• Ashley

Episode 7: Helen Doe

Updated: Oct 23

This is an interesting and unique case because it doesn't involve a murder or a suicide - there wasn’t necessarily anything nefarious going on at all - it was just a tragic accident that became an ongoing mystery. Who was the hitchhiker that died in a truck collision near Mount St. Helens in 1991? Let's try to find out on this episode of Washed Away.


Sources for this episode include: KOIN, The Daily News, NamUs, and The Doe Network.


Here's a look at the scene of the crash back in 1991:


Below you'll see a drawing (L) of what Helen Doe may have looked like according to her remains and witness reports, illustrated by Natalie Murry. On the (R) is a snapshot from the day Helen Doe's remains were exhumed to extract her DNA.



An important note: If you'd like to find out more about missing Native women in Washington state, this article explains the details in a 36 page report from last year. Also it was recently Indigenous Peoples' Day and I made a land acknowledgement that you can read here.



Transcript-

Ashley:

In 1991, somewhere on I-5 near Kalama Washington, a terrible accident between a tractor trailer and a semi truck took the lives of two people. The driver of the tractor trailer was quickly identified as 26 year old Lester Harvel, but his passenger… a young woman… has remained unidentified to this day. She was a Jane Doe for awhile… but was eventually given the name Helen Doe, due to the location of the crash being close to Mount St Helens - But who was she really? Let’s try to find out… on this episode of Washed Away.

Ashley:

So this is an interesting case to me, just in kind of how unique it is. I feel it's not a murder, it's not a suicide. There wasn't necessarily anything nefarious going on. It was just a tragic accident, right?

Stacy Moate:

That's correct. Yeah. And then I think a lot of people are like, well, why try to work so hard on this case when there wasn't a crime, but there's still a victim. She may not be a victim of a crime, right? But she's still a victim of this crash and of the circumstances she was in. So it's, it's different than most, but it's still just as important I think.

Ashley:

That’s Detective Sergeant Stacy Moate from the Washington State Patrol that I’m talking to there. She’s spent the last few years giving interviews, going on tv, doing everything she can to try and get Helen Doe identified. Here’s some backstory… on May 14, 1991 - Lester Harvel had made his way to Washington. He was a truck driver from Missouri that hit quite a few states on his route across the west side of the country. Near Mount St Helens, Lester got stuck in traffic on the highway and was rear ended by a semi that wasn’t able to stop in time. Unfortunately Lester’s truck was hauling paper and after the gas tank blew, the whole thing immediately went up in flames and t here was no time for Lester to get out. When rescue crews arrived on the scene they found that Lester wasn’t alone in his cab. There was another body badly burned by the flames… the body of a woman. The trucking company that Lester worked for had no record of a passenger, or no passengers had been authorized anyway, so it’s assumed that Lester had picked up a hitchhiker. Something he had been known to do in the past.

Stacy Moate:

Yeah. So when the crash occurred, we knew who the driver was because the company was able to tell us who he was. And they provided us with the fuel receipts that showed where he left from in Missouri. And then all the fuel stops he made along the way, right up until the time of the crash. So we were able to track his route, um, from Missouri through Colorado, Wyoming, Idaho, Oregon, and then to Washington. We don't know at what point he picked up Helen Doe, but we know it had to have been somewhere along that route that he took.

Ashley:

I feel like our thoughts on hitchhiking have changed a lot since 1991, but for a lot of people, that was their only way of getting around. Hitchhiking in the United States became common during the Great Depression, but the stranger danger panic in the 1980s made hitchhiking a thing of the past for most people… I’ve never done it personally and I kind of assumed hitchhiking was against the law these days, but I guess there are still some ways to legally do it according to the info I found online. So, hitchhiking in Washington State is technically illegal on highways and there is a chance you’ll be fined if you’re caught. But if you hitch a ride along on-ramps… that’s actually okay. I assume because it’s safer, cars can pull over, they aren’t going as fast, etc. But anyway, back to Helen Doe….

Stacy Moate:

So our MAIT team, or our major accident investigation team had been handling this one back in 91. And for the few years that followed until really, it just went to- became a cold case. They'd run out of leads and things to try to identify her. But when I came back into my current detective unit, as the Sergeant, one of my detectives had been on the MAIT team for years. And so he knew about the case and he was coming close to retirement. And so he really was like, you know, for my last six months in here, I just want to focus on this. So he worked really hard on that. And when he retired, um, I kind of just inherited it from him to continue the work he had started. So that's how it ended up with me.

Stacy Moate:

Probably once a year, once every 18 months or so. I go back through all of the missing person, databases that are available online, to look through, to see if somebody new has been added, that wasn't there when I went through it the year before. Uh, and you know, that takes a lot of time, but I'm just hopeful that one day somebody will realize, you know, maybe it's time I reported her missing, even though it's been so long, but we just haven't found a match yet.

Ashley:

Any ID, purse, wallet, anything she (Helen Doe) might've had on her burnt up in the fire along with her fingerprints. But here's what we do know about Helen Doe. She was probably in her twenties, between five feet and 5'4, around 115 pounds. She had high cheekbones, a gap between her front bottom teeth, and severe scoliosis, which means that she probably walked with a limp. Witness accounts claim she was wearing a black cowboy vest and a gray and pink top. They said she had a long, dark ponytail and was wearing multiple accessories, including some rings on her fingers and a feather earring dangling from one ear.

Stacy Moate:

There was a couple of other truck drivers that had been talking with the driver of the truck Helen Doe was in, they'd been talking over the CB radios and she'd been waving out the window to them prior to, as they were just kind of having a conversation while driving down I-5. And so those witnesses that had stopped at the scene, they were able to provide a description of her appearance, her hair, and her clothing that day. So that was where all that information came from.

Ashley:

Wow. That seems so crucial that, you know, other people saw her and could, because obviously the driver wasn't able to tell anyone about what she looked like, or you know, what her name might have been.

Stacy Moate:

Yeah. It was definitely an important bit of information to get from those people. And we even talked to them again in 2014, after the sketch was done, we were able to locate a couple of those witnesses and, uh, send the sketch to them. And, you know, even though it had been so long since the crash happened.. you know 20 something years, they were still like, you know, I remember this, like it was yesterday. Cause as officers, we see crashes like that all the time. But for most witnesses you see a crash like that once in your lifetime. So it really stuck out in their head. And when we showed them the sketch, they were like, yeah, that's what she looked like. So that was a really great opportunity to be able to get that information from them.

Ashley:

Sergeant Moate mentioned a sketch that was done of Helen Doe - that was created by none other than forensic artist, Natalie Murry - you heard from her on the Rodney Johnson episode awhile back. And I asked Stacy how it felt to finally see that image of Helen’s face after all these years…

Stacy Moate:

It makes me want even more to identify her though cause now I want to know, is this really, was this her? Is this what she looked like? And um, so it was pretty neat to see that come to life because before that, you know, you don't have an image in your head and you don't have somebody to think about like, oh, I'm trying to identify this person, but now I have a face I can put in my head when I'm having those thoughts.

Ashley:

And as you know, Natalie (Murry) works off of the actual skull of an unidentified person to find the unique features that help her create a face and she was able to do that in this case because Helen Doe’s remains were exhumed in 2014. Helen’s DNA was also recovered at that time.

Stacy Moate:

So in 1991, when she died in the crash DNA just wasn't really a thing that we, you know, officer's thought about or you didn't, they didn't have the same capabilities that we do today for testing DNA. So in 2014 we realized how important it was to have her remains exhumed so that we could try to get DNA from the bones. Um, and we were successful with that. We have a full DNA profile, which was entered into CODIS, but there was no match in the missing person, database in CODIS.

Ashley:

If and when a DNA match becomes available, Stacy and her team should be the first to know. But while they wait on that… they’re trying some unique ways to bring attention to Helen… including revisiting Lester’s truck route which I think is such a good idea. This is Carri Gordon, she’s the Program Manager of the WSP Missing and Unidentified Persons Unit-

Carri Gordon:

I had planned a road trip already to go and see family in Michigan. And then on the route back, what I did was I took the more southern route, which did add some time onto my travel, but not, not much and nothing too significant and I love to drive anyway. So it just kind of fell in line with what I would have enjoyed doing anyway, but the truck driver's route that he took started in Missouri. And so I drove south from Michigan to Missouri and started there, spent my first night there and then met with, a Missouri highway patrol, uh, public information officer the next morning and started the process. I met him at one of the truck stops in the area where he (Lester) was first believed to have purchased fuel. And we went inside and asked the manager if we could post the flyer about this unidentified, um, Helen Doe and they were more than willing to let us do that. So we went and did that, took some photos and kind of told our story and it was great. It was a perfect start. And then I continued along that route and just kind of stopped along the way. And we were hopeful that we would get, um, more information than I think what has come out of it. But you know, that's not to say we couldn't still get some calls later on. It was just a really good opportunity to get out there and meet people and get her photo out there.

Ashley:

Another important thing you should know about Helen Doe was that she was likely Native American. Native communities and police agencies throughout the United States have a really difficult time working together and tracking just how many native women are missing - and that’s for a multitude of reasons including misidentification, little to no media coverage, and of course… racism. But even when these women are found, there’s a tricky jurisdictional situation to deal with that requires tribal, federal, state, and county officers to all work together. Which is something that hasn't worked great in the past but is hopefully getting better as agencies like the Washington State Patrol have begun hiring full time tribal liaisons.

Carri Gordon:

Right now, there are 51 missing Native American females

Ashley:

And that's for the state of Washington, the whole state?

Carri Gordon:

Right. And just, just to clarify too, is those are the ones that have been identified in the system as Native American. Um, we could have still some that have been misidentified, um, ethnically for whatever reason reported as a different race, or maybe the officer took the report incorrectly or whatever the case may be.

Ashley:

Carri also cleared up some misinformation for me… about filing missing persons reports… like do you really have to wait 24 to 48 hours to report a loved one as missing?

Carri Gordon:

There is no waiting period. Some agencies may have an agency policy that says that, but that's becoming a lot more infrequent than what it used to be, but there is no waiting period per se. It can be entered anytime. And now with our new state RCW saying, you know, if a person is missing over 30 days, law enforcement is now required to take that entry. And I know 30 days sounds like a long time, but before that law went into place last June, we had nothing to say that they even had to take a report of a missing adult. There was no statute federal or state that required that. And so now we do have that. And so now if an adult is missing over 30 days, they have to take the report and make the entry, but it can be done at any time prior to that.

Ashley:

I made sure to ask Carri and Stacy what the public can do to help in this case and they stressed the importance of two things: reports and DNA.

Stacy Moate:

If you have a missing family member, whether it matches Helen Doe's description or not, if you have a missing family person, make sure they've been reported missing and make sure that you get a sample from somebody in the family, somebody's DNA sample into CODIS, cause it might not help this case, but it could help others. There's hundreds of missing people or unidentified remains around the country that just needs somebody to put a DNA sample in. So they can make that comparison and send that person home. You know Helen Doe is sitting in a box in the coroner's office in Cowlitz County. And that doesn't seem right to me. I would love to be able to identify her and get her sent home to her family rather than left in a box there. Even if it's 20, 30 years ago and you're like, hey, whatever happened to that aunt or that cousin, you know, it's important to look into it and get them reported missing so that we can get them sent home.

Carri Gordon:

If you have a missing loved one and you've never been asked to submit family reference DNA, ask about that. Or, you know, if you're in Washington state, you can call our unit as well. And we can help to facilitate that. We have the DNA kits in our office and as employees of a law enforcement agency, we're able to take those samples as well. So it's definitely something that we encourage family members to do, or to reach out, reach back out to the agency that you reported your missing loved one to, to make sure that the record is still in there and that it's complete and you know, do some follow up.

Ashley:

If you have any information that could help Stacy and Carri finally get Helen Doe identified, please contact the Washington State Patrol Cold Case Team at 425-401-7740

Ashley:

Washed Away is a Cosmic Bigfoot production. This podcast is all about cold cases and missing persons. You can find my show notes - meaning images, like the one of Helen Doe, transcripts, sources, and more at washedawaypodcast.com - You can follow me on instagram and twitter @washedawaypod and if you’d like to help this podcast grow and reach new ears please remember to rate, review, and subscribe. If you have a case suggestion for me - send an email to washedawaypodcast@gmail.com. I’m Ashley Smith and I’ll have another episode for you very, very soon. Thanks for listening.

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