On a spring day in 1995, a group of recyclers scavenging along a northern California canal made a grim discovery – the remains of a woman bound and gagged inside a partly submerged refrigerator.
Authorities believed the body, described as being that of a woman between 29 and 41 years old with strawberry blond hair, had been underwater for several months. For the next three decades, the case would stump homicide investigators in San Joaquin county, east of the San Francisco Bay Area, some of whom spent their entire careers trying to identify the woman.
But last week, the sheriff’s office announced a major breakthrough.
“It is with a tempered heart that I announce we have identified a young woman found 27 years ago who was murdered in our county,” said Patrick Withrow, the San Joaquin county sheriff. “Her name is Amanda.”
Partnering with Othram Forensics, a Texas-based company that built a DNA profile and used forensic genetic genealogy to come up with leads, the sheriff’s office was finally able to identify the remains as those of Amanda Lynn Schumann Deza.
Deza was a mother of three who investigators believe disappeared at age 29. She was last seen in 1994 with a man she had met at a rehab facility in the city of Napa, nearly 80 miles from where her remains were eventually found. Authorities said there was never a missing person report filed for Deza, who they described as experiencing “challenging times” before she died.
The breakthrough in the case was made with help from her daughter, Veronica Tovar, who contributed a DNA sample to confirm that the remains were those of her mother. Tovar, who was removed from her mother’s home at the age of three, has only a handful of memories of Deza. She spent years wondering what happened to her mother, who she remembers as being sweet and loving.
“I’ve lived my whole life just not knowing,” the 34-year-old said. “She was gone and I just never knew why. I thought that she just left us. I felt left.”
Tovar doesn’t know why she and her other siblings were removed from her mother’s care. She does know that Deza wanted her children to stay together and the three were eventually placed in the same adoptive home.
“She loved her kids even though she wasn’t here with us. That feeling never left me. She did the best she could with what she had,” Tovar said. “For me, for what I feel and the memories I have, it’s almost like she just got lost. I think she didn’t have the support she needed to thrive.”
Last fall, a detective with the San Joaquin county sheriff’s office contacted Tovar and asked if she would be willing to provide a DNA sample.
Tovar, a jewelry maker, gave a sample using a kit the detective sent to her. Eager to give a useful sample, she scraped the inside of her mouth so hard that her cheeks were sore the next day, she recalled. As she waited to hear back from police, she pored over details of the case and the reality of what her mother endured began to sink in.
“I sat on pins and needles until I found out. I couldn’t stop thinking about it, I couldn’t stop reading about her case,” she said. “It is so unfair, so unjust, the brutality of how she was murdered.”
“I had the same questions everyone else had: Why wasn’t anyone looking for her? Somebody had to know her. How did nobody notice she was missing? It doesn’t make sense. It really shook me.”
The breakthrough has provided some long-awaited answers to Tovar, but questions remain about Deza’s life, exactly what happened to her and the identity of her killer. Deza had a small family, her mother and sister, and they never offered information about her, Tovar recalls. “They missed her but no one ever said, ‘Where is she? What happened?’ There was never any conversation.”
There is much Tovar doesn’t know, but she does have a handful of memories with her mother – a day in a sandbox making art.
“I remember her playing with me in the sand one time. I remember her loving me. I can feel that. She did love me,” she said. “She was sweet.”
But she also remembers being able to sense her mother’s struggles. “Before I was taken I do remember feeling sadness from her,” Tovar said. “I remember my mom was really sad.”
Tovar is the only one of Deza’s children involved with the case. Her brother and sister are not up to taking part, she said. They were removed from her mother’s home before her and none of them know why.
“We still just don’t know. On top of the not knowing we didn’t know what happened. We didn’t know why she never contacted us.”
Authorities are trying to fill in the gaps of Deza’s life, where she was and what she was doing before she died. The sheriff has asked that anyone who knew her to come forward to provide information about that period of her life. The identification gives investigators a place to start, but there is more work to be done, they said.
“We are looking for any clues to her disappearance. We’re missing several pieces to the years prior to her death,” said Lt Linda Jimenez at last week’s press conference. “Our work is far from over.”
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