While Aurelia Torres lay dying in a North Jersey hospital, one thing still haunted her, the same unknown that kept her awake at night, for decades, worrying and wondering where her daughter was.
“Find Evelyn,” she whispered to her son before she died in 2000.
Since 1976, Torres and her family believed that Evelyn Colon, 15, had moved away with her older boyfriend and gave birth to a 9-pound boy, according to a letter sent to them anonymously. Torres used to stare out her window in Jersey City and cry, hoping her daughter would reach out.
“The truth would have killed my mother long before she died,” Luis Colon Sr. said.
Evelyn never saw 16.
For decades now, a simple headstone in a potter’s field in Carbon County, Pa., has marked the grave of “Beth Doe” and her unborn child. Earlier this year, the family learned Evelyn was that Beth Doe, murdered shortly after they last saw her, before Christmas of 1976. Evelyn was shot and strangled, authorities said.
On Dec. 20, 1976, a teenager playing along the banks of the Lehigh River beneath an Interstate 80 overpass in Carbon County discovered her dismembered remains and her nearly full-term fetus stuffed into three suitcases.
Authorities compiled a sketch and the FBI obtained fingerprints in the aftermath of the murder, but Evelyn was not identified for decades. Earlier this year, a match was made with DNA her nephew submitted to an ancestry database.
“I figured I could find out what happened with her and try to reconnect,” Colon Jr. said.
The DNA submission told him things he knew — the family was from Puerto Rico, and Spain before that — but it also resulted in a call from the Pennsylvania State Police. The department, working with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children had extracted DNA from Evelyn Colon’s remains and Othram, a Houston-based DNA laboratory, built a genetic profile.
“Your DNA matched with the victim of a homicide,” the officer told him.
The same boyfriend the family believed Evelyn had gone off to start a life with, Luis Sierra, was charged with homicide last month and extradited from New York to Pennsylvania, where he remains in jail. Sierra initially denied knowing Evelyn, authorities said, but he later admitted sending that letter in 1977.
According to a report in LehighValleyLive.com, authorities are still investigating whether they can charge Sierra with the death of the unborn child. The Carbon County District Attorney’s Office did not return requests for comment.
Although there was no official missing persons report filed, Evelyn’s family said they did go to police decades ago. And that when police saw the letter, Colon Sr. said, they were told there was nothing that could be done.
“All this time, we were looking for Evelyn Colon, not Beth Doe,” Colon Sr. said.
From 1976 to 1983, Evelyn and her unborn child’s remains were held at the Philadelphia morgue. According to news accounts, the morgue ran out of room and in August of 1983, a local pastor and a handful of law enforcement officials stood by as mother and daughter’s remains were interred at the potter’s field in Carbon County. Her remains were exhumed in 2007 for DNA collection.
The “Carbon County Beth Doe” case, like thousands of other unidentified and unsolved cases, developed its own online following. A Facebook group dedicated to Beth Doe started in 2013 has nearly 2,000 followers.
“All these years we kept her story active so she would not be forgotten and hoping she would be identified in my lifetime,” said Anne Wagner, one of the Facebook group’s administrators. “But it is really sad that this family had to experience this sadness.”
Colon Jr., who lives in Houston, said he’s struggled with what his DNA quest revealed about his aunt’s short life.
“For me to be the one to have to tell my family, ‘Hey, I think we found her,’ you don’t want to be the one to have to give that news,” he said.
The family has since named Evelyn’s daughter Emily Grace, and they are raising funds for a new headstone that bears both their names. Colon Sr. and Evelyn’s two sisters have visited the grave recently. The cemetery sits between Christmas tree farms off a quiet, two-lane road in the hills. Simple, wooden crosses mark most graves, but Evelyn’s is now bursting with flowers and rubber ducks, along with a cardboard sign that said “So Sad. Never Forgotten.”
The family planned to be back on Mother’s Day.
“She was very pregnant and from what I heard, very eager to be a mother,” said Evelyn’s niece, Miriam Veltman. “She thought she was going to have a family. He denied her that.”