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.
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.
Investigators Coffman (l) and Rosser have not had any promising leads.
Investigators Coffman (l) and Rosser have not had any promising leads.

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.

"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.

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.

She says, "With those, you can't always rely on the information that's listed. Like with Kimberly Cheatham...she's African-American, whereas, you know, Princess's race has changed so many times just over the past six months."

Goddard has long held a general interest in true-crime. She was already a Websleuths member when authorities released the news about Princess Blue's ring. With such a powerful clue, it seemed like Princess Blue stood a better chance of being identified than the thousands of other unidentified remains stored in evidence rooms throughout the country. That's one of the reasons Goddard launchedwww.SomeoneKnowsMe.com, a site devoted to finding the identity not only of Princess Blue but of other unidentified and missing ­persons.

"Somewhere, somebody has to know something about this ring," she says.

The sleuthing sites generate a lot of cross-traffic, because the sleuthing community believes in sharing information, something that is not always practiced among law enforcement agencies.

The only mention of Princess Blue's surgically removed upper left tooth is buried in the 1990 medical examiner's report; it was never released to the public as an investigative aid. If it had been, someone — sleuth or cop — might have taken a closer look at Babette Alberti.

Alberti was last seen in October 1983, in Jefferson Parish, Louisiana, which comprises a large part of suburban New Orleans. Based on the information on the Jefferson Parish Sheriff's Office Web site, Alberti seems an unlikely candidate for Princess Blue. The height is on, but the age, 31, is off. Alberti's photograph vaguely resembles the Princess Blue sketches, but certainly not more than Cheatham.

It's on the Web sites of the Doe Network and the Charley Project — privately established sites run by volunteers — that Alberti comes more into focus. A second photograph on those sites shows Alberti smiling, revealing what appears to be a gap in her upper teeth where a tooth might have been. Those sites also reveal that Alberti fractured her ribs as a child. Princess Blue's upper two ribs were fractured; the autopsy never established if that occurred post- or antemortem. The sites also state, "She may have been involved in drugs and prostitution."

Of course, the chances of Alberti being a match for Princess Blue would rise and fall dramatically on whether she was actually missing a tooth, and, if so, which one. But a call to the Jefferson Parish Sheriff's Office proved a dead end.

"I cannot give any information out," said Captain Hilda Montecino of the JPSO. She said she would contact the Manvel Police Department, and any information would have to come from them. All she could disclose was that Alberti was last seen in St. Bernard Parish in September 1983, placing her last known whereabouts in a different parish and a different month than what's listed on the JPSO Web site.

Montecino offered to put the Houston Press in touch with the JPSO's public information officer, although he wouldn't be able to say anything, either. When the Press asked for the PIO's name and number, Montecino said he would be the one calling. That's because, when it comes to the name and number of the Jefferson Parish Sheriff's Office's public information officer, "We just don't give that out to the public."

When Coffman and Rosser reopened the Princess Blue case, they knew they had to talk to Tommie Tolson, the original ­investigator.

By that time, the former Manvel police chief had moved to Hallettsville, where he works as a truck driver. Coffman and Rosser wanted to see if he might be able to tell them anything that had been left out of the original report. It was only a few paragraphs long and was never supplemented. If Tolson ever sketched or photographed the crime scene, that evidence has long disappeared. He did not appear to have interviewed anyone other than the motorist who found the remains.

Tolson didn't have much to tell them. Besides, he had another life now, and he had more important things to deal with than a bunch of bones dumped on a dead-end road nearly two decades earlier.

"He said he's not interested in saying nothing," his wife, Susan, told the Press. And even if he wanted to talk, what could he say about an unidentified body?

"Nothing came of it," Susan Tolson says of the original investigation. She laughs when she says it, just like she laughs when she adds, "They did what they could."

The bottom line: Tommie Tolson cannot be bothered with this stuff. He's out in his rig, trying to keep a schedule.

"He has to keep his mind on the road," she says.

So the reason he sat on the single most important clue in the case remains a ­mystery.

"I can't think of a reasonable explanation why the high school ring would not be put out there [to the public]," says Vernon Geberth, a consultant in homicide and forensic case investigations for authorities in the U.S. and Canada. Geberth was a member of the New York Police Department from 1965 to 1987, retiring as the commanding officer for the Bronx Homicide Task Force.

"It's been a traditional practice in law enforcement to withhold information about the case so only you and the actual killer know what has happened," Geberth says. "But if I have an unidentified body, my biggest quandary is the identification of the deceased. Because I don't have a base for my investigation unless I know who I'm investigating."

If he doesn't have a name, he doesn't have the victimology, which means he doesn't have an idea why she was chosen as a victim, which means there's nothing pointing to a suspect.

Or at least a new suspect. There was always an old standby.

Roy Alan Stuart had a knack for turning up in towns where young women went ­missing.

His talent came to fruition in 1971, when the body of Linda Kay Simmons was discovered in a pasture outside Amarillo. When investigators there followed the leads, they wound up at Stuart's front door. He was arrested on July 13, charged, released for want of proof and arrested again three weeks later when the bludgeoned body of 40-year-old Kay Sands was found in a field. This time, there would be a trial.

While he was out on bond, two women accused him of assault in separate incidents. He was charged for those assaults, which were dropped when the women refused to testify. Ultimately, a jury found him not guilty of Sands's murder.

Four years later, police would arrest him again, this time for aggravated sexual assault. And this time, Stuart pled guilty. He would be remanded to the Darrington Unit in Rosharon, Brazoria County. His sentence was 15 years; he served seven.

Some months before Stuart's release, Brazoria County Sheriff's Deputy Matt Wingo got a call from a sheriff in north Texas, up near Amarillo.

"He told me of the man named Roy Alan Stuart," Wingo wrote in a memoir for The Police News. "The Sheriff understood Stuart was to be released soon from TDC and our caseload may go up."

When Stuart was released, he didn't leave Brazoria County. He got a job as an auto mechanic and moved into a trailer near Clute with the woman he married while in prison. Wingo writes that his office and the Houston Police Department began a surveillance on Stuart, who proved less than a faithful husband.

"He was found to have an affinity for Houston, Galveston and Bay City prostitutes," Wingo wrote. In Houston, his favorite haunt was the LaMonte Hotel.

In November 1985, the body of a prostitute who worked out of the LaMonte was found on Brazoria County Road 403, about five miles north of where Princess Blue would be discovered five years later. In March 1987, the body of another prostitute who worked out of the LaMonte turned up in Bastrop Bayou, still in Brazoria County, but considerably south of the Princess Blue site. In both cases, some LaMonte denizens said they saw the women step into Stuart's light-blue station wagon. (When the Press showed Mary Nava, a LaMonte desk clerk in the late 1980s, the sketches of Princess Blue, Nava said she didn't recognize her.)

Shortly after the second body was found, an officer working surveillance on Stuart saw him driving irregularly. Stuart was stopped and arrested for driving while intoxicated. When his car was towed and searched, investigators found fingerprints and hair from the second body. Stuart was charged in her murder, but the charges were later dropped. Reports differ on the reason behind the dropped charges; some say a judge ruled the search of Stuart's car invalid, thus eliminating the physical evidence; other reports say LaMonte regulars refused to testify. Either way, Stuart walked.

Stuart's career came to an end in May 1994, after he brought a Freeport woman to his trailer, bound her arms with rope and choked her. She managed to writhe free and escape. A jury found him guilty of aggravated kidnapping. He was sentenced to life.

In July 2007, Coffman and Rosser drove to the McConnell Unit in Beeville to have a talk with Stuart. They showed him the sketches; he showed them an "innocent" man.

"He denied any responsibility or any knowledge of anything — he didn't do any crimes, he never committed a crime ever," Coffman says. "And he doesn't know why he's locked up now...I told him, 'Just follow us, we're going to walk out in a minute; you just come out with us because you're innocent.'"

It wasn't the first time Stuart saw the renderings. About a week before Coffman and Rosser questioned him, Stuart opened an envelope from Ohio and found himself staring at Princess Blue. Accompanying the pictures was a note from online sleuth Alexandria Goddard. But if she was expecting a confession, she would be ­disappointed.

"I am going to tell you the same thing I told them," Stuart wrote to Goddard in early August. "I do not know who the person or persons are in the pictures. I have no idea why my name is brought up when something like this happens...The officers asked me where I was in 1990. I guess this is when this person was supposed to have been killed. I explained to them that I was in prison at the Ellis Unit in Huntsville in 1989 and 1990. I then asked them why they always come to me. They explained that it was because of my past troubles with the law. And they said that where [there] is so much smoke, there had to be some fire. I tried to explain to them that the only fire is the one started by them and other law enforcement agencies in Texas."

But either Stuart was mistaken about one detail or he lied: He was not in prison in 1989 or 1990. He was a free man.

Three hundred people is a lot to track down.

In the 17 years since Princess Blue's body was found, graduates of the 1975 class of Robert E. Lee High have moved, gotten divorced, remarried, fallen off the map.

Working from the sleuths' spreadsheet, the Press tried calling as many graduates as possible. Out of a handful reached, three said they lost blue-stoned class rings prior to 1990, in Harris and Galveston counties. But memories are hazy; the women can't recall exactly when they first realized the rings were gone, or where exactly they might have lost them.

Did Princess Blue find the ring somewhere? Did she see it in a pawn shop? Was it given to her by a relative who never saw the media coverage of the ring? Did she steal it?

"My theory is the [ring belongs] to possibly her mother, an aunt, you know, some relative," Coffman says. "It's impossible to know who it could have belonged to. But obviously the closest tie would be her mother."

Rosser was struck by the overlaid images of Princess Blue and Kimberly Cheatham, but until DNA or dental records are compared, there's no way of knowing.

"The problem with these cases — you can theorize forever and until you find out, you just don't know," he says "Anybody's theory is as good as anybody else's. Believe me, we've spent hours and hours...just talking it over, trying to think of something that makes sense. What really bothers me is, you know, we had all this publicity about the ring and Jay [Coffman] got some phone calls, I got a few...and none of them were really even slightly promising."

In July, one sleuth went on Goddard's Web site and proposed paying to have the remains buried, if authorities permitted.

"We could put 'Princess Blue' on her headstone and then later on down the road, if she is identified and no family claims her, then we could have the headstone changed to display her real name...She needs to be laid to rest."

For Goddard, it's the perfect idea.

"My dad told me a long, long time ago, the only thing that's ever truly yours is your name," she says. "And Princess Blue doesn't have one right now. And I'd like to see her get her name back."

craig.malisow@houstonpress.com

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