Cold Case

Woman found dead 17 years ago in Manvel remains unidentified

What was left of her was found in a mound of dead vegetation and trash. Her tombstone was a tire; that's where the skull lay. Beyond it, her skeleton.

The man had pulled over to relieve himself. Standing by a low-slung barbed-wire fence at the end of the road, he thought he spotted an old bottle. He wound up nearly stumbling into bones.

Photos of the rings appeared years  after the body was found.
Sue Birdwell for the Texas Rangers
Photos of the rings appeared years after the body was found.
Photos of the rings appeared years  after the body was found.
Troy Fields
Photos of the rings appeared years after the body was found.

It was September 10, 1990, about 5 p.m. About 30 yards away, cars flew down Highway 288 — drivers like him, leaving their jobs in Houston, returning to the peace of rural Brazoria County.

He had been on his way home to Alvin when the need hit outside Manvel, and he scanned the roadside for a private place. At County Road 101, a mostly unpaved and minor trail between two major exits, he had swung left, across the median, through northbound traffic, and driven to where 101 dead-ended on the east side of 288. Here he was surrounded by pasture ringed with tall trees, with nothing to disturb him except the dragonflies overhead, big as buzzards.

Once home, he told his wife about the bones. They decided to call the Brazoria County Sheriff's Office, which notified the Manvel Police Department, a small unit working out of a trailer behind City Hall. The case wound up in the hands of Chief Tommie Tolson.

At the scene, Tolson found no purse, wallet, clothing or hair around the skeleton, but there, on her finger bones, were the rings, and a bracelet around her wrist. Whoever she was, she liked to wear a lot of jewelry: a silver-colored ring with a turquoise horse or unicorn; a ­silver-­colored band with a scroll design; two plain ­silver-colored bands; a gold-colored ring with six clear stones; a beaded pearl bracelet; and the biggest ring, a silver band crowned with a sapphire stone. He removed the jewelry and placed it in an evidence ­envelope.

Since Brazoria County has no medical examiner, the autopsy was conducted by Dr. Eduardo Bellas with the Harris County Medical Examiner's Office. The autopsy, performed the day after the bones were discovered, did not reveal much: an upper left front tooth that had been surgically removed; two fractured ribs; and a "defect" on a bone beneath her left knee. No traces of opiates were found in her bone marrow.

Bellas concluded she was Hispanic, estimated her age to be between 15 and 19, her height at 4'8" to 5'2". He could not determine the cause or manner of her death.

When the report was finalized a week later, the rings and bracelet got a brief mention: "Some property (jewelry) was recovered at the scene with the skeletal remains."

According to a brief Houston Chronicle article that ran three days later, Tolson characterized the girl as Hispanic or white. He said she had knee problems. He said she wore a silver ring with a turquoise unicorn on her right hand and a beaded bracelet on her right arm.

The article did not mention the biggest ring, the silver one with the sapphire stone. Along with the other jewelry, it would vanish from the public's eye until August 2006, when the case was reopened and investigators found an incredible clue in that evidence envelope. Surrounding the sapphire stone on the big ring were the words "Robert E. Lee H.S., Houston." Below, on the band itself, was the date 1975, and a portrait of the school's namesake. Before long, investigators would tell the media that the girl probably died six months to a year before the remains were found. This estimated time of death does not appear in the original medical examiner's report, and authorities have not made a subsequent forensic report available to the public.

With that crucial yet unexplained time frame in mind, investigators needed to figure out exactly how a ring belonging to a student from the class of 1975 wound up on the skeleton's finger.

Tolson was out of law enforcement by the time the existence of the ring was released to the public, but a new breed of detective instantly adopted the case. In the 16 years since the remains were discovered, true-crime buffs were chattering online, spending their free time researching missing and unidentified persons. And amateur sleuths across the country were drawn to this unidentified Texas girl, to her sapphire ring. It didn't take long before they gave her a name: Princess Blue. She died with a different name, but this was the one that would keep her case alive.

The new investigation was sparked in August 2006 by a phone call from ­California.

An online sleuth — a true-crime writer — called the Angleton Public Library seeking information about Princess Blue, known then only as Texas Department of Public Safety Case Number U0310014. The reference librarian who took the call found it strange. Why was this woman in California interested in a Brazoria County cold case? It just didn't sit right. So the librarian called the Brazoria County Sheriff's Office, and her suspicion was delivered to the desk of investigator Richard Rosser.

Rosser was curious, too. The woman had left her phone number with the librarian, but Rosser could only get her answering machine. He left his name and number and called authorities in California to see if they could check her out. But before any police knocked on her door, Rosser got a call back. The woman had been on vacation. No, she had nothing to do with the case. Just a natural interest.

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