Authorities strongly suspected that William Ross Knight was the killer; Criswell had been involved with him when she went to Tucson. He had died in 2005 of illness in prison, where he had been sentenced on robbery charges. He had used a .22 caliber pistol in a robbery, the same size of the gun that killed Criswell.
Early life, disappearance and discovery
Deanna’s body was discovered by a homeless man on November 25, 1987, in a culvert along Interstate 10 in Marana, Arizona. The man walked to the local police station to report the find. Police noted tire tracks at the scene, indicating the girl had been killed at another location and disposed out of sight after death.
The remains were transported to the Pima County medical examiner’s office to undergo an autopsy, aimed at determining the cause of death and providing a comprehensive account of her physical state. The assessment indicated that the young woman had passed away approximately two weeks prior. Additionally, it was revealed that she had engaged in sexual activity before her death, although no signs of rape were evident.
The victim’s age was estimated to fall between 17 and 21 years, with a height of roughly five feet, three inches, and a weight of 138 pounds. She was believed to be of European American descent or possibly Hispanic or Native American origin with a fair complexion. The examination confirmed her short and curly brown hair, while the state of decomposition made it impossible to ascertain her eye color. Distinctive marks like scars, birthmarks, or tattoos were absent from her body. Notably, her upper front teeth were peculiarly large and had a gap between the center two teeth. Despite this, her dental hygiene had been well-maintained, reflecting adequate dental care.
The victim was wearing several layers of clothing, including a denim jacket with its sleeves rolled, a white jacket, gray sweater, a multicolored flannel shirt, black jeans, white shoes and purple underwear. Police said that the layers of clothing suggested that she was a runaway or perhaps a migrant. A purple sweater had been placed over her face. Law enforcement said that indicated her killer knew her during life and felt remorse, often a characteristic of crimes of passion. She was shot five times with a .22 caliber firearm. Criswell suffered four wounds to the torso and one to the neck at close range.
The Marana Police Department released details of the case, but was unable to identify the victim. Several missing females were compared to this victim, but many were excluded based on her dental characteristics. Fingerprints were also used for comparison. After the investigation stalled, the young woman, still unidentified, was buried in 1989 in the Pima County Cemetery.
The homeless man who reported her was quickly eliminated as a suspect. In 1988, a person of interest was also eliminated as a suspect: Benjamin Batson, a convicted sex offender who had been seen with an unknown teenage girl, was stopped by police for a traffic violation near the location where the body was found. The police searched his vehicle, but no trace evidence of the victim was found in it.
Advancements in forensic facial reconstruction and DNA analysis
Due to advancements in DNA analysis and other forensic techniques, the unresolved case was eventually reopened in 2009. To gather additional forensic insights, including DNA evidence, the victim’s remains were exhumed, even though the police remained devoid of any potential suspects.
Taking place at their Quantico, Virginia laboratories, the FBI accomplished a forensic facial reconstruction of the victim in 2010, subsequent to her exhumation. The intention behind sharing such images was to possibly trigger recognition from individuals who had known the young woman during her lifetime. These reconstructed images were disseminated in the form of posters across Arizona. Concurrently, the FBI processed her DNA to establish a genetic profile.
Advancements in technology continued to make strides, and by 2011, a partial DNA profile of a potential perpetrator was generated from evidence collected at the crime scene from the victim’s body. Remarkably, this profile aligned with that of William “Bill” Ross Knight, a figure recognized for a series of spree robberies in the 1980s. It’s worth noting that Knight had employed a .22 caliber pistol in one of these robberies, coincidentally the same caliber implicated in Criswell’s tragic murder. It further came to light that Knight was apprehended approximately nine days before the discovery of Criswell’s body and was subsequently prosecuted for his involvement in a robbery.
However, Knight had died in 2005 due to liver complications, while serving time in prison on robbery charges. Although he was identified as a suspect, the victim who had been shot with a gun of the same caliber that he used had DNA that did not match any individual in the CODIS database. Investigators feared that Knight’s death left them with a blank wall, as they could not question him to identify his potential victim, and of course could not prosecute him. He was never charged with Criswell’s homicide.
Criswell’s case unfolded as a unique instance where the process of identification drew upon the collaborative efforts of individuals utilizing amateur online networks. Since the onset of the 21st century, a range of websites and organizations emerged with the explicit purpose of disseminating information about individuals who were either missing or unidentified. These platforms harnessed the potential of crowd sourcing to address such cases. In 2014, after a prolonged estrangement, Deanna’s paternal aunt and uncle, Ellen and Donald Criswell, reconnected with her father.
Upon realizing that Deanna had essentially vanished for numerous decades and had never been officially reported missing, the aunt and uncle embarked on a quest that involved scouring online databases. This endeavor was propelled by the gradual erosion of hope regarding Deanna’s continued existence. Notably, Deanna’s father had attempted to report her as missing back in 1987, but law enforcement declined to pursue the case due to her history of repeatedly running away from both parents.
Her family had thought she would “contact them when she wanted to.” Criswell was found to have called her older sister Debbie Renn once after arriving in Tucson, but she had not called either of her parents. After learning from the father that Criswell had reached Tucson, her aunt and uncle started searching databases for unidentified persons in Arizona cases.
Some five to ten months before February 2015, the couple discovered the “Pima County Jane Doe” case and studied the facial reconstruction on The Doe Network. Criswell’s father had given them a photo of Deanna as a teenager, and the couple thought the image of the reconstruction resembled their niece, including the space between her two top teeth. Other characteristics, such as the height and weight approximation, were also similar. After the pair contacted Pima County law enforcement, their staff took DNA samples from Criswell’s parents to compare to the profile of the remains.
The confirmation of Deanna Lee Criswell’s identity was declared on February 11, 2015, a staggering 27 years following her passing. Her family made the decision to retain her resting place in Pima County. In the subsequent month, during March 2015, a poignant gathering transpired as Jerry, Donald, and another one of their siblings convened at the cemetery. In a touching gesture, they exchanged the original “Jane Doe 19” gravestone with one that bore the name “Deanna L. Criswell.”