Clara Birdlong, Identified 44 Years After Death, Was Most Likely Serial Killer’s Victim

The police say Samuel Little, who was in Jackson County, Miss., in 1977 and decades later confessed to more than 90 murders, is believed to have killed Ms. Birdlong.


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A Mississippi sheriff’s department announced on Tuesday that it had identified the skeletal remains of a woman found 44 years ago, naming her as Clara Birdlong, who the authorities believe was a victim of Samuel Little, the serial killer who confessed to killing more than 90 people.

The remains were found by a group of hunters in Mississippi in December 1977, the Jackson County Sheriff’s Department said Tuesday. A medical exam determined the remains belonged to a Black woman who had a gold tooth and wore a wig. The body was found three or four months after she had been killed, investigators said.

While her identity had eluded investigators for decades, she became known as “Escatawpa Jane Doe,” after the area she was found, near the Escatawpa River Marsh Coastal Preserve. In 2012, an investigator for the police department in Pascagoula, about 200 miles southeast of Jackson, the state capital, uploaded the victim’s information into a national database used for cases involving missing and unidentified people, but was unsuccessful in finding a match.

Mr. Little was convicted in 2014 and sentenced to life in prison for the murders of three Los Angeles women during the 1980s. He later confessed to 93 murders, many of them across the Southeast. He said he would pick up vulnerable women from bars, nightclubs or along the streets and then strangle them to death in the back seat of his car.

Mr. Little said he often targeted women who were marginalized, young and Black. They sometimes were estranged from their families and struggling with poverty and addiction.

In many cases, their disappearances and deaths did not draw the same level of attention as other killings. Many of the deaths were originally ruled overdoses and others were attributed to accidental or undetermined causes, the authorities said, adding that some of the bodies were never found.

Mr. Little confessed to killing “Escatawpa Jane Doe,” whom he did not know by name, the Jackson County Sheriff’s Department said. It said that investigators confirmed Mr. Little was in Jackson County in 1977, during the window of the woman’s death.

This year, investigators again tried to identify the woman and contracted a DNA research facility in Texas to create a family tree based on samples from the remains. That research found a connection to a distant cousin, living in Texas, and then to the cousin’s 93-year-old grandmother, who was originally from Leflore County, Miss., about 100 miles north of Jackson.

The grandmother said that her cousin, Clara Birdlong, went missing from Leflore County in the 1970s. Another distant cousin in Texas also said Ms. Birdlong went missing during that time. In August, an investigator found a woman in Leflore County who remembered Ms. Birdlong, saying she left the area in the ’70s with a Black man who claimed to be passing through Mississippi to Florida.

This month, using DNA samples, investigators were able to conclude the remains belonged to Ms. Birdlong, born in 1933 in Leflore County.

The Jackson County Sheriff’s Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Thursday. The department did not name Ms. Birdlong’s living relatives.

Investigators consider Mr. Little, who died in prison last year at 80, the primary suspect in Ms. Birdlong’s killing. Her cause of death is still undetermined, investigators said.

Mr. Little, whose crimes went undetected for decades, strangled 93 people between 1970 and 2005 in at least 14 states, according to the F.B.I. At least 50 of the murders have been verified by the authorities, the F.B.I. said. Mr. Little was convicted of at least eight murders, some of which were solved using D.N.A. analysis.

In 2019, the F.B.I. published some of Mr. Little’s confessions, including descriptions of his victims and where he dumped the bodies. The bureau said it believed all of his confessions were credible.

“For many years, Samuel Little believed he would not be caught because he thought no one was accounting for his victims,” Christie Palazzolo, an F.B.I. crime analyst, said at the time. “Even though he is already in prison, the F.B.I. believes it is important to seek justice for each victim — to close every case possible.”

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