DNA technology leads to breakthrough in decades-old Bucks County ‘Jane Doe’ case

L to R: A forensic sculpture of Lisa Todd. A high school photo of Lisa Todd. (NBC10)

L to R: A forensic sculpture of Lisa Todd. A high school photo of Lisa Todd. (NBC10)

After more than 30 years, Bensalem police have figured out the identity of a young pregnant woman whose body was found at the bottom of a well in an abandoned distillery.

She was Lisa Todd, of Philadelphia, and was just 17 years old when she disappeared in the fall of 1985.

Detective Chris McMullin, who worked on the case for more than 15 years, recently cold-called Todd’s family members to inform them of a DNA match.

“Her brother was literally speechless, understandably so,” said McMullin. “After I summed it up, I said, ‘With all that being said, do you have a sibling that vanished or disappeared?’ And I was told, ‘Yes.’”

A lot is still unclear about why Todd, who was estimated to be about six months pregnant, ended up in the wooded area off State Road in Bensalem, down the shaft of an underground pump house in the disused Publicker Distillery.

Police say they don’t know, for instance, if Todd was already dead when she went into the well. They aren’t sure who was with her, if anyone, and they don’t know if foul play was involved.

But Bucks County District Attorney Matt Weintraub said he’s sure of one thing: someone out there must know something.

“Pregnant ladies don’t just fall into wells and die,” he said. “Something happened.”

The road to identifying Todd was long.

By the time her skeletal remains were found in January 1988, by a couple walking their dog, she had already been in the well for more than two years.

Her description didn’t match anyone in the area. And although she had been reported missing by her family in Philadelphia, for some now-unknown reason, her name had been taken out of the National Crime Information Center when she would have turned 18.

The case went cold, and for years, Todd was known only as “Publicker Jane Doe,” or the Bucks County Jane Doe.

In 1994, the Vidocq Society, a members-only Philadelphia crime club, created a forensic reconstruction of Todd’s face. But it wasn’t until 2002 that Bensalem police officially reopened her case and began considering forensic options for identifying her.

Todd’s DNA was sequenced in 2007, with no results. Seven years later, St. Mary’s Hospital in Bensalem performed a free CT scan of her skull, and the resulting updated 3D image was entered into the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. Another DNA sequencing followed, this time for the fetal bones of Todd’s unborn child.

In 2020, Bensalem police contracted with a private company that extracted more DNA. And finally, early this year, a team headed by professional genealogist Yolanda McClary — who specializes in cold cases and has her own television series — built a family tree based on the DNA that pointed to two key relatives: Joseph and Linda Todd, who live in Philadelphia.

They confirmed that they had an older sister, Lisa, who was born in 1967, disappeared in 1985, and was never seen or heard from again.

Lisa Todd had briefly attended Frankford High School in Philadelphia, but police believe she dropped out around her freshman year. They estimated she would have been in the 1985 or 1986 graduating class.

Todd also had a son, who was two when she disappeared and now lives out of state.

“What makes this case so incredible is the utilization of the technology we have in 2021,” said Bensalem Public Safety Director Fred Harran, who was a brand new patrol officer when Todd’s body was first discovered. “The case really broke just two months ago. The genealogy now available to us is remarkable.”

Weintraub added that now, there is more work to do.

“Although we’re fortunate enough to be able to give the Todd family some peace of mind and some closure … there is certainly more to the story,” he said.

He encouraged anyone with information about Todd’s death or the days before her disappearance to contact the Bensalem Township Police Department or the Bucks County District Attorney’s office.

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