After more than 40 years, identity of Rankin Co.’s only Jane Doe cold case murder revealed
Her identity has been unknown for more than 40 years. Now, she has a name.
JACKSON, Miss. (WLBT) - WLBT News was the first to tell you about Rankin County’s only Jane Doe murder case, a case that has been cold for more than 40 years, and the new effort to solve it.
After two years of investigation, we now know who Jane Doe was and where she is from. The case that has been cold for decades is now very active.
Her body was found in a make-shift dumpsite below the Byram Swinging bridge back in 1978. She had suffered a blow to the head and was wrapped in what appeared to be a blanket.
She was nude and had no identity.
All authorities knew was that she was a white female homicide victim between the ages of 20 and 25.
Someone had driven her to the location and placed her body in a trash pile below the bridge. There was only a composite sketch and a brief article in the local newspaper.
Rankin County investigators exhausted all leads until the case went cold.
Then, 43 years later, Rankin County Coroner David Ruth discovered the case. He and his deputy, Heather Smith, started looking for answers.
“I’ve spoken with people at the State Medical Examiner’s Office and they feel confident that they can get DNA and possibly identify this person, this Jane Doe, that’s in this grave here in Rankin County,” said Coroner Ruth in 2021.
Then in April of 2022, Ruth was able to convince Judge Dewey Arthur to allow Jane Doe’s body to be exhumed.
DNA was extracted.
There were two failed attempts to identify her. A third attempt by Othram, a corporation specializing in forensic genealogy using advanced DNA testing, produced results.
And so, Jane Doe was no longer a Jane Doe. She was Tanya Lea Wills Mullins.
Mullins, born in Potter, Texas, was a 22-year-old mother of two girls, Tammi and Crystal, who went by “Christy” and was the wife of James “Jim” Mullins.
The daughters were only toddlers when their mother disappeared. The young family had moved to Mississippi in search of employment, but that didn’t work out.
Tammi Mullins said, “The whole story is that my dad had come back to Texas to find us a home and a place to stay here in Texas. And when he returned to get us, we were missing along with my mom. So the three of us were missing.
“And about three, four months later, my grandmother got a phone call that said if they wanted Christie and myself back that they could meet at the DFW airport, and our uncle would bring us back. And so that happened. So he brought us back and told my dad that our mom, Tanya, would be contacting him at some other point. Needless to say, she never contacted us.”
Tammi Mullins says months passed and her Uncle Ed contacted her father again saying he had seen Tanya leave in a car with a guy and they were headed to Mexico.
Another story was that she was in Florida.
“So our family has always said it, you know, that she loved us and adored us, so that she would dress us up like we were little baby dolls. And my grandparents absolutely loved her. You know, my dad wanted to marry her when they were 16.
“Of course my grandmother didn’t exactly want that, but my dad was like, I’m doing it one way or the other, and, of course, back then you could and so my grandmother was like, This is what it is, and so they got married at 16. And, you know, I think that alone says a lot for somebody.”
Christie Mullins said, “Really the only thing I remember that is ingrained in my head is how much she loved being a mom. There was nothing she wouldn’t have done for us, and, you know, that’s what she did all day every day was just be a mom.”
Tammi Mullins said, “If we had questions, my dad always answered and he always answered truthfully, but he never said anything negative about my mom and, if you ask me, he loved her until the day that he died. I think he was just as heartbroken. I know he was just as heartbroken as we were and are.”
Tammi and Christie, now 49 and 47, will travel to Mississippi to attend a memorial service for their mother.
Tonya Lea Wills Mullins’ remains will stay in Mississippi where they are buried.
But is this closure for them?
Tammi Mullins answered, “I think a new chapter is better said. I think there’s different trauma; there’s trauma that, you know, Our mom just left all these years and basically didn’t want us, and now there’s the, Oh no, that’s not even true. You know? She was murdered.
“And so now it’s a new piece of the puzzle. And so now it’s like, Okay, how do we find this person? How do we find out who did this? I was telling Christie the other day that God’s revenge is so much greater than my revenge. So I know this person’s having to pay for it one way or the other. But that would be our closure. I think.”
And, believe it or not, finding a suspect more than four decades later, according to Coroner David Ruth, is not out of the realm of possibility.
“The sheriff’s department is looking into some things and I’m not going to go into that right now because it’s still very active now that we have a known identity and other leads to follow. It’s an active homicide investigation,” said Ruth.
“There were so many people reaching out to us. And when I put your segment on my personal Facebook page, there were over 300 people who shared that story.”
Tammi Mullins said, “Everyone in Mississippi has been more than helpful.”
Coroner David Ruth said, “Just to hear the ‘thank you’ from that family. Just to know that those daughters know what happened to their mother; that she didn’t just not show up, that she didn’t just abandon them, that she met fate in a bad way and she could not come back. That’s the most rewarding thing to me.”
You may be wondering: How much did this investigation cost taxpayers? The answer is zero.
A Mississippi native and philanthropist named Carla Davis funded the exhumation and the casework necessary to identify the victim.
Davis says she is committed to helping the state resolve its backlog of unsolved cases.
We will continue to follow this now active murder investigation and pass along any new information to you.
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