Murder of Deanna Lee Criswell

Murder of Deanna Lee Criswell

Murder of Deanna Lee Criswell

Murder of Deanna Lee Criswell, originally referred to as “Jane Doe 19” during her period of unidentified status, was born on September 20, 1971, in Washington state. Tragically, she fell victim to a fatal shooting at the age of 16, and her true identity remained a mystery for almost three decades. It wasn’t until November 25, 1987, that her lifeless body was discovered near Tucson, specifically in Marana, Arizona. The breakthrough in uncovering her identity came on February 11, 2015, courtesy of the Marana Police Department, who harnessed advanced forensic facial reconstruction technology and DNA analysis. The collaboration of amateur-operated websites also played a pivotal role in this identification process, ultimately bringing the long-unknown Deanna Lee Criswell to light.

Following her parents’ divorce, familial bonds frayed, leading to periods of Deanna’s departure from home. Astonishingly, despite her absence, she was never formally reported as a missing person. Then, in 2014, her aunt and uncle, distant relatives who had last seen her during infancy, embarked on a quest to find her. Their search capitalized on the emerging online databases, with a specific focus on Arizona’s unidentified individuals, spurred by the revelation that Deanna had contacted her sister from Tucson back in late 1987.

It was through the virtual corridors of the Doe Network that Deanna’s digital presence emerged as “Jane Doe 19,” featuring a forensic facial reconstruction executed by the FBI in 2010. This digital portrait bore a striking resemblance to their long-lost niece, and with a strong conviction, the aunt and uncle collaborated with law enforcement. As a result, DNA samples from the family were obtained and meticulously analyzed, confirming the much-awaited match and ultimately bringing closure to the decades-old mystery.

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.

Murder of Deanna Lee Criswell

Early life, disappearance and discovery

In 1971, Deanna Lee Criswell entered the world and her upbringing unfolded in Spokane, Washington, within the embrace of her family. Within this familial constellation, she shared a kinship with a sister named Debbie, who boasted a seniority of fourteen years. The harmony within this family was disrupted when Deanna was a mere three years old, marked by the separation of her parents. Her father, Jerry Criswell, navigated life as a trucker, while the custodial responsibilities for Deanna lay in the capable hands of her mother, a woman who tenaciously held two jobs to ensure her family’s well-being. A year following the parental divorce, Debbie too embarked on her own journey, leaving home at the age of 18.

During her formative years, Deanna often sought solace in the company of her maternal grandfather in the periods when her mother was absent. However, following his passing, Deanna underwent a metamorphosis into a “rebellious teen,” her association gravitating toward a circle of older peers of questionable repute. The next chapter of Deanna’s life unfolded in Seattle, where she took up residence with her father. This change of scenery heralded positive shifts in her behavior. Nevertheless, as she stepped into her fifteenth year, the resurgence of her wayward tendencies emerged. This prompted her to embark on a return journey, this time by bus, to Spokane, where she would once again call her mother’s abode her home.

Six months before her death, Deanna ran away from home and lived on the streets, occasionally telephoning her father, but remaining estranged from her mother. She began a relationship with 36-year-old William “Bill” Ross Knight. After he relocated to Tucson, Arizona, Knight sent Deanna a bus ticket in September 1987 so that she could join him.

Deanna when she was a child

Deanna did not call her father after reaching Tucson, but did call her older sister Debbie from the city. Deanna’s father was not immediately concerned when he didn’t hear from her, as he believed that she was able to “take care of herself.” By Christmas, with no word, he attempted to file a missing person report, but local officials declined to cooperate due to Deanna’s history of running away.

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.

Pima County medical examiner’s office

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.

Murder of Deanna Lee Criswell
3D reconstruction of Criswell created by FBI

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.

Marana Police Department Crime Scene Supervisor Tom Mooney explains the bust of a FBI facial reconstruction that was made in 2010

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.

Deanna’s family exchanged the original “Jane Doe 19” gravestone with one that bore the name “Deanna L. Criswell.”

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.”

Jeremy Jhordy

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