Tonya Mullins, pictured here in an undated photograph with her daughters Christi and Tammie, disappeared 45 years ago. She was buried in Pearl, Miss., as an unidentified homicide victim under the name Jane Doe. Credit: Photo courtesy of Tammie Mullin

Tammie Mullins last saw her mother 45 years ago when she was 3 years old. Family members told her and her younger sister Christi that Tonya Mullins was missing and, if she were able to come home to them, she would.

Over the years, Tammie held on to happy memories of her mother from when they lived in Simpson County. She always wondered what happened to her or where she was. 

Earlier this year, investigators from the Rankin County Sheriff’s Department answered at least one of her questions: For 45 years, Tonya Mullins had been an unidentified homicide victim buried in Pearl under the name “Jane Doe”. Investigators identified her remains using DNA testing and genealogy. 

“That led her back to me and Christi,” said Tammie Mullins, who is 49. 

In 1978, Tonya Mullins was 22 and married to her high school sweetheart, James. They moved from Texas to Mississippi with their young daughters in search of work. 

The couple couldn’t find jobs, so James went back to Texas to find a place to stay for his family, but when he returned to Simpson County, Tonya and the girls were gone. 

That September, Rankin County investigators found the body of a woman –  now identified as Tonya – wrapped in carpet in an illegal dumping site near the old Byram Swinging Bridge. The bridge spans the Pearl River and separates Hinds and Rankin counties.

The woman had been dead for several days. Based on the blunt force head injuries, the coroner ruled her death a homicide. 

Her body was sent to the state forensics lab for an autopsy, and the woman’s fingerprints were recorded and sent to the FBI. Information about her and a composite sketch were released to the public, but nobody came forward. 

Tammie said memories of her mother are limited, such as images of her parents sitting next to each other on the couch as Tonya sewed Tammie’s dress, or jumping on the trampoline together.

With the help of her grandparents and father, Tammie has been able to retell what happened when her mother went missing. 

Three months after Tonya and the girls were last seen, Tammie’s grandmother received a call saying their uncle would bring them to Texas if she and her father met him at the airport. The uncle brought Tammie and Christi and told their father that Tonya would reach out at a later time, but she never did. 

Tammie said her father returned to Mississippi several times to try and find his wife, but was not successful. 

Her uncle had told her father she saw Tonya leave with someone to go to Mexico. The uncle later said Tonya was in Florida. There was supposedly a letter James received from Tonya – which Tammie now knows could not have been possible – but she doesn’t know what it said. 

Tammie said growing up without her mother was an emotional rollercoaster.

She didn’t like Mother’s Day and still doesn’t enjoy it now that she is a mother. At times she felt angry at her mother for leaving. Other times Tammie wished she was there, and that felt like a betrayal of her stepmother who helped raise her. 

“I think those feelings just never go away,” Tammie said. 

Years passed. Tammie and Christi started their own families. Tammie told her children about her mother. She became a grandmother. 

In 2021, Rankin County Coroner David Ruth was reminded about the 1978 Jane Doe case after a detective from Ohio working on an unidentified missing person case reached out. 

Ruth filed a petition with the circuit court to exhume Jane Doe’s body with the hopes of using modern forensic tools to identify her. Once the request was approved, he and Deputy Coroner Clifton Dunlap collected bones to send out for testing. 

Ruth tried three laboratories to help identify Mullins, and one that was successful was Texas-based Othram. 

“There are a lot of homicides that are unsolved because people don’t know who they are … finding out the identity of them is a start,” he said. “If you don’t ask, you’ll never know.” 

Carla Davis, a Mississippi native and Othram’s chief genetic genealogist, used DNA from Jane Done’s bones to build a family tree. 

Davis found the woman had a genetic match with a person who was adopted, and she had to find who that person’s family was. Davis identified a possible close relative who agreed to take a DNA test. 

More testing and work by investigators led to the positive identification of Jane Doe as Tonya Mullins. 

“It’s rewarding beyond measure,” Davis said about her genealogy work for Othram. “It’s proof that, with funding, this works.” 

Davis, who is also a philanthropist, funded the costs to exhume Mullins’ body. She has also helped fund analyses for other unsolved cases in Mississippi and previously did genealogy work for Othram as a volunteer. 

Ruth, the coroner, said Mullins’ death is an open homicide investigation. Now that investigators know who she is, they can go back and find out with whom she was last seen and follow leads, he said. 

Sheriff Bryan Bailey did not immediately respond to a request for comment Wednesday. 

Learning what happened to her mother has given her and her family some closure, Tammie said, but she wants to know who is responsible for her death. 

Next week, Tammie, Christi and other family members will travel to the Floral Hills Memory Gardens to have a funeral service for Tonya, which is where funeral home staff laid her to rest as Jane Doe in 1978. 

Tammie said two of her sons who are ordained ministers will lead the service. 

“It’s the respect my mother deserves, and I wish we could have done this 45 years ago,” she said.

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Mina, a California native, covers the criminal justice system. Before joining Mississippi Today, she was a reporter for the Clarion Ledger and newspapers in Massachusetts. Her work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe and USA Today.