MISSOULA, Mont. — The family of a woman found shot to death in 1985 has learned her fate after nearly four decades, but her identification has led to another pressing question: was she the victim of a suspected serial killer?
The Missoula County Sheriff’s Office announced Monday that a woman known by authorities as “Christy Crystal Creek” has been positively identified as Janet Lee Lucas, a 23-year-old woman from Spokane, Washington. Lucas was last seen alive in 1983 in Sandpoint, Idaho.
A bear hunter found Lucas’ skeletal remains scattered across a hillside Sept. 9, 1985, near Crystal Creek in Missoula. According to the Doe Network, two .32-caliber bullets were found in her skull.
Authorities estimated that the victim been slain about a year before the remains were found. Through the bones and the woman’s dental work, investigators believed she was of possible Japanese descent.
“Despite decades of work with forensic anthropologists and a forensic odontologist, and hours of research scouring missing persons databases here and in Canada, her identity remained a mystery,” Missoula County Sheriff’s Office officials said in a statement.
Sheriff T.J. McDermott said that earlier this year, his office obtained financial help from the Montana Department of Justice’s Sexual Assault Kit Initiative, which aims to reduce the backlog of untested rape kits. The agency’s cold case unit partnered with Othram Inc., a private forensics lab in The Woodlands, Texas, that specializes in DNA testing for police agencies.
Othram’s forensic scientists conducted advanced DNA analysis on Lucas’ bones and, after weeks of intense genetic genealogy research, they found relatives of Lucas in Spokane.
“After conducting numerous interviews and confirming our conclusions with additional DNA testing of relatives, we are now able to conclusively identify Christy Crystal Creek as Janet Lucas,” McDermott’s office said.
In a statement obtained by KPAX in Missoula, Lucas’ family said they are grateful to be able to bring her home to the “peace and rest she so deserves.” Lucas, who had a 5-year-old son at the time of her disappearance, now has four grandchildren.
“After decades of missing Janet, our family is brokenhearted to learn that she was tragically taken, unidentified and spent a large amount of years alone,” the statement read. “However, she never spent one moment without being loved.
“Janet had a contagious smile, warm personality and wore her heart on her sleeve. Janet had been missed dearly, searched for, but most importantly, never forgotten.”
‘The Missoula Mauler’
The already mysterious murder of “Jane Doe 3UFMT” took on even more mystery when Wayne Nathan Nance became the prime suspect in her death.
Nance, dubbed the “Missoula Mauler,” was a suspected serial killer operating in Missoula and Ravalli counties during the 1970s and 1980s. According to the Missoulian, authorities believe Nance was responsible for as many as six murders, though he never went to trial.
He was killed in September 1986 after breaking into his boss’ house, knocking him unconscious and forcing the man’s wife to tie him up. Nance stabbed Doug Wells and left him to die before returning to Wells’ wife, who he’d tied to a bed upstairs.
Doug Wells was able to untie himself, retrieve a rifle and fatally shoot Nance, the newspaper reported. Both he and his wife survived the ordeal.
Nance has been tied to the murders of several young women and teens, according to Missoula County Sheriff’s Office records. On April 11, 1974, Donna Pounds, the wife of a Missoula minister, was found shot to death in the basement of her family’s home.
Nance, then 18, lived nearby and was friends with Pounds’ teenage children. He was seen in the family’s backyard the day Pounds was killed.
Authorities said evidence at the scene, as well as evidence later found in Nance’s home, tied him to the crime.
A decade later, Nance was working as a bouncer at a local bar when he came under suspicion in the deaths of Lucas and two other unidentified victims. One girl, who was found stabbed to death in 1979, was initially called Betty Beavertail due to the fact she was found several miles east of Missoula near Beavertail Hill State Park.
Lucas’ body was found in September 1985 and that of a third victim, who authorities called Debbie Deer Creek, was found buried in a shallow grave that Christmas Eve. Like Lucas, she had been shot in the head.
Her body was also found in close proximity to where Lucas’ body was dumped. Deer Creek Road and Crystal Creek Road meet one another east of Missoula.
In 2006, Debbie Deer Creek was identified through DNA as 16-year-old Marcella “Marci” Bachmann. The Doe Network indicated that Bachmann lived with Nance at the time of her death, and photos of them together were found in his possessions after he died.
Betty Beavertail was identified as 15-year-old Devonna Nelson, authorities said.
Nance was also suspected in the Dec. 12, 1985, murders of Mike and Teresa Shook in their Ravalli County home.
“The suspect gained entry to the house in Ravalli County, tied up the couple, murdered both and then set fire to the house, almost killing four small children,” according to a timeline of Nance’s alleged crimes. “Items missing from the house were a ceramic bugling elk and a Kelgin knife.”
A search of Nance’s home later turned up both the elk and the knife. Detectives also found a photo of Nance’s father, an avid outdoorsman, receiving the elk as a Christmas gift from his son the month after the murders.
The Missoulian reported that Nance had also been a possible suspect in the 1974 murder of Siobhan McGuinness, 5, of Missoula, but was later ruled out after DNA evidence led authorities to a different killer.
‘We must now seek justice for Janet’
Despite investigators’ suspicions that Nance killed Lucas, her murder case officially remains unsolved.
“Our focus has changed from “who is Christy Crystal Creek” to “what happened to Janet Lucas?’” Missouri County Detective Capt. Dave Conway said. “This is now a cold case homicide investigation, and we need your help.”
Detectives have found no records showing that Lucas, who grew up in California and Washington with seven siblings, was living in Montana or spending time there before she was slain. They are poring over evidence and records in Nance’s case file to determine if they can prove a connection to Lucas.
Authorities on Monday released a photo of Lucas from a few years before her death in the hope of finding witnesses who saw her in Missoula in 1983 and 1984.
They are also getting as much information as they can from her family, including the son who has spent the majority of his adult life searching for his mother.
“We cannot rest on our success of having finally identified Janet. We must now seek justice for Janet,” Conway said.
McDermott said his office, in conjunction with the county attorney’s office, is working on turning Lucas’ remains over to her family so they can bring her home. The sheriff thanked all the agencies responsible for identifying the missing woman after so long.
“It truly was a team effort that required the assistance and cooperation of a number of agencies and people to bring some closure to the Lucas family,” McDermott said. “Our thoughts and prayers are with Janet’s family during this difficult time.”
Cox Media Group