‘We know 100 percent it was her’: Lincoln County murder victim identified after 33 years

Published 2:11 pm Tuesday, May 16, 2023

More than 30 years after her body was discovered in the bushes at a rest stop in Lincoln County, officials say they have identified the female homicide victim.

On May 10, a multi-state investigation and additional DNA testing of a close family member the woman was positively identified as Melinda Lou Barnhouse of Maryland.

The investigation began in September 1989, when a woman’s nude body was found in the bushes at a rest stop near mile marker 26 along the southbound side of I55 in Lincoln County. She had been strangled to death.

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Investigators at the time were unable to definitively determine the woman’s ancestry. They estimated her to be between 16 and 35 years old, with brown shoulder-length hair, possibly naturally curly or wavy, and blue eyes. She was about 5 foot 2 inches tall, 140 pounds and had a scar on her forehead and another on her right thigh.

She was buried as “Jane Doe” in a pauper’s plot at Rosehill Cemetery in Brookhaven.

A year after her body was found, Alfred Ray Case, then 26, of Brookhaven was arrested and eventually convicted of manslaughter. At the time, reports said he would not be eligible for release until July 31, 2030.

In 2003, a reporter for The Daily Leader wrote that Case had told her the victim’s name was Jennie Miti and he said she was a prostitute he picked up in New Orleans.

In 2009, the case was entered into the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System (NamUs) as case UP4769. Law enforcement investigators worked diligently to uncover leads about the unknown woman’s identity. Unfortunately, despite exhaustive efforts, no matches were found, and the case eventually went cold due to a lack of viable leads.

In 2022, the Mississippi Office of the State Medical Examiner in partnership with the Lincoln County Sheriff’s Office and Mississippi Bureau of Investigation explored the potential of forensic genetic genealogy as a tool to generate new leads.

“The Cold Case Unit of MBI contacted me late last year about working with them on this,” said Lincoln County Sheriff Steve Rushing. “Fortunately, we still had files and some evidence here from the case.”

Forensic evidence collected in the case was sent to Othram’s laboratory in The Woodlands, Texas. Othram scientists used Forensic-Grade Genome Sequencing to build a comprehensive genealogical profile for the unknown woman. Othram’s in-house genealogy team then leveraged this profile to conduct extensive genetic genealogy research, ultimately providing investigative leads to law enforcement.

Rushing said they received DNA confirmation a few days ago and are still working on a few details, such as verifying date of birth for Barnhouse.

“We know 100 percent it was her,” Rushing said. “We’ve been in touch with family members — an aunt and a brother — and they’ll come down to Brookhaven later, probably in August.”

The Mississippi Bureau of Investigation Cold Case Unit facilitated the interstate investigation required to bring this case to a resolution. On May 10, 2023, through additional DNA testing of a close family member, the unidentified woman was positively identified as Melinda Lou Barnhouse. Originally from Maryland, the circumstances surrounding how she ended up in Mississippi remain unclear. Significantly, the suspect in the case had been apprehended prior to the Barnhouse’s identification and is currently serving time in prison.

“A lot of people worked on this case back then, and it’s been a long time coming,” Rushing said. “Now the family has got some closure on it, too.”