Jackson County authorities have identified 44-year-old remains they believe belong to a victim of a notorious serial killer known to have killed in Mississippi.
The remains were found in 1977, and became known as “Escatawpa Jane Doe.” A release late Tuesday said she has finally been identified as Clara Birdlong. Investigators believe she could be a victim of Samuel Little, a prolific serial killer whose first arrest on murder charges was in Pascagoula in 1982. At that time, Little was charged in the death of 22-year-old Melinda Rose LáPree, who had gone missing in September of that year.
But years later in 2018, Little would confess to the murder of “Escatawpa Jane Doe.” He just didn’t know her real name.
Birdlong’s remains were found two days after Christmas in 1977. Her bones were near an area that was under construction and is now Highway 613 and Interstate 10. A medical exam revealed the remains belonged to a petite black woman, with a distinctive gold tooth in the front. They believed she could possibly be wearing a wig. At the time, investigators believed she had been dead for a few months.
The case lay dormant for many years, but in 2012, Pascagoula Pnvestigator Darren Versiga uploaded Escatawpa Jane Doe’s information to the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System. Early attempts to identify her through DNA analysis were unsuccessful.
Little confessed to numerous murders across the Southeast in 2018, including the murder of Escatawpa Jane Doe. It was confirmed Samuel Little was in Jackson County in 1977, during the approximate time frame of the woman’s death.
Little died in prison in December of 2020, after sketching many of his victims in pastel chalks. One of those was the Pascagoula victim now known to be Clara Birdlong.
According to Jackson County, a DNA research facility in The Woodlands, Texas, known as Othram Inc. was contracted to attempt to create a family tree based on Escatawpa Jane Doe’s DNA. Othram’s Dr. David Mittelman analyzed the DNA and gave Investigator Matt Hoggatt information of a possible distant cousin of the victim living in Texas. Hoggatt found the cousin, who was able to connect him with her 93-year old paternal grandmother, who was originally from Leflore County, Mississippi.
The grandmother told Hoggatt she had a cousin Clara who was born around 1933 that had gone missing from Leflore County sometime in the 1970’s. Another distant cousin in Texas told police that Clara went by the nickname “Nuttin,” and described her as a small woman who had a gold front tooth and wore a wig. The cousin also recalled Clara disappeared in the 1970’s.
In August, Hoggatt found a woman in Leflore County who remembered Clara. She said Clara left Leflore County in the 70’s with a man who claimed to be passing through Mississippi on his way to Floridam and nobody ever saw or heard from her again.
Hoggatt requested DNA samples from several people closely associated with Clara in September. Othram, Inc. analyzed the samples and confirmed the DNA matched Birdlong’s grandmother. After further investigation and elimination of all other living and deceased relatives, investigators concluded the victim known as Escatawpa Jane Doe was in fact Clara Birdlong, born in 1933 in Leflore County.
Investigators eventually confirmed Samuel Little was in Pascagoula in August of 1977 because he was arrested at that time for petit theft. Although he is now deceased, Samuel Little is considered a prime suspect in the death of Clara Birdlong. Her cause of death is undetermined.
Anyone who may remember Clara Birdlong is asked to contact the Jackson County Sheriff’s Office at (228) 769-3063 or Mississippi Crime Stoppers at 877-787-5898.