The Box Lady of Benton County

Carl Koppelman Reconstruction of the Benton Box Lady

Sixteen year old Curtis Skoog was mowing the yard on his family’s 40 acre farm near Otterbein, Indiana at around 5:00 pm on October 2, 1976. He noticed Norman Skoog’s, his father’s, truck pull into the driveway which was odd to Curtis as his father should have been running the combine through the corn field. Norman recruited Curtis’ grandfather, Everett Dalton, to return to the field with him.

What Curtis didn’t know was that his father had been running the combine, around nine rows of corn into the field, but it was blocked by a cardboard box. Norman got out of the combine to move the box but found that it was too heavy to lift, which is why he went to retrieve his father-in-law. The both of them were able to lift the box into the back of Norman’s truck and drive it back to the main house.

The box had been bound with rope and tape, and Curtis hopped into the cab of the truck and cut the box open. They were greeted with a putrid smell. Curtis pulled a broken bottle of cheap perfume out of the box before his father told him to put it back, and he called the Benton County Sheriff and the Indiana State Police.

When Sheriff Donal Steely arrived at the scene he looked into the box and saw the body of a woman wrapped in plastic wrap and rope who had been forced into the fetal position. She had been shot once in the back of the head.

The plastic wrap that covered her body was similar to the plastic runners used to preserve carpeting. Her head has been further wrapped with paper towels, a smaller than average white cloth towel, and two light colored plastic bags (similar to those that line small trash cans).

The woman that was in the box was a white female between the ages of 55–65. She had light brown hair that was graying, brown eyes with heavy bags, an upturned nose, and large ears. Her face was unblemished, and she wasn’t wearing makeup. She was around 5'2" tall and weighed between 160–170 pounds. Her fingernails were cut short, and they were ragged. Her hands also bore heavy callouses.

After doing some research about what could cause callouses, they usually result from repeated pressure activities like playing an instrument. It’s likely that Jane Doe engaged in a career with a lot of repetitive motion, that paired with the ragged nails leads many investigators to believe that she was a maid or cleaner.

Additionally, Jane Doe had multiple scars. One scar that went from sternum to stomach (around 8 inches), there was also a “weak spot” or surgical drain was present in this scar. She also had large scarring on her right side from a radical mastectomy. A radical mastectomy involves removing the entire breast, underarm lymph nodes, and chest muscles. This makes it likely that Jane Doe had breast cancer at some point, and this should have left a paper trail of Jane Doe in a doctor’s office and a hospital’s records.

Jane Doe was found wearing a size 22 1/2 double-knit green pantsuit. Her slacks and the yoke of her shirt were light green. The bodice of her top was a tan and green print. Her clothes were untorn and clean, besides the fact that they were covered in blood.

Underneath her clothing she was wearing a size 40 pink slip from the brand “Sliperfection” that had been cutoff at her waist (basically a makeshift camisole). She was also wearing a soft gartered girdle.

Her prints were collected and circulated to police departments throughout Illinois and Indiana as well as the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). No matches were found but this means that Jane Doe never served in the military, held a civil service job or immigrated to the U.S. However, her identity still remained a mystery.

First Few Leads:

Her body was delivered to the coroner Harold Konzelman and an autopsy was conducted the next day. It was found that Jane Doe had been shot at close range at the base of her brain, which bypasses the skull allowing a clear exit for the bullet. A bit of metal was still detected and it was estimated that Jane Doe was shot by small caliber firearm, like a .22 or .38 caliber. Jane Doe had died anywhere from 7–10 days before being found, but she had only been in the cornfield for 12–18 hours. They determined how long she had been in the field because the box was dry, despite it having rained around 24 hours earlier.

Although she could have been dead for almost a week and a half, little decomposition had occurred. There would have been days where her killer(s) kept her body. Because of this, many speculate that she was frozen for a time before being dumped in the field.

The police then focused on the box that Jane Doe was placed inside. It was a 3x2x1white corrugated cardboard box. They were able to find out that the box was manufactured in Melrose Park, Illinois between May and October of 1976. It had been distributed to states such as Illinois, Indiana, Wisconsin, and Michigan. This type of box was primarily used by moving vans, and the box was stamped “wardrobe bottom” and had “hall closet” handwritten on it.

The box combined with the types of plastic Jane Doe was wrapped in could mean that her killer(s) had just moved to the area, possibly with Jane Doe. This could explain why no one knew her.

A woman also reported that she was stopped by a man in Benton County who asked for directions to Indiana Route 231, which she gave. However, he took off in the opposite direction. If he had followed the woman’s directions, he would have headed towards the Skoog’s farm.

Sheriff Steely also believed that Jane Doe must have been from a more major city such Hammond or Gary, Indiana or Chicago, Illinois. This is because it is much easier for someone to go missing from a larger city without their absence being noted.

Sometime after these revelations, the Box Lady was buried in an unmarked grave in Fowler Cemetery in Fowler, Indiana.

The Helicopter:

There is a very interesting piece of this case that actually led me to cover it in the first place. Which is the initial belief that her body was dropped into the cornfield via helicopter. This seems extremely far-fetched but there is evidence to back it up.

Although Jane Doe was found around nine stalks into the cornfield, there was no evidence of a path through the field to where she was dumped. There was also an unusual circle of black dirt surrounding the box.

Additionally, three people reported seeing a helicopter in the area around the time Jane Doe’s body was dumped. Specifically, it was described as a white and gold 1976 JetRanger Bell. This was a rather expensive helicopter at $160,000 in 1976 which is around $760,000 today. This would mean that Jane Doe’s killer(s) were rich.

Recently, 2022, the “My Favorite Murder” podcast discussed this case. The current Benton county coroner, Matt Rosenbarger, stated that the helicopter theory is one that they are moving away from as they don’t believe a helicopter played a part in Jane Doe’s death and disposal. However, this theory is a major one in the Box Lady’s case and felt worth mentioning.

Recent Updates:

In January of 2019, the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System (NamUs) contacted Matt Rosenbarger with a request about a cold case of a woman’s death the year before. There did not end up being a connection to that case, but it piqued Rosenbarger’s curiosity about how new sciences could help solve the Box Lady’s case.

Rosenbarger and Benton County officials were able to pinpoint the location of the Box Lady’s unmarked grave through coroner’s reports, records from Windler Funeral Home, and bills submitted to cover $450 burial.

A team was assembled consisting of Dr. Darin Wolfe (a forensic pathologist from Indianapolis), Dr. Lauren Weidner (a forensic entomologist from Purdue), Dr. Krista Latham (a forensic anthropologist from the University of Indianapolis’ Human Identification Center), and Dr. Latham’s graduate students. They also received help from the Newton County coroner Scott McCord.

On June 28, 2019 the Box Lady was exhumed. The team worked for seven to eight hours to unearth her body. The wooden casket that the Box Lady had been buried in had disintegrated, revealing her remains in a body bag. Her body was taken to the Tippecanoe coroner’s morgue before being sent to the University of Indianapolis’ Human Identification Center.

The genetic genealogy testing that they wanted to perform on her would cost around $5,000. Thankfully, in late September of 2021 the DNA Doe Project took on the Box Lady’s case. The money was quickly crowd-funded, and her case is currently undergoing testing.

Possible Identities:

One possible identity for the Box Lady, that has since been excluded, is Marie Beula Mueller. She was reported missing from Frontenac, Missouri on March 5, 1972 by her husband. She was going through a divorce with her husband at the time of her disappearance. She had auburn hair and blue eyes, was around 5'4" to 5'6" and around 100–110 pounds.

Even though the height and weight do not quite match-up, the reason she was suggested as an identity of the Box Lady is because Marie Mueller had a scar from a mastectomy. But she was later ruled out according to NamUs.

This possible identity brings up an interesting point, any possible identity for Jane Doe would have to have very specific characteristics that are not present in most missing people. The only other missing person I could find with a mastectomy listed, disappeared in 2019.

All this to say, it is likely that the Box Lady was never reported missing. Currently, Rosenbarger is focusing on cases of homicide where no body was found and getting DNA from the families’ of the victims to test against the Box Lady.

Conclusions:

As time drags on, the number of people who remember who the Box Lady was in life begin to dwindle. Her description seems so precise that someone must be able to remember someone matching Jane Doe’s appearance who they knew in the 70s. The medical records from her (likely) breast cancer treatment are probably long gone, but do another patient remember her? Someone has to remember her.

If you have any information that could lead to the identity of the Benton County Box Lady or the identity of her killer(s), please contact Matthew Rosenbarger at the Benton County Medical Examiner & Coroner’s Office in reference to case number 2019Benton001. You can contact them via phone at (765)-418–2295 or via email at Benton.coroner@yahoo.com

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Madison Tramel

A forensic psychology student who is passionate about cold cases.