LA GRANDE — Melinda Jederberg of La Grande has a mission — find out the identity of a young woman who was found in a shallow grave near Elgin.
And if luck prevails, find out who put her there.
Jederberg said she knows that's a long shot. The case has been cold since hunters in late August 1978 found the human remains near a log on Finley Creek some 18 miles north of La Grande. The Observer covered the story at the time.
The woman was 18-25, according to the report at the time from state medical examiner Dr. William Bradley, stood 5 feet 2 inches to 5 feet 4 inches tall, weighed 114-140 pounds. She had light brown or blond hair. She was pregnant and likely near delivery. And the remains may have been there for four years.
Jederberg, who earned a bachelor's degree in criminology in 2007 from Eastern Oregon University, La Grande, has long kept her interest in crime. She came across The Doe Network last year, a website devoted to cold cases of missing and unidentified people. She said she wanted to find out whether there were cases in Union County. And at the top of the list was the Finley Creek case.
"I never heard of this," she said. "How is it possible I never heard of this?"
She started to dig and has not stopped. She took to Facebook and created the page Finley Creek Jane Doe — Elgin, OR to raise awareness and maybe bump into a clue. Others found the page, and now Jederberg is part of a five-person team with members throughout the West. In March, they obtained a copy of the Oregon State Police file on the case with details of the crime scene such as what the young woman wore. The report also points out police found a 4-foot-long piece of nylon cord and an approximately 2-foot-long radio cord with the remains.
Dale Mammen of La Grande remembers the scene well. He was the county's district attorney then.
"I could probably go to the spot," he said. "It's one of those things that's embedded in your mind."
The grave was about 100 feet off a road, across the dry bed of Finley, up an small embankment and under a log.
Two hunters noticed bones, he said, which animals had savaged. The hunters realized the bones were human.
Nothing indicated the woman was local, he said, and no one could find any reports of missing people here. Mammen said he figured she was a loner or had her own network of relationships. He also said he and his office suspected she may have been a victim of one of the most prolific serial killers of the Pacific Northwest.
"My theory on that at the time," he said, "and still is, it was about the time the Green River Killer was active."
Gary Leon Ridgway is serving life in prison at Washington State Penitentiary, Walla Walla, for murdering 49 women, although he has confessed to almost twice that many.
But Jederberg and teammate Kether Senn of Pendleton have their own theories. They said there are similarities with the Lewis Clark Valley murders, a cluster of unsolved killings and disappearances that occurred in northern Idaho between 1979-82.
"I feel like there might be a connection with that," Senn said.
She came across Jederberg's work via the Facebook page in 2019. Senn said true crime already was an interest, and the local case caught her.
"I got really interested in it," she said. "It kind of hit home to me, especially seeing she was pregnant. How could this happen?"
Between caring for three children, Senn said she has devoted a "lot of time on this late at night reading articles" to help crack the mystery. She and Jederberg also have their eyes on Harry Hantman as a suspect.
Harry Anthony Hantman was 44 when the law caught up to him in 1993 outside a motel in Lewiston, Idaho. He escaped on Christmas Day 1973 from St. Elizabeth's Hospital in the District of Columbia, the same mental hospital where John W. Hinckley was incarcerated after he shot President Ronald Reagan in 1981.
Hantman was in the hospital's ward for the criminally insane after being found not guilty by reason of insanity in 1969 of the brutal rape and murder of an 11-year-old girl in Washington, D.C., according to the Lewiston Tribune.
After escaping, Hantman made his way west, Jederberg said, and hid out near Joseph under the alias Andrew Dorian. He was even married and took classes at EOU.
When federal marshals caught Hantman, he had a warrant in Oregon on charges of kidnapping, raping and sodomizing a Japanese exchange student.
Jederberg said Hantman checks a lot of boxes in this case. Senn said something in her gut "just keeps pointing to him."
But for Jederberg, catching any killer would be the cherry on top. She said the real work is about identifying the young woman and finding her remains. State police shipped the remains to a crematorium in Walla Walla, she said, but after that no one has any paperwork.
"I want to find her final site. I'm just not quite there," she said.
Jederberg also said the woman had to have family — there has to be people who knew her. If she could find the remains, maybe she could give them to Jane Doe's relatives.
"She deserves her name," Jederberg said. "It's really about getting her name for her and laying her to rest."