Communication across jurisdictions vital to solving cold cases, says investigator
Maj. Darren Versiga spoke about several cold cases with connections to Jackson County.
PASCAGOULA, Miss. (WLOX) - For well over a decade, investigator Lt. Darren Versiga with the Pascagoula Police Department has poured hours into trying to solve the city’s cold cases. Most of the time, that means looking into similar crimes in surrounding areas to try and piece together the puzzle, bringing justice to the victims and closure to their families.
WLOX sat down with Versiga Thursday to talk about the most recent cold case to make headlines in South Mississippi: a Jane Doe found in 1976 in Grand Bay who authorities believe may be from Jackson County.
Mobile County Sheriff’s Office posted a plea to the public this week urging anyone with information about the victim’s identity to come forward. She was found floating in Sessions Creek off of Potter Tract Road in Grand Bay on May 18, 1976. She had been shot in the head and her hands were cut off, said investigators.
Although Versiga is not part of the cold case team investigating the 1976 murder, it is one he is familiar with due to his work on other cases in the Pascagoula area. After spending so many years looking at various cold cases, the detective said he doesn’t know if the unidentified woman is from Jackson County.
“I think by now that she would’ve been identified if that was so but I’m not privy to (Mobile County’s) investigation,” said Versiga. “I don’t have all those facts. I just know that as a Jane Doe, I looked at that case and all of our unsolved homicides to see if there was a connection.”
Looking back at other cold cases that have been solved in recent years with the help of DNA, Versiga said many of those victims who went unidentified for so many years have one thing in common: they are not from the Mississippi Gulf Coast area.
“Statistically speaking in Jackson County, the last (victim) that was unidentified for years, such as the 1977 Clara Birdlong case and the 1982 Baby Jane case, they were not from here. Clara was from north Mississippi and Baby Jane was from Missouri and (the 1991 case of) Kimberly Funk was from Pennsylvania. So taking that into consideration, I feel like this person is probably from a different location than here,” explained the investigator.
Versiga first started looking at cold cases in the early 2000s as an investigator with the Jackson County District Attorney’s Office. When he started at Pascagoula Police Department in 2009, he went straight to the Criminal Investigative Division. Shortly after, the department’s cold case unit was created, focusing on crimes that had long gone unsolved.
“Based on my knowledge of cold cases and the information we have here in Jackson County, DNA that has come up on some of these remains were from different locations. So on that information alone, my suggestion would probably be that the 1976 Jane Doe from Grand Bay is probably not from Mississippi, or at least not from here. That’s how I would look at it,” he explained.
The Grand Bay Jane Doe case is one that has came across Versiga’s desk over the years as he has searched for similarities to his own cases.
“I certainly don’t want to give away any information that may be crucial to (Mobile County’s) investigation,” said Versiga. “I do know that she was found in water. She was thrown off a bridge is what I remember. She was found floating and there was some evidence that was found at the scene that could be crucial to the case. From what I remember in that case, they thought they saw a vehicle there. They described different vehicles. And again, I don’t want to comment too much on their case. I have not investigated that. It was just one of the many cases that I looked at in trying to solve some of our local cases here in Pascagoula.”
Oftentimes, cold cases in South Mississippi will cross jurisdictions, with the crime overlapping into nearby cities and counties.
Most recently, Versiga gained widespread attention for his work on the Samuel Little murders. Little confessed to killing more than 90 women in at least 10 states in the 1970s and 1980s, making him the most prolific serial killer in U.S. history.
Versiga worked with other investigators in multiple states on those cases and believes sharing information is vital to solving crimes and identifying victims.
“There’s quite a few (cold cases in Jackson County), more than anybody knows about because we didn’t have a database back then to share this information like we’re doing today,” explained the investigator. “All of this information that I find out, l share with Mobile County, I share with Harrison County, I share with our state and any agency that calls me in reference to any information that I have. I will give it to them. When Sam Little was investigated, that tied so many different jurisdictions together. We were all looking for remains, victims of Sam Little. So I had this database that was very useful, in my opinion, so they have that, as well.”
Versiga said the 1976 Grand Bay Jane Doe caught his attention because of how close she was found to the Mississippi state line. It’s one of many he’s looked into hoping to find a clue that could help solve the cases on his own desk.
“There’s a lot of them over there that I looked at in Alabama because of the close proximity (to Pascagoula), like Janie Sanders, who was kidnapped walking home from school in Pascagoula and was found in Grand Bay. So that connector - the Alabama-Mississippi connector - I wanted to look at anything like that.”
Janie Sanders was kidnapped on Sept. 24, 1975, while walking home from school in Pascagoula. Within about an hour of school letting out, she was dead, said Versiga.
Sanders is one of multiple kidnappings that happened in the 70s along the Gulf Coast. Her body was found in a wooded area near the intersection of Grand Bay-Wilmer Road and Airport Boulevard in Mobile County, just over the state line.
“Janie Sanders, when she was located, we were able to find her parents fairly quickly because they reported her missing. So based on that, statistically speaking, people who are missing from here that are found (in other nearby states) are typically identified rather quickly. But again, this one in 1976 has not (been identified) so that’s suggestive to me that we need to look further out,” said Versiga.
Versiga believes another kidnapping in Jackson County just two years before Sanders was killed is related to the Pascagoula girl’s abduction and murder.
On Feb. 1, 1973, Rose Marie Levandoski, a 13-year-old student at St. Martin Junior High, left class to go to the bathroom and never returned. Three weeks later, she was found stabbed to death in the Tchoutacabouffa River.
Versiga believes the two kidnapping cases could have been the work of a serial killer.
“If you’re going to target children and you’ve got two cases within close proximity, 1973 and 1975, which are close proximity, you have to look at there is probably other victims. This wasn’t someone who just woke up and went on school grounds and said, ‘Hey, I’m going to kidnap a girl.’”
South Mississippi in the 1970s was a bustling place, filled with lots of changes that brought in people from across the country.
“We were still recovering from Hurricane Camille and there was a lot of construction people, a lot of transient people that came down and, likely, one is going to be one of our suspects (in the kidnappings)...There were so many things going on in the 70s,” continued Versiga. “You had the construction of I-10. Our part of I-10 didn’t get complete until 1982 so we were the last leg to connect California to Florida.”
“This particular area with all of the transient people coming in, there are several serial killers that we’ve now documented based on all of this investigation we did...that we know we arrested, put in our jail, then later discovered they were serial killers. So we’ve had many in this area. Why? Pascagoula is a fishing town that had a lot of transient people come through with Ingalls, Chevron, I-10 being constructed.”
In 2016, the FBI released new information saying the case of Janie Sanders may be connected to two other girls killed in the late 70s. Debra Gunter, 20, was kidnapped in 1978 while she was at work at a Gautier convenience store. She was found stabbed to death five days later. Clara Turk was taken in 1979 on a street not far from where Sanders was found. She was found dead in in a lake off Pollock’s Ferry Road in Jackson County.
At one time, Larry Eugene Mann was a person of interest in the murder. Mann sat on death row in Florida for years before being executed by lethal injection in 2013 for the kidnapping and murder of 10-year-old Elisa Vera Nelson.
Mann was being looked at as a possible suspect in the murders of Levandoski and Sanders, according to a 2013 interview Versiga gave the Tampa Bay Times. However, since then, Versiga says new information suggests someone else killed the girls.
One new lead that the FBI released in 2016 when they formally announced that the three girls’ murders may be connected is the description of a blue, 1970s model Chevrolet El-Camino.
According to NAMUS, a missing persons database, there are still 12 people who were reported missing in Jackson County that have not been found. To view those cases, as well as others, visit the NAMUS database.
For a list of unsolved cases in South Mississippi or to report information to authorities, visit the Mississippi Coast Crime Stoppers website.
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