery. Her nails were neatly trimmed and her hands were calloused. She was not wearing any makeup, had light brown eyes and light brown hair that was beginning to grey, matching with her suspected age of late 50’s to early 60’s. She was measured at 5’2 and 170lbs. I hate the thought of how tightly she would have been bound in the fetal position to fit in the box she was found in- in fact, it was found that she was bound so tightly it had bruised and deformed her in certain areas.

The clock was ticking; who was this woman, where did she come from, and who did this to her?

There were a few things that stood out about her: she had a large vertical scar stretching from her sternum to stomach, as well as scarring from a recent mastectomy done on her right side.  They found evidence that she had had extensive dental work done, but reported that she still needed more…

The most notable identifying features were a bump on the bridge of her nose, and “abnormally” large ears.

The police took her fingerprints, but zero matches turned up. Whoever she was, at the very least she had never been arrested in the states, served in the U.S. military, worked in civil service in the states, or immigrated to the U.S.

The autopsy found her cause of death to be a single gunshot wound to the back of the head- execution style. Whoever the killer was, they had expertly angled the shot so the bullet would pass straight through her brain and wouldn’t get lodged in her skull. All the killer left behind were small metal fragments left in the wound. It’s believed the bullet was .22 or .38 calibre.

The coroner reported that the woman had been dead for approximately 7-10 days, yet showed remarkably little evidence of decomposition.  Investigators theorize the box was placed in the Skoog’s field the same day it was found- about 12 hours before it was found by Norman- because Benton County was pummelled with heavy rains the day and night before, as well as into the morning of the discovery of the box- but the box showed no signs of ever being wet.

The box was inspected, and had “wardrobe bottom” stamped on one side, and “hall closet” hand written on another side. Investigators were able to track the box manufacturer to Gene Goodwillie Inc. in Melrose Park, Illinois, and that it was manufactured between May and October of 1976. The same type of box was mainly used by movers in Illinois, Indiana, Wisconsin and Michigan.

With Otterbein being a small, tight-knit community, it didn’t take them long to rule out that this woman wasn’t local.

With the information about the box she was found in being manufactured in Illinois, Sheriff Steely theorizes that she was from Chicago, Illinois, or one of the bordering towns of Gary or Hammond, Indiana. All three cities are only a few hours’ drive from Otterbein in Benton County, and all three are easily accessible by Interstate 65, a major north-south highway connecting the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico.

Newspapers published a sketch of the woman, hoping someone would come forward looking for their mother, sister, or friend. People from all different states called and came in to see if the woman found in the box was their missing loved one, but sadly no one ever claimed her.

No one seemed to know who this woman was, where she came from, and how she ended up the way she did.

Now, back to when we talked about Otterbein being a small, tight-knit community, and how they were quickly and easily able to rule out that the woman wasn’t local, were also able to provide the most credible theory as to how she ended up in the Skoog’s field:

With Otterbein being a farming town, that meant there were a lot of farmers outside from dusk till dawn that saw the comings and goings of the area. Nobody saw a vehicle drive down County Road 200 South that day, but they did, however, see something else.

At least three separate farmers witnessed a gold and white Bell JetRanger, an expensive helicopter mostly owned and used by wealthy people or major corporations. The witness statements report the helicopter flying in from the northeast, swing to the southwest, hover near the ground where the box was found before swinging to the west and leaving northwest. Upon investigation, police found “an irregular circle of exposed dirt” where the box was found, which could have been caused by a helicopters strong updraft.

Bell JetRanger | thisdayinaviation.com

Farmers in the area, especially Norman, are very firm on their opinion that no one drove down and carried the box into Norman’s field. Norman is adamant on the fact that the box was not carried into the field. The box was heavy- he needed to get his father in law to help him carry it into the truck. If the box was carried into the field, it would have required two people. Two people carrying a heavy box nine rows deep, 14 meters (15.31 yards) from Road 200 South into the field, would have left behind an obvious trail. The area that the box was found in only showed disturbed dirt from the helicopter, no signs that anyone moved through the corn to place the box.

meineresterampe | pixabay

You’d think that the helicopter would have provided a few leads for the police, especially with the specifics of it being a white and gold Bell JetRanger- you think they would have been able to use the range a helicopter can travel, and narrow down ownership of that model in a specific area. I also wondered if a helicopter would have had to report flight plans, or if it could have been picked up on radar. But as I was reading, I found a few comments that in the 70’s helicopters and small aircraft didn’t need to report flight plans. It also makes sense that helicopters fly at an altitude below planes, and therefore might not be picked up on radar- I don’t know at what altitude radar begins tracking at though. And I suppose a privately owned helicopter could takeoff from anywhere, and technically they could land and fuel up somewhere privately too.  It wouldn’t surprise me if someone that had the money to buy a Bell JetRanger in the 70’s, would have connections to make private stops along a route.  In the 1970’s a Bell JetRanger would have cost around $160,000 USD. The value of $160,000 in the 70’s has inflated to around $1.1 Million dollars in 2021.  

Surgeries and operations are expensive in the United States. Either this woman had done very well for herself and was able to pay for all her operations or someone or people loved her and were taking care of her. Someone obviously cared enough about her to pay for her to get a mastectomy, either to help treat breast cancer or they cared so much that they paid for her to have a mastectomy to decrease her chances of getting breast cancer.

You would think that the police would have been able to find a record of someone owning a white and gold Bell JetRanger in an area, and also search medical and dental records in the same area and find something. But still, nothing came up and no one came to claim her as their loved one.

A lot of people have questioned why someone would leave her in a box in a farmer’s field during harvest? Why not leave her deep in a forest somewhere, or weigh the box down and drop her into a lake? My first thought when reading this story was that whoever left her in the Skoogs field was counting on the fact that it was time to harvest the crop and that Norman would be out on his combine and drive over the box, destroying the woman, and all the evidence in the process.

While doing research, a lot of people seem to believe the same thing, but a lot of people also believe that the box was placed there deliberately to be found.

THE THEORIES:

The largest and probably most believable theory is that this is all mob or organized crime related. A lot of people theorize that she was probably a cleaning woman for someone in the mob, and happened to find or see something she shouldn’t have while cleaning, or heard something she shouldn’t have and was taken out. Her cause of death, the bullet wound to the back of the head, very strategically fired does scream “professional” to me.

Or people believe that maybe she wasn’t a cleaner for a mob member, but that she was something to someone- killed and placed in a box in a field where they knew she would be found in order to send a message. Who the message is for, we will never know, because if that’s the case, it was heard loud and clear. No one has come forward with any information whatsoever.

One of the other popular theories that I’ve seen mentioned multiple times is that people theorize she worked as a realtor. They theorize that because of her nice outfit, as well as the fact that the plastic sheeting she was wrapped in is the same type of plastic that you would find laid out on the floor when a home is being shown to keep it clean and she was found in a moving box.

A user by the name of Clatato on Reddit commented about Ruth Martin, a 51 year old realtor from Illinois that was taken from her home on June 2, 1976. Investigators found blood stains and a .22 caliber bullet on the floor of her garage. She was scheduled to testify against a criminal, Russell Smrekar, in court. And along with Ruth, all the other witnesses that were supposed to testify, as well as one of the witness’s pregnant wives, were also killed.  

Smrekar confessed to Ruth’s murder shortly before he died while serving his 300 year sentence in the Menard Correctional Center, but couldn’t remember where he disposed of her body. He said that he buried her under Interstate 55 during its construction, but authorities have not been able to locate her body. One thing I find interesting and worth mentioning is that Ruth was from Illinois, and the box our Jane Doe was found in was manufactured in Illinois. Just an interesting connection, even if they’re not connected.

Another Reddit user by the name of sunshineandcacti commented on the same thread with their theory about the woman being a realtor. They brought up the fact that she was found in a box marked for moving. And that if they passed by a house for sale and saw someone carrying a box marked with “wardrobe bottom” or “hall closet” on it that they wouldn’t second guess it and assume it was a mover. A convenient and inconspicuous way to transport a body.

Ruth went missing in June of 1976, but our Jane Doe was not found until October 1976, and was presumed to have died 7-10 days prior to being found. During my research I read about a mobster that had murdered someone, and froze them to preserve them for a while before dumping their body to be found. The only reason the coroners knew the body had been frozen was because he wasn’t completely thawed when found… So maybe even though there is a few months’ time difference, if someone wanted to, they could work around that.

A lot of people don’t buy into the “dropped by a helicopter” theory. I guess if you’re in a helicopter, you really could have dropped the box anywhere in the field, but since it was only 9 rows in from the road, people believe it’s more likely that someone or multiple people drove in during the night and carried the box in and placed it in the field. They say that the helicopter was most likely hired or rented by another farmer and was flying over the Skoog field on their way to dust a crop somewhere, noticed the white box, stopped and hovered over while checking it out before carrying on.

I have a few issues with that theory. First being if people drove down during the night and carried the box into the field, the box would have been wet or showed signs of being wet because it poured the day before, overnight, and into the morning or October 8th before Norman found it. And my other issue with this theory is that as Norman has said, there were no signs of anyone walking into his field. If you go to a corn maze you can clearly see where people have gone through the “walls”, they leave an obvious path. Norman would have seen damage to the stalks and evidence that people walking in the field, which there was none. The box looked as though it had just been dropped from the sky- and the only evidence is that of dirt being disturbed by the helicopter updraft.

On October 9th, 1976, the Benton County Jane Doe was buried in an unmarked grave on the edge of Fowler Cemetery in Indiana.

One year after her burial, caretakers noticed a plastic bouquet of flowers left on her grave. They notified the police, but they had no way to know who left them there.  I think she is definitely loved and missed; someone took the time to learn where she was laid to rest, to buy the flowers, and to leave them for her. Maybe as an apology. Maybe to let her know she is loved and will never be forgotten, even though she’s buried in an unmarked grave and we still don’t know her name.

43 Years Later

In 2019, her case was re-opened by Benton County Coroner, Matt Rosenbarger. Forensic experts from the Human Identification Center at the University of Indianapolis used coroner reports, funeral home records and receipts for the $450 funeral costs of her burial; they were able to locate her unmarked grave.

Her grave was carefully exhumed. The wooden casket or coffin (I’ve seen it reported as both) that she was buried in had basically completely decomposed after having been underground for 43 years. But luckily her remains were contained in a body bag within the disintegrated casket/coffin.

She was transported to the University of Indianapolis where they took samples of her DNA and submitted them, along with her dental traits to see if any comparisons or matches came through, but unfortunately, none did.

People have theorized that based off her features, like her large years, the bump on her nose, the extensive need for dental work, and her stature hint towards a genetic disorder; and we hope that with scientific advancements, that one day her DNA could be used and tested to see if she did have a genetic disorder, and if that information could be used to take us one step closer to who she was or who she was related to. I would also be curious to see if they could test her phenotype to try to pinpoint where exactly she came from.

45 years have passed since Norman found that white box in his corn field, and investigators are no closer to knowing who the woman in the box was, or who killed her.

Maybe one day the person that left the flowers on her grave will come forward, and give the Benton County Jane Doe, the Box Lady of Benton County, her name back.

Thank you for taking the time to listen to this Jane Doe’s story. We really have no information about her and what happened to her, and that’s what makes it a Minute Mystery. Here is a link to the DNA Doe Project site, a non-profit organization that uses forensic genealogy to identify unidentified Jane and John Does, and has identified over 40 unidentified people since being founded in 2017. If you would like to donate and help get someone their name back, you can do that here.

Sources:

https://www.reddit.com/r/UnresolvedMysteries/comments/mp4ae9/on_a_fall_day_in_1976_a_farmer_harvesting_corn_in/

https://medium.com/true-crime-by-cat-leigh/box-containing-womans-body-found-in-cornfield-11ae795440bd

https://www.thedeadhistory.com/the-box-lady-of-benton-county/

https://www.lincolncourier.com/article/20111028/NEWS/310289952

Jet BellRanger Photo

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