The Case of the Headless Woman: Target 11 examines one of the region’s most baffling unsolved cases

PITTSBURGH — “This is pristine impact, embalmed head,” said forensic technician Tim Manzewitsch.

“Was she murdered?  Was someone messing around trying to keep her preserved?” asked Beaver County detective Dan Viscuso.

“It’s very strange and shocking,” said Economy Boro Police chief Michael O’Brien.

It was December of 2014 when a teenager walking home from school found a woman’s severed head in a wooded area approximately 30 feet off Mason Road in Economy Boro.

At a news conference shortly after the discovery, then-District Attorney Tony Berosh spoke about the investigation.

“There’s somebody out there that had the assurance that their loved one, that they were laid to peace. Obviously, based on the discovery we made several days ago, that is not true,” said Berosh in 2014.

The discovery sent shock waves through this normally quiet rural community.

“Anything from a serial killer, to somebody dropping off bodies that had been embalmed, to this body trade thing, to a prank, you know, we just had no idea,” said O’Brien.

“We never seen anything like this,” said Manzewitsch.

At the morgue, forensic technician Manzewitsch began closely examining the human head of a woman.

“Her hair was perfectly done. We were impressed on how well preserved it was. We determined that it was embalmed and then we started examining to see what clue can we get,” said Manzewitsch.

He found one clue he thought would crack the case — red rubber balls in the eye sockets, not standard procedure in the embalming process.

“I thought we had a slam dunk. I opened the eyes and said, ‘We have this case solved. Get a catalog, get work orders. We’re nailing these guys,’” said Manzewitsch.

But it wasn’t that easy.

Investigators traced the red balls to China but hit a dead end.

They also visited funeral homes, cemeteries and morgues throughout the area, but there were no missing bodies.

A forensic artist drew this picture and even made a clay model replica of the head.

They sent the images to police across the country, but no hits.

Investigators had one more card to play.

They were counting on DNA to help identify her.

“We had teeth, bone, hair, everything was sent to multiple labs to try to identify who this person might have been but the embalming was so perfect that you can’t get any DNA from any part,” said Beaver County district attorney Dave Lozier.

Without DNA, investigators now had little else to go on.

Over the years, they’ve received calls about people of remarkable resemblance.

One specifically in Ohio caught their attention.

“We look at the photograph and we look at these images, and like, this is her, and then ultimately through dental records rather we’ve been able to,” said Viscuso.

Isotope testing of the hair determined she likely lived in the region from Western Maryland to Western New York.

“A classic steel-era person, so we presume she was born in between the ‘20s and ‘40s,” said Manzewitsch.

Toxicology tests found traces of drugs used to treat heart problems.

They do not suspect foul play in her death.

Investigators also considered if the head was linked to a body broker.

“The ease to be able to get a body part is amazing, and the costs is probably low compared to a lot of things. Why you would be paying for something like that is beyond me?” said O’Brien.

Exactly one year after the discovery and still with little to go on, those who worked the case decided to give this part of her a proper burial.

“Everybody really emotionally attached themselves to this case. We wanted to make sure she was really respected so we had a formal funeral and she has a grave site,” said Lozier.

Today, eight years later, investigators still follow up on tips, and they also preserved much of the evidence, holding out hope that one day, with advances in DNA testing, they’ll be able to solve the mystery.

“It is important to me. I think that she needs to be with her body and her family needs to know that she’s together because, as you said, they could be out there not having any idea that this has happened,” said O’Brien.

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