Jane Doe №16
September 17, 1979
On an otherwise unremarkable late summer day, boaters in the Carquinez Strait of California came across the torso and legs of a woman.
Authorities were notified, the items on the body were catalogued, an attempt at identification was made, but eventually, the bones of the unknown woman were laid to rest in a cemetery in Solano County.
Who the woman was would remain a mystery for 41 years.
As the crow flies
The distance from the short looping Road known as 94C just west of Woodland in Yolo County, California, to the Carquinez Strait near East 5th Street in the City of Benicia, where Jane Doe №16 was pulled from the water, is approximately 45 miles.
But even if you are going to travel by car, it is a drive that can easily be made in under an hour, and that drive is easier still when it is made in the late night or early morning hours. Without the traffic of commuters or large trucks carrying the summer harvest of nearby fields, it can be the kind of drive where you can think about your place in the world, and what you want to do next.
A Tuesday in July
Located just fifteen miles northeast of Sacramento, California, Woodland is a world away from the relative sophistication of the nearby capital city. It is the seat of Yolo County — one of the original counties of California — and just outside of the town is acre upon acre of farmland.
To the outside observer, Woodland would have appeared to be a quiet and almost bucolic town, but underneath that veneer burbled an anger and rage that would — late on July 31, 1979 — spill over into the evening of what had been a hot, midsummer day, and Dolores Wulff would disappear into the night never to be seen alive again.
It was early on August 1, 1979, that Dolores’ family realized she was missing. At six o’clock that morning, Dolores’ daughter — who was married and lived in her own home — called her parents’ house. Carl Wulff, Sr. answered and told his daughter that her mother was gone but that her car was in the garage.
Soon, Dolores’ brothers and sisters knew that she was missing and the search for Dolores Wulff began in earnest. Her family contacted law enforcement and a missing persons report was filed, but her husband — who was the last person known to have seen her alive — was remarkably uncooperative.
When the Yolo County Sheriff’s Department found Dolores’s blood, some of her hair, her palm print, and one of her earrings in the trunk of her husband’s car, Carl Wulff, Sr. insisted that his wife had simply run off to start a new life. For their part, Yolo County Sheriff’s Department felt that without a body, their hands were tied, and there was nothing more to be done.
No one who knew Dolores believed that she had run off, so her family continued their search, determined to find what they thought must be her body so she could be properly laid to rest.
Just over twenty-eight years after Dolores’ disappearance, The Spokesman-Review, wrote a profile of her youngest son, Paul Wulff.
In the aftermath of his mother’s disappearance, the then 12-year-old Paul and his brother Tom had gone to live with their uncle. That meant a change of schools for both of them, and at the middle-school Paul attended an eagle-eyed football coach thought Paul looked like a good prospect.
The coach was right.
He took the grieving boy under his wing, and Paul thrived. He played football at the high school, college, and professional level. Then, when his playing days came to a close, Paul — like his mentor so many years before — turned to coaching.
And it was in his capacity as the head coach of the football program at Eastern Washington University, that the Spokesman-Review ran a profile of Paul and the many challenges he had faced in his life — challenges that seemed to have been kicked off by his mother’s abrupt, unexplained, and inadequately investigated disappearance so many years before. That event had upended his childhood, and, as Paul explained to the reporter, his mother’s family spent every spare moment looking for her.
When the Rochas ran out of ideas of where to look, they enlisted the aid of a psychic who told them that Dolores’s body was located near “stagnant water.” Not knowing exactly how to interpret that, her family “sneak[ed]” onto the property where she and Carl had lived:
As his uncle noted in an article in the Sacramento Bee:
”We looked everywhere,” Rocha said. “Ditches, creeks, the hills. We dug and dug and dug. Felt like millions of acres. Nothing. One psychic told us that she’d be found in the water, and that her husband killed her. I believed that.”
A granddaughter’s persistence
Before a series of events was set in motion that would result in the identification of Solano County’s Jane Doe №16, someone else with an interest had already put it together.
Dolores Wulff never had the pleasure of meeting the granddaughter who would take the family baton and continue the search for the grandmother she never knew. And with the passage of so many decades since Dolores’ disappearance, her granddaughter did not do the same kind of searching her aunts and uncles had done. She did not spend her weekends with a shovel in hand searching fields for places to dig.
Instead, she searched the Internet, digging into online databases in an effort to find an unidentified body whose circumstances matched those of her grandmother, and in January of 2019, she found a case that she thought was a good fit.
In her investigation, Dolores’ granddaughter learned of a body that had been discovered in the Carquinez Strait in September of 1979. Dolores’ intrepid granddaughter attempted to contact law enforcement, but as had been true for the four decades since Dolores first went missing, no one ever got back to her.
A break in the case
A little over a year after Dolores’ granddaughter made her discovery, a group of citizen investigators working with the Doe Network thought they had figured out who Jane Doe №16 was. With their combined experience they were able to get the attention of law enforcement and persuade them to look into it.
Further investigation revealed that Jane Doe №16 was not the person the Doe Network volunteers had thought it would be, but while the group did not succeeded in identifying Jane Doe №16, they did succeed in getting the attention of Detective Kenny Hart, Solano County’s cold case investigator.
Whatever I needed to do to find the story of the remains
This was the promise Sergeant Kenneth Hart made to himself when faced with the task of finding the identity of Jane Doe №16. The Doe Network advocates who had first brought the case to his attention had convinced him that this Jane Doe’s identity needed to be sorted out so she could be properly laid to rest. Without a whole lot to go on, he moved forward.
He started by looking over the unsolved cases of missing women from 1979. He expanded the geographic range and identified eleven women who had gone missing who he thought might be his Jane Doe. Of those eleven missing persons one stood out from the rest — Dolores Wulff.
While Dolores’ family had searched for her, her husband, Carl Wulff, Sr. — the man many believed had killed her and disposed of her body — lived a life of not-so-quiet indignation. He slandered Dolores at every opportunity, insisting she had run off to start a new life with a nameless boyfriend that no one — not even Carl Wulff, Sr. — was able to identify. He said that the blood sheriff’s deputies found was from the two of them having had sex on top of a blanket, that the blood that ended up on the window of a car was from a time she had had a bloody nose, and that she ran off into the night without a change of clothes, her prescription glasses, or any of her medications.
But while, Carl Wulff, Sr. had plenty to say about his missing wife, he wouldn’t say any of it under oath; he moved on with his life, leaving Woodland and eventually remarrying.
Anyone who knew Dolores recognized her husband’s statements for the lies they were, but lying to the press, your children, and even a court, is allowed if you are trying to defend yourself against the indefensible, and while Carl Wulff, Sr. did get away with murder from July 31, 1979 until his own death on February 23, 2005, eventually, as Shakespeare noted, “the truth will out.”
Sergeant Kenny Hart, meanwhile, continued his investigation and ended up contacting was Dolores Wulff’s youngest child, Paul to see if he would be willing to have his DNA tested.
Paul readily agreed, and when his DNA results were compared to the DNA obtained from what remained of the body of Solano County’s Jane Doe №16, it was discovered that they were a match.
It had been, as Paul noted, 38 football seasons since he had last seen his mother drive off in her light blue Cutlass after dropping him off at his uncle’s, and now, she would finally be coming home.
When Dolores Wulff was still a missing person, the State of California Department of Justice Website for Missing Persons reported the following which was information gathered from the family:
Light colored night gown. Possibly wearing light colored blouse, brown slacks, and wooden thong shoes.
Meanwhile, the Doe Network working with information from the autopsy about what was found with Solano County Jane Doe №16 reported this:
Clothing: Floral print bikini panties, pantyhose. Open-toed black leather shoe on left foot with 2" artificial woodgrain heel
Additional Personal Items: Unknown
While the DNA technology available at the time was not what it is today, it seems to me that using the evidence and information that was available at the time, law enforcement might have been able to make the same connections Dolores’ granddaughter did.
The circumstances of the identification of Dolores Wulff’s body also highlight the need for improved law enforcement tools an protocols.
Despite the fact that Dolores Wulff’s body was found less than 8 weeks after she disappeared within an easy drive of the place where she was last seen, justice was denied. And justice was denied because the place she disappeared from and the place where her body was found were in different jurisdictions. In 1979, neither jurisdiction reached out to the other despite the fact that the two counties involved — Yolo and Solano — share a border.
The Rocha family is planning to have Dolores’ remains exhumed and reinterred next to her parents. They want to have the funeral for her that they never got to have and mark her grave with a headstone that reflects both the joy of her life and the sorrow of her loss.
The last day any one heard from Dolores Wulff was July 31, 1979. At some point after that, her voice was silenced, against her will, and most likely by someone very close to her. But with the identification of her remains, even forty years afterward, she, and those who love her, once again have an opportunity to let her life and her deeds speak for her.
The precise details of how Dolores Marie Rocha Wulff made her way from her home just west of Woodland in Yolo County, to the Carquinez Straits in Solano County will never be known. Carl Wulff, Sr., took those details to his grave.
Identifying a nameless body is never easy. But sometimes — even when there are numerous missteps and lies to navigate — the truth is eventually revealed.
CBS 13, Sacramento, California
The Davis Enterprise, Davis, California
The Doe Network
The Sacramento Bee, Sacramento, California
The Spokesman-Review, Spokane, Washington
State of California Department of Justice Website for Missing Persons