‘Delta Dawn’ infant identified: Mystery of child found in river in 1982 solved; mother still missing

‘Delta Dawn’ infant identified: Mystery of child found in river in 1982 solved; mother still missing

Law enforcement officials in Mississippi say they have solved a mystery nearly 38 years to the day after the body of an infant was found floating in a river.

This morning, Jackson County (Miss.) Sheriff Mike Ezell announced during a press conference the identity of a child found in thick brush along the Escatawpa River, beneath the westbound lanes of Interstate 10 in Jackson County, Miss., on Dec. 5, 1982.

Alisha Ann Heinrich, daughter of Gwendolyn Clemons, was the name of the child found in a river off Interstate 10 in 1982.

The child known as “Delta Dawn” and “Baby Doe” was finally identified as 18-month-old Alisha Ann Heinrich with the help of DNA genealogy testing. Her mother, Gwendolyn Mae Clemons Heinrich, is still missing. The mother and daughter were reported missing from Joplin, Mo. and last seen on Thanksgiving Day, Nov. 24, 1982. The mother was 23 at the time.

Gwendolyn Clemons was last seen in Joplin, Mo. on Thanksgiving Day 1982.

According to Ezell, Heinrich’s family said Gwendolyn and Alisha left with a man on that day headed to Florida to “start a new life,” but mother and daughter were never heard from again. The man, however, returned to Missouri.

“We do have a suspect, but he is deceased,” Ezell said, referring to the man. “We have family members cooperating with us.”

The strawberry blond child with 12 teeth had been deceased less than two days before being found by the Sheriff’s Flotilla and was about 2 feet, 5 inches tall, weighing around 25 pounds. She was found wearing a pink and white checkered “Cradle Togs” dress or shirt and a disposable diaper.

Witnesses at the time and CB traffic reported a young woman carrying a baby, walking along the Interstate a few nights prior but refusing assistance. The child was found after reports by a passing driver of a woman wearing a blue plaid top floating in the water.

Ezell said authorities do not know if the mother is still alive.

Former law enforcement members were present today at the press conference who were there the day the baby was found. The identification came after decades of patient work by investigators, amateur sleuths and technicians, Ezell said.

Over the years, forensic artists produced a possible reconstruction of the child’s face. In 2009, a DNA sample was collected from the child’s body. Then last year, a DNA sample from the child was taken to Othram, a Texas lab for genealogical testing. In August 2020, the investigation turned to Missouri. A month later, the DNA sample was confirmed as belonging to the child when compared to two family members.

Olivia McCarter, a forensic genealogy intern, was one of those working on the case. Based in Mobile, she lives about 15 miles from where Alisha is buried, in Jackson County Memorial Park. Back in March, she said she began caring for the child’s grave, which at the time was an forgotten marker reading simply, “Baby Jane, Known Only to God.”

“It was overgrown,” she said. “You couldn’t even see it.”

Olivia McCarter poses at the grave of Baby Doe, now identified as Alisha Ann Heinrich, who died in 1982.

Anthony Redgrave is a lead forensic genealogist and online instructor, with Redgrave Research Forensic Services, based in Massachusetts. The two were involved through Othram. McCarter said once Alisha’s DNA profile was entered into a national database, it took 52 days to find a family link. The process was similar to one used to catch the “Golden State Killer” in 2018.

The database research pinpointed possible family links in Missouri, which investigators were able to use to make the match. The process was complicated somewhat, Redgrave said, by the fact that Alisha was not found in an area of the country close to her family relations.

Alisha’s family looks to eventually visit her grave, Ezell said, where McCarter is now the caretaker. Today was the end of a long journey.

“It was very emotional,” McCarter said.