Mystery of the Sumter County Does

Police artist sketches of John and Jane Doe in Sumter County, South Carolina.
Police artist sketches of John and Jane Doe in Sumter County, South Carolina.

What in the world are Sumter County Does?  Could they be a girls’ drill team that performed at halftime for a football team called the Stags or Bucks?  Are they a type of female deer that is indigenous to only Sumter County?  There are several Sumter Counties in the USA.

Melba wondered these things as she kept running across this entry on web lists while doing research on strange mysteries.  She decided to delve further.

The Sumter County Does are in fact John and Jane Doe, found murdered 400 meters off of I-95 in a pine-tree riddled spot of Sumter County, South Carolina on August 9, 1976 by a passing trucker.  That was the year of all the Bicentennial celebrations on television and elsewhere, Melba thought.  Many people traveled to the nation’s capitol for history’s sake.  I, myself was one, although it was by plane and in the month of April.  The couple had been shot in the back after they stepped from the rear of a van.*  The murderer then rolled them over and shot them again in the necks, under their chins to make sure they were dead.  The young man was thought to be in his early twenties, the young woman was most probably in her late teens or early twenties.  They had both eaten a fruity-milky concoction shortly before death.  They were both clean and had taken showers within the last twenty-four hours.  John Doe had a four inch appendectomy scar.  They did not have any drugs or alcohol in their systems.  Various reports listed them as “wealthy,” because of expensive dental work the young man had, his expensive watch, and other jewelry. No, not for sure wealthy, Melba thought.  Middle class people often splurge on expensive dental work.  The watch was nice, but why not a Rolex, if wealthy? And truly old money wealthy people did not have the need to show off their wealth with bling.  Young people such as these might be the exception.   They neither one had on underwear.  No underwear?  Clean people that they were, that seems odd!  Jane Doe’s legs were not shaven.

Mousey little Melba’s mind started working overtime when she got to the part about no underwear.  She put on her detective hat.  Had they been kidnapped, forced to make a porn movie at gunpoint, then forced to dress hastily, and exit the van* to be murdered?  That was kind of far-fetched and there was no evidence of their ever turning up in a porn movie, anywhere.  The killer then drove off in a cloud of dust, taking the underwear with him? Possible but nutty.  Hmmmm.  Maybe it was a porn movie and their faces were not visible.  Melba tossed this idea aside, as their autopsies would probably have indicated such activity and that was not mentioned.

Do I dare look at post mortem photos, if they are available? Melba decided to take a chance.  She found the ones that the police sketches had been made from.  The coroner had covered the bodies up with sheets so that only the heads were showing.  In other photos, the mouths and eyes were open.  Are those really that way, or was that feature added by an artist?  It was hard to tell.  Melba decided to do more research.

After thirty minutes of searching on the web, Melba found the crime scene photo.  The bodies were on the grass, kind of splayed out.  You could not see the faces closely.  Another half hour of research revealed another photo.  It was horrible.  A crime scene photo had been blown up and posted in a chat room about cold cases.  It was of their death faces.  Are their faces frozen that way due to trauma or are they in some stage of rigor?  Melba could not tell.  Their eyes were open and their mouths were open, it seemed, in horror.   Descriptions of the woman had included that she had extra thick and long eyelashes—more so than most—and that she had two unique moles on the left side of her face.  Her teeth were straight.  She had been very attractive and you could see all of this in the death photo.  The young man was described as having thick, bushy, dark eyebrows.  Most of his mouth was filled with extensive dental restorations. They both had olive skin.  They were both brunette, her eyes brownish-green, his brown.  Again, you could see all of this in the photos.

Why did someone not come forward and report these young people missing in almost forty years?  Surely families were missing them.  Theories ran rampant:  They were Canadians.  They were from Argentina or another South American country.  They were under a witness-protection program. They were drug-runners.  It was a contract hit.  Why?

Years ago a man was arrested for DWI in South Carolina, Lonnie George Henry.  A gun was found in his possession.  The serial number had been partially filed away.  It proved to be the gun that had killed the young couple.  He took a polygraph.  He did not kill them, the polygraph indicated, but he was being deceptive about where he had gotten the gun in the first place.  A relative admitted giving him the .357 Smith and Wesson for a birthday.  It had had all of the serial numbers when given, the relative insisted.  Mr. Henry finally admitted that he had filed the numbers off himself, but why?  Did he loan the gun to someone, then have a fear for how the person had used it?  He died in 1982 without giving any more information.  Could he have gotten so inebriated that he killed them and had no memory of it, thus tricking the polygraph?  Was he in a blackout of some kind?

Robbery does not seem to be a motive.  The jewelry and watch were left on the bodies (unless they had a huge wad of cash on them that was taken, and no one has an answer to that, naturally).  The young man’s ring has the initials, “JPF” engraved on the inside of the band.

The bodies were kept sealed in a funeral home for a time in hopes of identification.  Their caskets had windows for viewing the faces.  They were later buried in a parish cemetery, to be exhumed and tested for DNA, then buried again.  Their fingerprints have been sent to most data bases and warehouses for such.  Still there are no answers.

Melba was bothered by all of these questions.  Days of research on the Worldwide Web had not provided any more answers.  Was she searching in the wrong place?  Hmmm.  What would happen if I contacted the Sheriff’s Department?  That would be kind of nervy of me.  They don’t have time to mess with the “merely curious.”  After a few hours of thinking it over she decided to send the Sumter County Sheriff’s Department an email.  A phone call would be too disruptive.  There were three questions she wanted answered—answers that she had not found in her research, that they should know by now.  She was shocked when Lt. Robert Burnish sent a speedy reply and answered all three of her questions:

  1. DNA testing has proven that John and Jane Doe were NOT siblings or otherwise related by blood.
  2. There was no indication of European descent through DNA
  3. As far as the quote “they stepped from a VAN”* there is no idea why that is quoted in web accounts.  There was no vehicle, (van or otherwise) in the area.

Lt. Robert Burnish also stated, “if your readers have, or pass on, any information, we would love to hear from you.”

Lt. Robert Burnish

Criminal Investigations

Sumter County Sheriff’s Office

1281 North Main Street

Sumter, S.C. 29153


Who were these people?  Who were the Sumter County Does?


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