Crime

She vanished years ago and famously reappeared with amnesia. Inside the mystery of Jody Roberts

For a few weeks in 1997, Jane Dee became famous for forgetting herself.

She vanished 12 years earlier at the age of 26, back when her name was Jody Roberts, a hard-nosed crime reporter for The News Tribune. Her family and co-workers suspected foul play: an abduction perhaps, or murder.

Reality strangled those inventions. It turned out Roberts was living in Alaska under a different name: Jane Dee, a web designer and mother of four children. She claimed no memory of her former life.

Investigation revealed she turned up at a mall in Colorado five days after her disappearance, with no memory of her real name or her past. Mental health experts interviewed her, but could not restore her memories.

The story made national news, going viral before viral became a buzzword. Who was this famous foundling? What happened to her?

Apart from one 1997 interview with a tabloid news program, Roberts never spoke to the media to tell her story or discuss those answers. Her family spoke for her.

Two decades later, she maintains her steadfast silence. Through relatives, she declined to be interviewed for this story.

“I think she got her fill 20 years ago after being in the media so much,” said a family member who asked not to be named.

She still goes by Jane Dee, the name she chose for herself in 1985. At 59, she’s been Jane longer than she was Jody.

She lives in Oregon, caring for her now-ailing mother, the matriarch of the family she forgot. Intensely private, she avoids social media and public attention.

A look back at her disappearance, aided by previously unreleased records, sheds new light on the old mystery, including the crossed wires of law enforcement agencies in two states, the anxieties and speculations of her co-workers and a 32-year-old glimpse of treatment records suggesting that Jody Roberts forgot most of her old life — but not all.

LAST FOOTPRINTS

She joined The News Tribune in 1980 at the age of 22, making a name for herself covering crime and courts.

“A real dogged reporter,” said Dan Voelpel, a TNT alumnus who attended Pacific Lutheran University with Roberts, and started his reporting career during her tenure. “I admired her. She asked tough questions, wouldn’t let people off the hook.”

By 1985, Roberts was well established, known as a dependable reporter editors could count on. Yet something appeared wrong. She was growing gloomy, even irritable. Physically, she didn’t seem to be taking care of herself. Her phone was disconnected: a problem in the pre-cell phone era that made her difficult to reach.

While editors had inklings, they didn’t know Roberts’ personal life was a shambles. She was behind on payments at her small house on the Key Peninsula. She had been struggling with depression and seeking counseling.

During the week of May 13, 1985, Roberts made a last-minute vacation request. She wanted to take a short trip to Eastern Washington with her close friend Mike Bainter, then a photo editor at The Seattle Post-Intelligencer.

The notice was too short. Editor Dave Workman told her no. Roberts chafed about it. She showed up for work on Friday, May 17 — the last time her co-workers would see her.

On Saturday, she partied with friends — first at two bars in Gig Harbor, then at a private home near Purdy with a handful of acquaintances, including a 22-year-old man who lived at the home.

According to accounts in investigative records, Roberts was in good spirits, not noticeably drunk.

At the party in Purdy, Roberts noticed the mother of the 22-year-old kept dogs: Pomeranians, including a puppy named Panda. Roberts was charmed by the dog, and offered to buy it, according to records. The mother said no and went to bed.

The party lasted until 3:30 a.m., when Roberts left and said she was heading home, according to records. Interviewed years later by a detective, the mother recalled Panda was gone the next morning. She never saw the dog again.

Roberts drove a red 1983 Toyota Corolla. The wee-hour drive from Purdy to her house in Wauna would have taken 10 minutes. A neighbor told investigators he saw a red car parked in the driveway later that Sunday morning, but the identification was shaky: a vague memory without a model or a license plate.

The weekend was over. On Monday, May 20, Roberts was scheduled for a story assignment at PLU. She blew it off. A photographer who was to meet her there waited in vain.

Instead, at 10:30 a.m., Roberts left the last documented footprints of her old life. At a bank in Federal Way, she emptied her savings account, withdrew $80, transferred the funds to checking and cashed a check for $350, leaving herself overdrawn by $20.

She signed her name on the withdrawal form and the check: Jody Roberts, with a swooping cursive J.

Then she vanished.

FIVE DAYS

The next five days are the great blank, the heart of a murky mystery.

Roberts missed her Monday assignment. She didn’t show up for work and no one heard from her. Tuesday morning came. Again she didn’t show.

A swift internal debate followed at The News Tribune. Where was Jody? What to do?

Assistant city editor John Bailey and another reporter drove to Roberts’ house. The driveway was empty. The doors and windows were shut. Peeking through a window, Bailey saw a bag of groceries.

Another editor, Vern Shomshak, called Roberts’ parents in Oregon. They hadn’t heard from her. The next step was a missing-person report. Records show Shomshak called the Pierce County Sheriff’s Department on the evening of May 21.

A deputy called Jody’s father in Oregon. James Roberts gave permission to enter the house in Wauna, by force if necessary. Detectives banged the door open shortly before 11 p.m.

The house was a mess, according to the report: “Total disarray with clothes and papers scattered about the house. There was cat feces on all floors of the house and a strong stench.”

At some point in those early moments, Voelpel called Bainter, who had returned from the trip Roberts had hoped to take with him. Hearing Jody was missing, Bainter called her mother, Marilyn Roberts. He drove to the house in Wauna, where he had stayed in the past.

The house was “tossed,” he would say later, but that was normal. Jody was never a neat nut. Far more worrisome was her cat, Poika, wandering and yowling outside. Jody never let the cat out.

Marilyn Roberts arrived at the house later on May 22 and spoke to deputies. She also picked up the cat. She told deputies her daughter, an animal lover, would never leave Poika behind to starve.

The next day, May 23, Deputy Walt Stout requested Roberts’ bank records for any additional signs of activity. He found the records from Federal Way — the last withdrawal — and nothing more.

Four days had passed. No trace of Roberts emerged.

In the newsroom, quiet gossip fed speculation. Years later, Rob Tucker, one of Roberts’ editors, told a sheriff’s investigator he always suspected the disappearance was voluntary.

“My gut feeling was that she just pitched it in and left,” Tucker said in a 1997 interview. “Things weren’t going right, she was young. I just thought she just said to hell with it and just left town.”

That thinking, among other things, drove a decision not to publish a story in The News Tribune about the disappearance. After an uneasy internal debate, editors decided against it, reasoning the paper didn’t routinely cover missing-person cases.

Also, they suspected Roberts had left by her own choice.

Others weren’t so sure. Maybe something — or someone — had happened to Roberts.

She had written tough stories about powerful people. One target was former Tacoma Mayor Mike Parker. Roberts covered his business dealings, and she cultivated good sources. To help one of them take notes, she smuggled an electric typewriter out of the Tacoma newsroom and delivered it in person, according to investigative records.

She was also fascinated by the most gripping crime story of the period: the unsolved Green River serial murders. She had toured the Sea-Tac strip, interviewing prostitutes about their experiences, sometimes bringing Bainter along as a bodyguard. Had she taken a foolish step and gone undercover?

The truth was stranger, though her co-workers and family didn’t know it at the time. Somehow in those five blank days, Roberts made her way to a mall in Aurora, Colorado, a Denver suburb.

THE MALL

The brown-haired woman looked to be in her mid-20s. She wore a University of Denver sweatshirt. She had been wandering through the Aurora Mall as the storefronts began to close.

She stopped at the security office with a problem: She didn’t know her name. She didn’t know how she got to the mall.

She carried a Toyota key ring with the letter M, but no identification. She clutched a book: “Watership Down,” a fantasy novel about rabbits fleeing human devastation and searching for a new home.

A security officer walked through the parking lot with her, trying to find a car that fit the key. No good. Stymied, the officer called police, who took similar steps and looked through her handbag, which contained pens, cigarettes and a lighter, but no ID.

Aurora police took charge, and delivered the woman to Fort Logan, a local mental hospital, where therapists quizzed her without success.

She was intelligent, literate, a heavy smoker, and probably had a college degree, they guessed — but her memories were scrambled.

Three weeks later, on June 12, police detectives returned to Fort Logan to check on the woman with no name, now known as “Jane Doe.”

The police report from that day includes previously unreported details. A Fort Logan therapist told police the woman had been given sodium amytal, know colloquially as “truth serum,” to unlock her memory.

Under the drug’s influence, “Jane Doe” recalled being the second youngest of five children. She had three sisters and one brother. She recalled a sister named Anne and another named Sal, who lived in Arkansas. She had a brother, 10 years younger, nicknamed “Shorty.” She remembered a family joke: Shorty would get married before Jane.

She remembered being a Girl Scout Brownie. She knew the words to the Brownie song. Her mother was a Brownie leader and made cakes for the girls with pennies inside as treats, she said.

She showed “no signs of psychosis or drug involvement,” according to records.

The drug-induced memories were partially accurate: Jody Roberts, born in 1958, had been a Brownie. She had four siblings: three sisters and a brother — but she was the second oldest, not the second youngest. She had a sister named Anne, and another named Sal, who lived in Kansas, not Arkansas. Her brother Andrew, the baby, was 11 years younger than she was (he was still a teenager in 1985).

The therapist gave police a rough diagnosis: “Jane appears to have psychogenic amnesia, and it’s generally triggered by a threat of death or being forced into a life-threatening situation.”

Detectives sent notices to local media outlets, asking for information about the woman with no name. Her photo was included.

On the same day in Tacoma — June 12, 1985 — Pierce County sheriff’s Detective Walt Stout found Roberts’ red 1983 Toyota Corolla, parked in a covered space near the County-City Building downtown.

THE CAR

At The News Tribune, faces met palms. Everyone had forgotten the parking space rented by the newspaper. Roberts, a courthouse reporter, always used it.

The car was a cluttered mess, filled with candy wrappers, empty fast-food containers, pens, clothing, notebooks and unopened mail. The driver’s seat was the only open space. Stout saw no evidence of a struggle or violence.

It was evidence, but where did it lead? By now, Stout knew Roberts had been in Federal Way emptying her bank account the morning she disappeared. Perhaps she had driven there and back to the courthouse parking space. But what then?

He didn’t know she was in Colorado.

Hindsight offers one possibility: in 1985, Roberts could have taken a short downhill walk — eight blocks down, two blocks over — from the courthouse parking space to the old Greyhound bus station at 1401 Pacific Avenue, and a one-way ticket to Denver.

She had been missing for three weeks. She was lost in one state and found in another. Two police agencies were trying to solve the same puzzle, each lacking the crucial missing piece.

On June 14, newspapers and TV stations in the Denver area published an announcement from police, headed, “Amnesia victim.” The one-column item included a fresh photo of Roberts, who had given her consent to publish it, hoping to be found.

“Aurora police are seeking help in identifying a woman found wandering around the Aurora Mall at 6:15 p.m. May 25, suffering from amnesia,” said the notice in The Denver Post.

Three weeks after blowing off her last journalism assignment, Roberts was in the papers again — this time without a name or a byline.

More than 1,300 miles away in Tacoma, no one noticed. Neither did Roberts’ parents in Oregon. The internet and instant information didn’t exist. A few local tips trickled in to Aurora police after the media announcement. None panned out.

On July 1, Stout filed a lengthy report summing up his findings. By this time, he knew Roberts had been seeing a counselor to cope with depression and basic issues such as personal hygiene, opening mail and paying her bills.

Roberts told the counselor more than once she would “just like to take off and run away in my car.”

Apart from that, Stout had little to work with. In October 1985, he followed up on a reported death threat aimed at one of Roberts’ longtime sources. An anonymous caller warned the source, “You know what happened to Jody Roberts,” and added, “You better watch yourself.”

The tip led nowhere. Stout was running out of options. He wanted to send a special bulletin to the media and law enforcement, using Roberts’ photo and a summary of the disappearance, just as his law enforcement peers in Colorado had done, though Stout didn’t know it.

By this time, Roberts had been missing from Tacoma for almost five months. Stout, hoping to drum up publicity and tips, faced an unexpected obstacle: her parents, who opposed a police bulletin.

“They stated that they were opposed to any type of bulletin with Jody’s name and photograph going out on a public distribution basis,” Stout wrote. “They stated that they had talked with a psychic ... and this psychic had told them that Jody Roberts was working in an undercover investigative reporter capacity.

“Jody’s parents stated that they feared that putting a bulletin out with Jody’s picture and name may jeopardize her safety if she was in fact working in an undercover capacity.”

Stout, who had interviewed newsroom employees, doubted Roberts was working undercover. He pressed for the bulletin as a necessary piece of the investigation. Finally, Roberts’ father agreed, but he insisted on no public distribution. Law enforcement agencies could have the bulletin, but not the media.

Stout wrote up the bulletin and sent it out. Due to limited distribution or plain bad luck, it didn’t generate any significant tips.

Gradually, the Roberts case went cold, though her parents continued to search for her up and down the West Coast. Stout retired. The investigation fizzled. Apart from a wayward tip or two, it remained dormant for a decade.

NEW NAME, NEW LIFE

Meanwhile, in Colorado, Jane Doe had decided the therapists at Fort Logan couldn’t help her anymore. On Sept. 10, she was discharged.

With help from the Fort Logan staff and local authorities, she obtained a new Social Security number and gave herself a new name: Jane Dee. Not knowing her birth date, she selected Jan. 1, 1963, officially making herself almost five years younger in the process.

She went back to college and earned a degree in Russian literature from the University of Denver, waiting tables in her spare time.

In 1989, she landed a waitressing job in Skagway, Alaska, the southern end of the state. Her co-workers pegged her as a loner, quiet and smart, always reading in the off-hours between shifts.

She met a man in 1990: a fisherman named Dan Williams, who lived in Sitka, about two hours away. They became a couple, then a family. Jane gave birth to two sets of twin daughters in 1993 and 1995.

She also became a computer savant, building web pages aimed at users of the then-fledgling eBay auction website, and helping customers sell their goods.

Her memory loss was known in family circles, but not discussed. Jane didn’t like to talk about it, and relatives didn’t push.

“We took her in as part of our family,” a relative in Alaska would say later. “We’ve always known she didn’t remember.”

As far as her family and newsroom staffers in Tacoma knew, Jody Roberts was still missing, probably dead, one more vanished woman on a long, sad list from the ‘80s.

Columnist C.R. Roberts (no relation) mused about the case in 1995, noting the newspaper hadn’t published a major story when Jody disappeared.

“I think we made a mistake,” he wrote. “But I come to this story 10 years late, afforded the luxury of hindsight. I never knew her.”

Yet Jody was alive in Alaska, unaware of the mystery that surrounded her, unprepared when her old life returned to intrude on the new one she had created.

INVESTIGATION REBOOTED

In February 1997, Pierce County sheriff’s Capt. Gary Smith reviewed a backlog of missing-person cases. The forgotten Jody Roberts file leaped out at him.

Missing more than a decade without a trace. That was too much time. Clearly Roberts was dead. Her mother, Marilyn Roberts, agreed.

It made sense to Smith.

“The case needs to be dealt with as a homicide,” he wrote in an initial assessment.

He compiled a list of potential contacts, and started a series of interviews, including then-current and former News Tribune staffers.

All the old stories were resurrected and re-explored. Along with others, editor John Bailey, who had retired, recalled that Roberts (“really a good reporter”) slipped in her last few months at work, becoming noticeably unkempt. No one was sure why.

“She’d have dirt in the creases of her knuckles,” he said.

Bailey believed Jody was dead. He recalled her disconnected home phone, a problem when editors needed to reach her. In hindsight, it still made no sense to him that she left money behind, in the form of an upcoming paycheck she never collected.

Rob Tucker, another former editor who still worked as a reporter, said he and Bailey had planned to talk to Roberts before she disappeared, to have a meeting and try to understand what was bothering her. He still believed she’d “bunched it,” and left on her own.

Veteran reporter Joe Turner, quizzed about Roberts’ interest in the still unsolved Green River murders, scoffed at the idea she had been working undercover. If she did anything like that, she was free-lancing without approval from her bosses, he said.

Mike Bainter, Roberts’ old friend, said she had confessed to having blackouts before she disappeared. During one such episode, she had driven her car over an embankment by the Tacoma Mall. She had grown moody and disheveled, he recalled — she argued with him at times, which had never happened before.

Drugs? No, Bainter said. Alcohol? Yeah. State of mind? She had mused about characters in books who reinvented themselves and started over, he remembered — but she never talked about doing it herself.

Smith also interviewed a new witness: Ellen Saunders, Roberts’ best friend since the fourth grade. As young women, they had been roommates briefly in Seattle. Roberts had stayed in touch with Ellen until days before the disappearance, and visited her in Oregon in mid-May 1985.

They had talked all day. Saunders knew her friend had been seeing a counselor. Roberts talked of getting a dog, and the stories she’d been covering, including former Mayor Mike Parker’s business dealings. Saunders remembered a strange story about that point.

“Jody advised Ellen that she had been contacted by the FBI who had asked her to go ‘undercover’ regarding the Parker matter,” Smith wrote in his report of the interview. “Jody had decided to decline the offer for a number of reasons.”

The FBI story was tantalizing and unverifiable, but Smith, still thinking in terms of investigating a homicide, took note. He also pitched local media outlets on the reopened investigation, including The News Tribune.

“The TNT will be running the Jody article in the Sunday morning paper,” Smith wrote in a May 22, 1997, note to Paul Pastor, then the operations chief of the Sheriff’s Department. “They claim it will be front page stuff with colored photos, etc. I believe we will gain some valuable information from that effort.”

Smith’s prediction turned out to be right, though he missed his chance to prove it.

A TIP PAYS OFF

In the course of his inquiry, Smith chased a rumor that then-Interim Sheriff Mark French, poised to be formally confirmed by the County Council for the permanent job, had threatened Roberts in March 1985, two months before she disappeared. French denied it.

The allegation surfaced in a lawsuit filed by a former deputy. A rumor held that French had once used cocaine on his boat. Roberts had overheard the allegation during a civil service hearing. The reported threat supposedly came after the hearing.

French told The News Tribune he had asked Roberts not to publish a story and requested an interview beforehand if she decided to publish. He denied threatening her.

By pursuing the old threat story, Smith, who had clashed with French before, created a political problem and ran afoul of his own commanders. Pastor asked him to hand off the Roberts investigation to another detective.

The News Tribune published a front-page story about the Roberts case on June 26, recounting the disappearance and quoting Smith, not knowing the investigation had been taken out of his hands.

The story generated the tip Smith had hoped for. A woman called, saying she thought she recognized Roberts as a co-worker from Alaska.

The tip languished, unpursued. Smith, officially off the case, wrote it down, didn’t relay it and went on vacation, according to accounts of the time.

Meanwhile, French decided to transfer the case to the King County Sheriff’s Office, hoping to avoid any appearance of or conflict of interest. Local news stories noted the move. The file went to Detective Tom Jensen, a near-legendary investigator who had worked on the Green River murders, among other cases.

Again, the publicity generated a tip from Madelyn Wright, the same woman who called Smith several days earlier.

It was a stroke of luck for Jensen, who followed up immediately. Wright said she knew Roberts as Jane Doe. They had worked together as waitresses in 1989. The woman was very intelligent, and read and spoke Russian, Wright said.

Within a week, Jensen nailed it. Using the tip and information from Pierce County’s case file, he found a Jane Dee living in Sitka, Alaska. He obtained her driver’s license and her Social Security number, which traced back to Colorado and the magic year: 1985.

Working phones on July 15, 1997, Jensen and another detective reached a neighbor who knew Jane Dee, sent a message and waited for a return call. It came within 15 minutes.

Jensen asked if Jane Dee had ever heard the name Jody Roberts.

The answer was no. Dee said her earliest memory was wandering through a shopping mall in Colorado.

The story tumbled out, bit by bit.

“She said that she did not know her true name,” Jensen wrote in his report. “She was then asked if she wanted to know her true identity. She said that she did and I gave her a brief account of her background and the circumstances of her being missing.”

He asked Dee if she wanted to reconnect with her family and friends. He gave her directions to The News Tribune’s fledgling website, along with a link to her story, and asked her to read it and call him back in 24 hours with her answer.

She had a choice, he said. He could protect her anonymity, call her family and tell them she was alive and well, but not reveal her location or contact information.

Within minutes, Dee called back. She had seen the stories of her family’s anguish, the rumors of others allegedly involved in her disappearance.

“We’ve got to do something now,” she told Jensen. “No point in waiting.”

There was one more thing. She wanted absolute confirmation. She would place her photo online temporarily, with a link her family could view. That way they could be certain, and so could she.

Jensen arranged the connection. He called James Roberts in Oregon, shared the link and waited. The father saw his daughter’s face. Phone numbers were traded.

Jody Roberts, lost for 12 years, had been found.

FAME

For the next three weeks, Jane Dee was a star, a recipient of sudden fame and media scrutiny she didn’t want.

Her family came to visit in Sitka. Marilyn Roberts doted on the two sets of twin grandchildren she hadn’t known existed. But Dee wouldn’t allow any video recording inside her home.

The media came too, swarming over Sitka, waiting outside. The story of amnesia and Colorado beamed around the world as reporters and photographers from The News Tribune and other outlets waited for Dee to come outside, to talk, to make a statement.

Their only information came from Dee’s parents, who met her in private.

“Her personality is the same,” Marilyn Roberts said. “She’s so happy, so content. I’ve never seen her happier.”

Still, reporters waited for the moment that never came. A News Tribune editor had pizza and a note delivered to Dee’s door. It made no difference. Dee’s partner, Dan Williams, suggested she might come out eventually. She still didn’t.

In one of the stories published at the time, Dee’s sister, Anne, sounded a rueful note amid the frenzy.

“I hope she doesn't regret the fact that she was found.”

Eventually, the reporters drifted away. The News Tribune shifted to local coverage of the aftermath and the missteps of the investigation.

Reporters spoke to psychological experts about amnesia, batting around phrases like “fugue state” and “psychogenic amnesia,” a rare dissociative disorder. The experts said Roberts’ memory loss was entirely possible.

“This is a defense against tremendous anxiety,” said Dr. Robert Miller, professor of forensic psychiatry at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center and a nationally recognized expert on amnesia.

“Somebody just sort of leaves where they are. They go to an entirely different place, and when they get there, they have no memory whatsoever of who they are or where they’ve been or what they’ve done in their lives,” Miller said.

Dee broke her silence only once. In November 1997, she gave an interview to the tabloid news program “American Journal.” Producers paid an undisclosed amount for the privilege.

During the two-part broadcast, Dee read excerpts from her diary, and said she still couldn’t remember anything about her former life. She recalled old sitcoms, old songs, old presidents, but nothing about herself.

‘WE’LL NEVER KNOW’

As the years passed, Dee’s life changed again.

She had a book deal lined up, but abandoned it. She separated from the father of her children while maintaining contact with them and her “old” family. She bought a house on the Oregon coast, and sold it in the mid-2000s, according to public records.

She expanded her online business, building a website called Pongo, in partnership with a Jeannie Williams, an acquaintance from Texas. In 2004, Dee stepped away from the business and handed it off to Williams, who died earlier this year.

Dee’s father is gone. Her mother, Marilyn, who never gave up the search, is ailing now. Dee, who has health issues of her own, is her live-in caregiver. One of her daughters lives with her.

Two decades later, she’s still not interested in talking, according to relatives who responded to inquiries from The News Tribune..

“I am in contact with her,” one family member said. “I see her every once in awhile. She’s pretty much a hermit these days. Since ‘97, we’ve all been together.”

She still goes by the name Jane Dee —the name she chose for herself, and the only one she remembers. Her old memories have never returned.

One relative, aware of longstanding suspicions about the amnesia, responds to such questions with heat.

Dee isn’t faking, the relative said, adding that her family still believes something happened 32 years ago, something related to the journalism job, something traumatic that led to a form of psychic suicide — but the cause remains buried, beyond discovery.

“We’ll never know what happened,” the relative said. “We’ll never know how she disappeared.”

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