About a year ago, Route 66 enthusiast Blue Miller wrote on her Never Quite Lost blog about the mystery of “Valentine Sally,” an unidentified young woman whose body was found near Ash Fork, Arizona, in an apparent homicide in February 1982.
This week, Valentine Sally finally has her true name. She is Carolyn Eaton, a St. Louis runaway who was 17 at the time of her death. According to a news release Monday from the Coconino County Sheriff’s Office, Eaton’s remains finally were identified through family members’ DNA.
Sheriff Jim Driscoll stated his detectives worked with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, National Missing and Unidentified Person System and the Arizona Department of Public Safety to identify the woman:
This process utilized a private company that specializes in DNA processing for submission into online databases for genetic comparison. Information obtained from this database search identified a relative of “Valentine Sally”. Through this process, detectives were able to locate potential family members of Carolyn, obtain DNA samples from them, and confirm the identity of the body as Carolyn. Identification of unidentified victims is a difficult and lengthy process and can be costly to agencies looking to identify victims of crimes. Recent breakthroughs in DNA technology have allowed Law Enforcement Agencies to identify victims as well as suspects in cold cases such as these. […]
Recently, with the assistance of grant funding through NCMEC the Coconino County Sheriff’s Office was able to utilize DNA samples from “Valentine Sally” to complete the familial DNA search for relatives of “Valentine Sally.” This funding from NCMEC allowed for testing through a private vendor that led to the identification of family members. Detectives traveled to the St. Louis area to interview family members. It was found that the family members had a sibling who ran away from home around Christmas time in 1981. Detectives were able to retrieve DNA samples from relatives, which matched the DNA profile from “Valentine Sally.” This ultimately led to confirmation and the positive identification of “Valentine Sally” as Carolyn Eaton.
Driscoll noted sheriff’s Sgt. Jack Judd, now retired, worked on the case continually until his retirement, as did other detectives.
More recently, detectives worked with St. Louis County Police Department Missing Persons detectives to contact Eaton’s family, who still live in the St. Louis area, and the suburban Bellefontaine Neighbors Police Department, where Eaton lived before running away from home during the Christmas holiday in 1981.
According to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, who talked to Coconino County Sheriff’s Lt. Jason Lurkins and St. Louis County missing persons detective Tom Taylor, Eaton was one of six sisters. She ran away from home after an argument with her family.
“The family members were awestruck,” Lurkins said. “We told one family member we were investigating a missing person case and they asked: Is this about Carolyn?” […]
“I’ve been with this department 23 years now and every so often we’d hear about the Valentine Sally case,” Lurkins said. “So when it broke like this, it was a big deal and I’m sure it’s bringing up a lot for her family.” […]
“It is an absolute reminder that hope springs eternal for police investigators and someone with a missing family member,” said Taylor, recalling when he got the call about the DNA matches. “And it shows the investigators kept this case alive over all these years.”
Patty Wilkins, a waitress at the Monte Carlo Truck Stop just outside Ash Fork, is believed to be one of the last people to have seen Eaton alive. She told police said a girl fitting her profile came into the truck stop in the early morning hours of Feb. 4, 1982, accompanied by a man wearing a cowboy hat with a peacock feather in it.
Eaton told Wilkins she had a toothache. Wilkins said she gave the young girl an aspirin for the left side of her mouth.
Police eventually found Eaton’s body about a mile up the road from Wilkins’ family truck stop. When an autopsy was done on Eaton’s body, Wilkins said police told her the aspirin was still on Eaton’s tooth.
“I could have pulled her off that truck. I could have forced her to stay with me. I could have called 911. I could have done a million different things that I didn’t do. The only thing I did was put that aspirin on her,” Wilkins said Monday in an interview with the Post-Dispatch.
Valentine Sally was buried in Mountain View Cemetery in nearby Williams in a grave that was unmarked until Wilkins raised the money to put “Valentine Sally” on the headstone.
Complicating the decades-long investigation was Valentine Sally for a time mistakenly was identified as Melody Cutlip, a Florida teen who went missing near that time but showed up unexpectedly at her family’s home four years later. Cutlip said she never was in Arizona.
Cutlip’s name was put on the gravestone before she came forward. Cutlip’s family asked the name be removed, but it hadn’t as of last report.
With Valentine Sally now identified, Driscoll said his office’s Cold Case Squad is “vigorously” investigating the case to look for suspects in the homicide. Anyone with information should call (928) 226-5087.
(Artist’s sketch of Valentine Sally from the Never Forget Me page on Facebook)