WHITE HAVEN, Penn. — Evelyn Colon’s family hoped and prayed for a heartbreaking scenario: that the pregnant New Jersey teen had run off in late 1976 to start a life of her own and, for reasons they could not understand, wanted no further contact with her family.
After more than 44 years, the Colon family has received long-sought answers to some of their questions — but the answers are worse than they ever could have imagined.
Pennsylvania State Police investigators last week announced that “Beth Doe,” whose dismembered remains were found crammed into three suitcases on a riverbank in the Pocano Mountains in December 1976, has been positively identified as the 15-year-old Jersey City girl.
Evelyn’s nearly full-term daughter’s remains were found, as well.
The teen’s former boyfriend, Luis Sierra, now 63 years old, was arrested Wednesday at his home in the Ozone Park neighborhood of Queens, New York. Sierra, who was 19 when Evelyn and their unborn child were slain, is now a father of two, according to the New York Daily News.
Sierra, who is charged with criminal homicide, remained jailed Monday in the Eric M. Taylor Center in the Bronx, awaiting extradition to Pennsylvania.
It was DNA and genetic genealogy that led authorities to Evelyn’s identity.
“After 45 years of desperate searching, our beloved Evelyn and her baby girl have been found through her nephew’s DNA match,” reads a GoFundMe page set up by her niece, Miriam Colon Veltman.
Evelyn’s nephew, Luis Colon Jr., was born seven years after she was slain.
“He lived his whole adult life thinking he got away with it,” Colon, now 37, told the New York Daily News from his home in Houston. “Little did he know that her future nephew (who) never met her would upload his DNA, and that would lead to his arrest.”
“The whole thing is just incredible. All the twists and turns. All of our family is distraught. It’s been traumatizing.”
Evelyn’s siblings had hoped to someday reunite with their beloved sister and get to know her child, who they have since named Emily Grace Colon.
“The hopes of one day reuniting with her were long etched in our hearts. She was taken from a family who loved her, and a family longing to meet her and her child for the first time,” Veltman wrote on the GoFundMe page. “We never could have imagined this would be the way we would see her again.
“The gruesome brutality of Evelyn and her baby’s murder have deeply broken us.”
The family, who is now scattered across the country and beyond, plans to meet at some point in the near future to determine how to properly say goodbye to the slain teen and her daughter.
“It’s overwhelming,” Veltman, 33, told the Daily News. “Her memory was always very present in our family. Our DNA is hers. It’s crazy. It’s amazing.”
Editor’s note: The following story contains grisly details.
News reports from the late 1970s indicate that a 14-year-old boy playing along the bank of the Lehigh River on Dec. 20, 1976, discovered the remains of a woman and her unborn child. Three suitcases had been tossed over the side of the Interstate 80 bridge in East Side Borough, near White Haven on the Carbon-Luzerne county line.
None of the luggage made it into the frigid water 300 feet below. The boy found one suitcase on the frozen riverbank. The other two had landed in nearby woods.
Two of the cases had broken open, spilling out the victim’s disfigured head, the fetus and the woman’s torso. Her limbs were found in the suitcase that remained unopened, the Morning Call in Allentown reported in 2014.
The victim had been slain within 24 hours of the gruesome discovery. Authorities said at the time that the dismemberment was done with some skill.
“It’s not a surgeon’s type (of) cut, but he knew what he was doing,” Trooper Frank Grippi told the Somerset Daily American in January 1977.
Some of the body parts had been wrapped in newspaper — the Sept. 26, 1976, edition of the Daily News, to be exact — and others had been wrapped in a piece of a chenille bedspread.
The victim’s autopsy determined she’d been strangled and shot in the throat before her body was dismembered. Her breasts, nose and ears, which had been sliced from her body, were never found, the Morning Call reported.
Authorities kept the victim’s body, and that of her fetus, in evidence for several years, hoping that they would learn who she was and be able to release the remains to her family. Eventually, in 1983, Carbon County officials had her buried under the name Beth Doe.
Meanwhile, Veltman wrote on Facebook that her father, Luis Colon Sr., never gave up hope.
“Year after year, my father searched for my Aunt Evelyn,” she wrote. “As technology advanced, he scoured the internet. Years later, we hoped with Facebook, we could find her. He never stopped looking for her.”
As time went on, Tom McAndrew, a detective with the Pennsylvania State Police, was assigned to Beth Doe’s case. The Morning Call reported that McAndrew, intrigued, pored over the evidence in the case: dental records, fingerprints, the newspaper pages, the chenille bedspread. He also studied the suitcases, which had been painted black, and some writing on Beth Doe’s skin.
With the advancement of technology came a few potential leads. In 2007, investigators exhumed Beth Doe’s remains and removed tissue samples, which were then sent to the University of North Texas Center for Human Identification.
The lab there was able to develop Beth Doe’s DNA profile, the Morning Call reported.
In 2014, authorities sent tooth enamel, bone and hair samples to the University of South Florida, where testing determined that the unidentified woman could be a native of western or central Europe.
Still, they were no closer to learning Beth Doe’s true identity.
Cold case investigators turned to the DNA again last year, sending a portion of the slain woman’s femur to a Texas company for further testing. When the company uploaded the genetic profile into a public genealogy database, they got a hit.
Luis Colon Jr., who had used a DNA testing kit to learn more about his own heritage, told CNN that finding his aunt or her children was always in the back of his mind. He submitted kits to multiple genealogy sites in the hopes that they would bring answers.
In early March, he got the phone call he was waiting for. When asked if he had any relatives who were missing, Colon confirmed that his father’s pregnant sister had vanished in 1976, around the same time that Beth Doe was discovered.
“I get notified that ‘Hey, your DNA was matched to a victim of a homicide,’” Luis Colon Jr. told CNN. “So, we got in touch and they asked me, ‘Do you know anyone (missing) in your family?’ and I immediately, once they reached out to me, I knew it was her.”
Lehigh Valley Live reported that Colon’s father, Luis Colon Sr., told cold case detectives that his 15-year-old sister had disappeared after allegedly moving away with her boyfriend, Sierra. He also provided a description of his sister, which matched Beth Doe down to the mole on her cheek and scar on her leg.
Evelyn and Luis Colon’s sister, Migdalia Colon, told state police investigators that Evelyn had moved into an apartment with Sierra in Jersey City in 1976. In mid-December, she had asked the siblings’ mother for soup because she wasn’t feeling well.
When family members brought her soup to the apartment, the apartment was empty, and neighbors said the couple had moved.
Migdalia Colon told police that Sierra had been controlling and abusive and that Evelyn once told their mother that if anything ever happened to her, Sierra would have been responsible, the news site reported.
The family believed Evelyn was safe, however, because Sierra had written in January 1977 and said Evelyn, who could not write well, had given birth to a healthy boy named Luis Sierra Jr. Sierra told them if Evelyn needed anything, she would let her family know.
They never heard from her or Sierra again.
Following their interviews with the Colon siblings, cold case detectives tracked Sierra down in New York, according to Lehigh Valley Live. He initially denied knowing Evelyn.
He later admitted to their relationship and his fathering her child but claimed he came home to their apartment one day and found her gone. He said he figured she’d gone home to her mother but could not say why he didn’t try to find her or his child.
Sierra also gave inconsistent statements when asked about the letter he’d sent to the Colon family.
Neighbors in Sierra’s Ozone Park neighborhood were stunned by his arrest, the Daily News reported. Kenny Seodat, who said he has known Sierra for 22 years, described him as a “nice guy” with a family.
“He’s such a sweet guy. He’s like a brother to me,” Seodat said. “His wife would cook Spanish food and bring it over, and my wife would cook Indian food. We’d have dinner together.”
Atique Ahmed said he was sorry for Sierra’s troubles.
“He’s a very nice guy,” Ahmed said. “Maybe in the past he was bad, but I don’t see that in him.”