Woman Searching For Her Birth Mother Helps Solve 1980 Double-Murder Mystery

Investigators spent decades trying to ID the remains of a man and woman discovered buried in the California desert.

April 29, 2021
Mugshot of Howard M. Neal [via San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department]

Mugshot of Howard M. Neal [via San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department]

Mugshot of Howard M. Neal [via San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department]

By: Aaron Rasmussen

The remains of a man and woman were discovered buried in California’s Mojave Desert in November 1980. It would take 40 years and a woman searching for her birth mother to figure out their identities.

According to the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department, an archaeologist stumbled upon a shallow grave in a remote area, five miles east of Ludlow. Both homicide victims were unclothed and had no forms of identification.

Known as John Doe 29 and Jane Doe 10, an autopsy determined the pair died from a combination of gunshot wounds and blunt force trauma.

Investigators spent years unsuccessfully attempting to figure out who John and Jane Doe were, but they did have a person of interest in the case — Howard Neal.

“Investigators learned Neal had been a resident in the town of Ludlow around the time the victims were killed and buried in the shallow grave,” the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department said in a news release, noting Neal, his wife and their young daughter relocated to the South shortly after the bodies were found.

In February 1981, Neal was living in Mississippi when he raped his 13-year-old niece and killed her, the girl’s 12-year-old friend, as well as his brother. He then took his family back to California, where he was arrested the following month for theft.

Authorities learned Neal had a warrant out for his arrest and he was extradited back to Mississippi, tried, convicted and sentenced to death for the triple murder. The sentence was eventually reduced on appeal to three life sentences after tests showed the killer had an intellectual disability, the Sheriff’s Department said.

Neal, now 68, is currently incarcerated in Mississippi. According to the Sheriff’s Department news release, his “attorney informed investigators in California they did not have to look any further for a suspect in the Ludlow murders.”

In 2017, investigators spoke with Neal, and he told them he picked up the couple, who were hitchhiking, and brought them to his home. There, the Sheriff’s Department said, he got into an “intense” argument with the male after Neal attempted to make physical advances toward the female.

Neal “felt the male would probably kill him if he did not kill him first,” so he “shot and killed the male,” the Sheriff’s Department said. “After doing so, Neal continued his advances toward the female.”

Investigators believe Neal sexually assaulted the woman before also murdering her. He then allegedly transported the victims to the desert and buried their bodies.

Neal revealed few clues about the pair’s identities and he has never been prosecuted for the murders.

Now knowing who possibly killed John and Jane Doe, authorities continued to try to identify them. As DNA technology improved, investigators had a lab extract DNA from the victims’ remains and entered the results into a national DNA database.

They had no luck — until a Virginia woman, who was unaware of the murders, hired a private investigator to find her birth mother.

In December 2020, the P.I. uploaded the DNA profile from Christine Marie Salley, 41, to GEDmatch and there was a match with the DNA from Jane Doe.

Authorities in California contacted Salley, who provided her birth mother’s details, including the name the P.I. had found on adoption paperwork: Pamela Dianne Duffey.

Additional test results confirmed victim Jane Doe 10 was Salley’s mother.

According to the Sheriff’s Department, Salley told investigators she had learned her mother, Duffey, had been associated with a man known as “Digger Lane” before disappearing. She also revealed she found out he had served time in a Virginia prison not long before he and her mother traveled across the country together.

The Virginia State Police researched their databases, the Sheriff’s Department said, and were able to pinpoint a man who seemed to match Digger Lane’s profile based on arrest, incarceration and prison release dates: William Everette Lane.

“His arrest reports included a listed home address in Jacksonville, Florida,” the Sheriff’s Department said. “Based on that address, investigators were able to locate several family members, including Lane’s biological mother.”

DNA from Lane’s mother matched the male homicide victim. John Doe 29 was positively identified as William Lane.

Assigned to the cold case in August 2017, San Bernardino County Sheriff’s investigator Gerrit Tesselaar gave credit for solving the case to investigators and the labs able to extract DNA from Duffey and Lane’s remains. He called the outcome one of his 41-year-long career’s “top moments,” the San Bernardino Sun reported.

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