On the afternoon of 28 January, 2012, Yvonne Johnson’s young son was playing behind their home at Brook Haven Trailer Park on Hurst St., Opelika, Alabama, when he came across a small human skull. The young boy ran back inside and alerted his mother who in turn called police.
They arrived at the scene in a matter of minutes and recovered the skull. “There was a skull that had been brought up in somebody’s yard, possibly by a dog or something. Obviously, it had been in the elements for a while because it was nothing but just bone,” recalled Coroner Bill Harris.
Investigators then fanned out in the woods and recovered more human remains. They also came across a pink, long sleeved shirt with hearts buttons and ruffles. This was found alongside a creek, but investigators weren’t sure whether it was connected to the human remains.
The bones were forensically analysed, and it was determined that they belonged to an African American girl between four and seven-years-old. The results also indicated that the little girl’s bones were under-developed, which was consistent with malnutrition. There was also evidence that she had been physically abused before her death and she had a visible deformity to her left eye; this was possibly caused by abuse. 1
The little girl had fractures to her skull, arms, legs, shoulders and ribs. In total, she had over 15 individual fractures from blunt force trauma. All of the injuries had been inflicted sometime before her death.
Investigators appealed for information, and ran the girl’s DNA through the missing person database, but no match came back. Unfortunately, very few tips came in and within just four months, the case had gone cold. The unidentified little girl became known as “Opelika Jane Doe” or “Juvenile Jane Doe.”
In an attempt to generate some much-needed information, federal agents at the FBI Office in Quantico, Virginia, used a forensic imaging unit to compose a sketch of what the little girl may have looked like while still alive. In releasing the composite sketch, Opelika Police Chief Thomas Mangham said: “This is like putting a puzzle together, right now we have the frame and we need to build the picture. So we need your help in building that picture.”
Detectives released the composite sketch to the public, and had it erected on billboards across the southeast. They also posted the flyers far and wide on the internet and asked that if anybody could identify the little girl, to get in contact right away. “This was an innocent child that did not deserve to die in the manner she did. Somebody out there in the community hopefully will recognize this child,” said Patrick J. Kiernan, acting special agent in charge of the FBI’s Mobile Division.2
Unfortunately, nobody could identify Opelika Jane Doe. In 2016, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children released new images of the little girl. These were created by a forensic artist using facial recognition software. It was also revealed at this stage that Opelika Jane Doe had been dead for between eight months and two years at the time of her discovery, putting her murder somewhere between 2010 and 2012.3
That same year, a former Vacation Bible school teacher at the Greater Peace Church in Opelika provided investigators with a photograph from 2011. She believed that Opelika Jane Doe was in the photograph. Capt. Shane stated: “Through that process we received several tips, one of which was very promising and lead us to obtaining photographs. We believe the young girl in these photographs is Jane Doe, however, we are not positive she is.”
Investigators attempted to identify the girl in the picture via church and school records, but they couldn’t find her name. They released the church photograph, in which the little girl could be seen with a deformity in her left eye. She had medium-length black hair that was styled in small, tight curls.
Investigators asked the public to think back and consider whether they knew a little girl who attended the Bible school. They said she would have been “slightly unkempt” and wearing dirty clothing. The teacher said that she was very quiet and she kept to herself and didn’t interact much with the other children at the Bible school.
After the release of the photographs, investigators sent Opelika Jane Doe’s remains for isotope tests at the University of South Florida of Forensic Anthropology. They revealed that she was from the southeastern part of the United States, most likely Alabama or surrounding states.
Mayor Gary Fuller stated: It’s difficult for me to believe that no one has come forward about this little girl. We don’t know where the child was from or how she came to be in the location where she was found. To say the least, it has been a gut-wrenching case for the fine officers of the Opelika Police Department. We’re certainly not giving up and hopefully one day someone will share information that will help solve this.”4
In 2018, The Lee County District Attorney’s Office announced a $5,000 reward for anybody who could identify Opelika Jane Doe. They also announced that they believed her killer was from the East Alabama area, and knew the area where her remains were found. Sgt. Alfred White stated: “It makes me believe whoever did this to this child lived in this trailer park and is from the area. This is an area where an outsider would not just stumble across to dump a body.”5
The following year, this reward was increased to $20,000. Investigators then released enhanced photographs of the little girl that was taken at the Opelika Vacation Bible School in the hopes that somebody somewhere would be able to recognize her. In releasing the photograph, Capt. Jonathan Clifton said: “This is the most heinous case in my 20 years, where a child was abused and neglected and then dumped. It’s very emotional for all of us detectives.”6
In Janaury 2022, investigators and members of the Opelika community gathered for a memorial at the site where Opelika Jane Doe’s remains were discovered. It had now been ten years since her remains were discovered. In her memory, they released ten pink balloons. Coroner Bill Harris stated: “Ten years ago, I remember when I heard that the OPD had found the remains of a child. I thought to myself, the same thing I thought probably a thousand times over the last ten years, is how can we find a child but we have no idea who this child is.”
Investigators were still actively trying to identify the little girl, with Sergeant Alfred White sharing his belief that one day, they would be able to identify her and her killer. He said that they would never give up on her and were dogged in their determination to serve justice.7
Later that year, investigators announced that they were expanding their search to outside Alabama, and on to other states where the little girl may have lived. They were asking the communities of Norfolk and Chesapeake, Virginia and Northampton, North Carolina, to look at the images of Opelika Jane Doe to see if they could identify her.8
There was a massive break in the case when investigators were able to identify Opelika Jane Doe’s father as 50-year-old Lamar Vickerstaff Jr., who was born and raised in Opelika. He lived in various places throughout his career with the Navy but eventually ended up in Jacksonville at Naval Station Mayport. Investigators met with Vickerstaff at the Naval base to inform him of his daughter’s death, but he refused to identify the little girl.9
Investigators next spoke with his wife, Ruth Vickerstaff, who said she had no clue who his daughter was or who her mother may have been. The couple had married in 2006. Investigators continued in their investigation, and identified the little girl’s m other as 37-year-old Sherry Wiggins, who confirmed that she was Opelika Jane Doe’s mother. She revealed that she had given birth to a little girl named Amore Joveah Wiggins in January of 2006.
However, the Vickerstaff’s were given physical and legal custody of her daughter in 2009 after her visitation rights were taken away. Wiggins was able to provide investigators with proof she was paying child support to Vickerstaff since 2009. Investigators searched school and paediatric records in areas where the Vickerstaffs lived, and they determined that Amore was never enrolled in school and was never reported missing.
DNA testing in January of 2023 finally revealed that Opelika Jane Doe was in fact Amore Joveah Wiggins. Both Lamar and Ruth Vickerstaff were arrested on the 17th of January. Lamar was charged with felony murder and failure to report a missing child while Ruth was charged with failure to report a missing child.
Finally, Amore was laid to rest with her identity. Hundreds of members of the Opelika community and investigators gathered on 27 February to celebrate her life. “We can finally put the proper name and proper face with her and we don’t have to call her Jane Doe anymore,” said Opelika Police Detective Alfred White. Amore’s mother, Sherry, was also in attendance. She poignantly said: “I didn’t want you to have it hard so I let your tiny hand go imagining you’d be playing in a big backyard.”10
Lamar and Ruth Vickerstaff are currently awaiting extradition to Lee County, Alabama, where they are expected to enter their pleas.
- CBS – 3 WRBL, 14 June, 2012 – “Authorities Identify Opelika Bones as “Juvenile Jane Doe”
- Opelika-Auburn News, 14 June, 2012 – “FBI, Opelika Police ID Remains as Juvenile Jane Doe”
- CBS – 3 WRBL, 25 August, 2016 – “Do You Recognize This Little Girl Found Dead in Opelika?”
- Opelika-Auburn News, 2 February, 2017 – “Test Results Reveals New Clue in Opelika Jane Doe Mystery”
- CBS – 3 WRBL, 22 March, 2018 – “$5,000 Reward”
- CBS – 3 WRBL, 6 May, 2020 – “Opelika Investigators Hope Sharper Images Turn Focus on Baby Jane Doe Killer”
- Opelika-Auburn News, 28 January, 2022 – “We Are Her Family”
- CBS – 3 WRBL, 23 November, 2022 – “Search for Opelika’s Baby Jane Doe’s Killer Expands”
- ABC – 13 WVEC, 19 Janaury, 2023 – “Navy Veteran, Wife, Arrested”
- CBS – 2 WRBL, 27 February, 2023 – “We Need to Exercise What her Name Meant”