Mary Kate Sunderlin
In early December 1999, a forest preserve employee came upon a scene that was so disturbing his brain could not process it. He was looking at what he believed to be a mannequin but in truth, it was the body of a badly beaten and tortured woman. Shortly after the discovery, authorities zeroed in on a suspect and made an arrest. The arrest resulted in a conviction. New evidence however, has since come to light that destroyed the prosecution’s case. The convicted man was exonerated and released after serving 15 years in prison. This case remains unsolved.
The discovery of the previously unidentified women occurred on December 9th, 1999 in the Green Belt Forest Preserve. She was found in Lake County, Illinois near the border of North Chicago and Waukegan. Upon the discovery the victim appeared to be badly beaten and disfigured.
The Autopsy was performed on Jane Doe by forensic pathologist Dr. Mark Witeck. It was determined the victim was mentally disabled. In court Dr. Witeck testified that the women died of blunt-force trauma to the left side of her head. He stated the injury looked as though it was made by a square bottle. He was not able to calculate a time of death but based on witness statements, he believed she must have died late in the evening of December 8th 1999, or in the early hours of December 9th, 1999. This would mean the victim died less than 12 hours prior to being discovered.
Dr. Witeck, the forensic pathologist, also testified in court that the victim had sustained numerous other injuries prior to her death. He described a red-orange discoloration on her back, buttocks, and thighs. Based on patterns it was believed she had molten liquid poured on her, possibly wax. The victim also had ‘loop-shaped patterns’ on her body. Some of these injuries were old and appeared as a white-grey scar, while others were new and had a red or blueish-black color. Dr. Witeck believed these marks were caused by being whipped with a braided metal cord; he suggested a bicycle brake line or a fishing downrigger as the possible weapon responsible for these marks.
A few days after the discovery of the brutally beaten woman, a man mentioned the widely publicized murder to a police officer who was posing as a prostitute at a transient hotel. Police then zeroed in on this man and within days arrested him and two other individuals. The man, Jeremy Tweede, stated he witnessed another man at the hotel invite the woman into his room before badly beating her and disposing of the body. The man he accused, Jason Strong an employee at a local adult book store, confessed and provided similar statements to authorities. Strong stated he invited the woman, who appeared to be homeless, into his room but became enraged when she started rummaging through his belongings. She then microwaved his burrito with the intention of eating it. He stated that he struck her on the head with a bottle of tequila. Injuries sustained by the victim seemed to fit the confession Strong gave. Strong also led authorities to the location of where the body was discovered; his supposed dumping site. A trial ensued and Jason Strong was convicted of first degree murder and attempt to conceal a homicide in October 2000. Jeremy Tweede and another man, Jason Johnson, were both convicted of attempt to conceal a homicide.
The conviction of Jason Strong was unusual from the start. It’s one of the only cases in the country where a suspect was put on trial and found guilty before anything was known about the victim or her identity. The case seemed to be closed except for the mystery of who the victim was in life before her brutal death. This part of the mystery was put to rest in January 2006.
In January of 2006, the Lake County sheriff’s office in Illinois received a call from an investigator in Racine County, Wisconsin. While working on a local Jane Doe case, the investigator came upon the Jane Doe discovered in Illinois and felt they bore similarities. The Wisconsin investigator also believed the Illinois Jane Doe could be a missing woman from Carpentersville, IL who disappeared on September 4th 1999. Using dental records, authorities confirmed the investigators hunch and identified the victim as Mary Kate Sunderlin, a 34 year old mentally disabled woman.
Immediately the identification of Mary Kate Sunderlin put the conviction of Jason Strong into question. Mary Kate had limited ability to travel and the location of her supposed murder took place 35 miles away from her home. Three pathologists reviewed the evidence independently and determined Mary Kate had died days earlier than previously believed. The new time of death conflicted with the case prosecution had presented at trial. Furthermore, it was confirmed Strong hadn’t met Tweede or Johnson until after the victim was discovered.
Although Jason Strong initially confessed to the murder of Mary Kate Sunderlin, he recanted the confession immediately and maintained his innocence throughout his trial and prison sentence. Witness’s Johnson and Tweede also recanted their statements stating they were physically intimidated and threatened with a long prison sentence if they did not cooperate. Both men testified separately under oath stating their original statements were false. On May 28, 2015, the murder charge against Strong was dismissed and Strong was released from prison. In April 2015, he was awarded almost $225,000 in state compensation. In May 2016, he filed a lawsuit and settled for 9 million dollars.
Mary Kate Sunderlin allegedly fell into contact with two women, a mother and a daughter, who were known to exploit the elderly and disabled in the spring of 1999. This is when contact between Mary Kate and her family became sparse as the two women attempted to prevent contact. They also used her bank card to withdraw large sums of cash. Even worse, they arranged a secret marriage between Mary Kate Sunderlin and Gonzalo Chamizo a mere 3 weeks prior to Sunderlin’s disappearance.
Gonzalo Chamizo had a history of mental illness and was known to become violent. He was later committed to a psychiatric hospital in 2002 where he confessed to authorities to murdering his new bride and burying her body in his backyard. At the time of the confession, Mary Kate was still presumed missing therefore authorities dug-up Chamizo’s backyard. The search did not yield any evidence. Police have stated his confession is riddled with falsehoods.
The two women whom befriended Mary Kate Sunderlin names have not been released as this is still considered an ongoing investigation. Allegedly they attempted to get a new bank card under Sunderlin’s name a year after her disappearance. It is theorized the women could’ve sold or traded Mary Kate Sunderlin to another unknown individual at the time of her disappearance. Or at the very least, have information regarding who the victim vanished with as she would’ve needed assistance in traveling.
RACINE COUNTY JANE DOE:
Another predominant theory, put together by the investigators in Wisconsin, is there could’ve been (or still could be) a predator present in the area that preyed on mentally disabled individuals. A Jane Doe was discovered in Racine County Wisconsin on July 21st 1999, 4 and ½ months before the discovery of Mary Kate Sunderlin. She had been tortured prior to death in a very similar manor as Mary Kate. Both victims had been starved, beaten, and burned. The Racine County Jane Doe had been sexually assaulted. It is unknown if Mary Kate had been sexually assaulted or not. Both victims also had decay present on their teeth. After the autopsies were performed, it was determined both victims were mentally disabled as they had small brain cavities. The scary part, they were discovered across state lines but only 30 miles apart. Given that Mary Kate disappeared on September 4th, 1999 she could’ve been in the predators company for almost 3 months prior to her death. If the same person is responsible for both crimes, that gives the individual a window of just over a month between victims. The Racine County Jane Doe remains unidentified and both homicides remain unsolved.
If you have any information regarding the murder of Mary Kate Sunderlin please contact the Lake County Sheriff’s office at (847) 377-4000
LINKS FOR ADDITIONAL READING:
National Registry of Exonerations:
The Doe Network: (Racine County Jane Doe)