PASCAGOULA – Janie Sanders met her killer on a chilly September afternoon 35 years ago.
The 16-year-old was walking home from Colmer Junior High when she was abducted, raped, stabbed to death and dumped like garbage in a makeshift trash heap off a dirt road just across the state line in Grand Bay, Ala.
Her assailant remains at large – something Pascagoula police are hoping to change with the help of forensic technology and new leads in the case.
“We need to get this guy off the streets no matter how long it takes,” said Detective Darren Versiga, who is among those taking another look at the case.
“I believe there is somebody still out there who knows something and is bothered about it. You can’t conceal this type of crime for 35 years and not have told somebody about it.”
Police are pouring through the more than 3,000-page case files and digging up DNA evidence, among other things, to try to link a suspect to the crime. In addition, Versiga said, investigators have now ruled out certain evidence that at the time of the slaying seemed so relevant that other pertinent leads went mostly unnoticed.
For days after the Sept. 24, 1975, slaying, police investigators set their sights on finding a red Mustang a witness said she’d seen Sanders getting into the day she vanished. At least four days passed, former investigators Billy Johnson and Judson Brooks said, before they determined the witness was in school detention the day Sanders went missing and had mistakenly recalled an earlier event. There was no red Mustang.
“The red Mustang was the red herring,” Versiga said. “We’re now looking for a blue (Chevrolet) El Camino with a silver camper and large whip CB antenna on it. It was seen leaving the area where Janie was dumped and unfortunately we never capitalized on that information because of the red Mustang.”
That and other new details in the case are among the clues detectives are chasing.
Jane Westmoreland is holding out hope police this time around will finally identify the person responsible for her daughter’s death.
The last hours of Janie Sanders life were spent in school at Colmer Junior High School in Pascagoula. When the bell rang at 3 p.m. that day, Sanders headed to her locker and met up with best friend, Robin Goodin Rivera, now a 51-year-old resident of Alabama.
It was a day like any other, Rivera said, with the two leaving the school together as they always did to make the long walk home.
The pair took the same path home every day, she said. Along the way, Rivera got chilly and asked to borrow her best friend’s white sweater.
“It was just a normal day,” she said. “We were just walking home, talking girl stuff. When I got home, I realized I still had her sweater and ran back out to take it to her.”
By that time, she said, her friend was just a couple of houses down from an intersection.
“I gave her the sweater and said goodbye,” she said. “I turned around and ran back to my house. That’s the last time I saw Janie. She was going home.”
Sanders, she said, was a little more naive than most and likely trusted the person who picked her up that day.
Police believe Sanders knew the person or at least knew of him.
Around 4:15 p.m., an Alabama game warden patrolling an area a little more than a mile into Mobile County saw a blue El Camino, now believed to be the assailant’s vehicle, driving out of a wooded area in west Mobile County. The area was used as an illegal trash dump.
The game warden, now deceased, was out posting no-trespassing signs, former investigators said, and decided to go see what the person in the El Camino had dumped there. What he found was Sanders’ body.
She’d been stabbed repeatedly, Versiga said, but blood evidence at the scene confirmed she was not killed there. Authorities suspect the killing occurred somewhere en route to the dump site.
Those who knew and loved Sanders, as well as others who grew up in the area where she disappeared, are hoping authorities are able identify the person responsible for the killing.
For them, their memories of that day are as vivid now as they were in 1975.
“I was pretty small when Janie came up missing,” said Derwood Alexander. “I remember being out in the yard the day it happened. The whole neighborhood was shocked. They just couldn’t believe something like that would happen. Everybody was more cautious.
“I have always wondered what happened over the years. To me, it seems like it was just yesterday. I was younger so I really didn’t know Janie that well. I just knew of her. She didn’t deserve that.”
Margaret Baker/The Sun Herald