Cold Case

Woman found dead 17 years ago in Manvel remains unidentified

"That kind of set it off," Rosser recalls. He pulled what little information was with the sheriff's office. At some point before this, the sheriff's Criminal Identification Division had trucked at least some of Princess Blue's remains to the University of North Texas Center for Human Identification in Fort Worth. There, the remains waited in line for an examination by forensic pathologists.

Meanwhile, the sheriff's office had no investigative notes to work with. Rosser called Manvel PD to see what they had. He was directed to Sergeant Jay Coffman, who had reviewed the case on and off since 2000. He was retired but, based on this renewed interest, would come back to work the case full-time.

The first order of business was to take a closer look at the class ring. A jeweler confirmed that it was a woman's ring, size 9.5. It had been upsized twice, from an original 7.5, and this would have wiped out any markings, like initials or school activities, that might have been inside the band.

Photos of the rings appeared years  after the body was found.
Photos of the rings appeared years after the body was found.
Experts believe Princess Blue was white, with some black ancestry.
Experts believe Princess Blue was white, with some black ancestry.

Balfour, the ring's Austin-based manufacturer, did not have records from 1975. And that year's graduating class of Robert E. Lee High was about 650 students, meaning at least 300 girls. Students could choose from several colored stones that year. Rosser and Coffman faced the possibility of having to track down 300 female graduates to see who bought a blue stone, and how many of those women parted with their rings prior to 1990. Coffman and Rosser released the information about the ring to the media in late August or early September 2006.

That's when the online detectives really took notice. A handful of members of Websleuths.com created a new forum devoted to Princess Blue, and it attracted colleagues from other sites. They combed through missing-persons sites, trolling for possible matches. They bounced ideas off each other. They decided that one of the most important orders of business was to contact the members of the Robert E. Lee High class of 1975. They got that year's yearbook, created a spreadsheet and tracked down addresses and phone numbers. They wrote a form letter seeking information about the ring, divvied up the mailing and sent around 200 letters. They waited. And waited.

When it became her turn, Princess Blue's remains were lifted from a shelf at the Center for Human Identification, and for the first time in 17 years, she had visitors.

Armed with nearly two decades' worth of advances in forensic pathology, the specialists studied her, and they came to a new set of parameters: She was no longer Hispanic. She was white, but with some ­African-American ancestry. A black parent, maybe, or grandparent. She grew older, too; she was now 17-21 years old; and then she just grew. She was now at least 4'11". But they wanted to give Princess Blue something that had been erased a long time ago. They wanted to give her a face.

Sue Birdwell, a forensic artist with the Texas Rangers, put pencil to paper. She drew big eyes framing a pronounced yet somehow still delicate nose. She drew a pair of full lips placed atop a sharply defined chin. She drew thick, dark, wavy hair adorning a slightly squarish head, parted down the middle. Princess Blue wore it pulled back in one rendering, collected in a ponytail or maybe up in a bun. In the other picture, her hair hung straight down, the waves more obvious now, spilling straight down somewhere below the bottom frame. Whoever she was, she was pretty. And now that she had a face, she was ready for the camera.

In June 2007, Princess Blue made news again.

The sketches were released to television stations and newspapers throughout Texas. But they probably had no greater impact than on the sleuthing sites. For months, sleuths had combed through hundreds of photographs of missing girls and young women, having no frame of reference except for words on a page. They didn't have any way to tell if the faces staring back at them actually looked like Princess Blue. So while it seemed likely that Princess Blue came from Harris or Brazoria counties, the drawings made it impossible for the sleuths to ignore those photos of the woman from Dallas.

 Kimberly Shawn Cheatham was last seen on April 12, 1989. She was supposed to go to a cousin's house to do her laundry. She never showed up. A short while later, her empty car was found outside Dallas, covered by brush. She was black, 21, 4'10". But most importantly, her gritty black-and-white photos posted on the Texas Department of Public Safety Web site looked strikingly like Princess Blue.

Using Photoshop, Websleuth member Alexandria Goddard overlaid the sketches of Princess Blue onto Cheatham's pictures. She was stunned at what she saw.

"I want to say that it is her, but I also don't want to set myself to be disappointed if it's not," Goddard says from her home in Ohio. She says she's been speaking with Cheatham's mother, who lives in California. Both were encouraged enough by the overlay that they contacted the Dallas detective handling the Cheatham case.

While the most recent forensic examination concluded Princess Blue was white, Goddard believes such determinations are not written in stone.

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