In a far corner of what was once a large ranch vegetable garden, along the lane that leads into the Main Ranch on Santa Cruz Island, stands a 19th-century wooden seed house, painted white with yellow trim. Long ago, it was used for storage of gardening tools and supplies. Against one wall is a cabinet full of small drawers identified with labels, some in Italian, as to the types of seeds within.
On April 27, 1990, Joe Karl, a staff member of the Santa Barbara County Agricultural Commissioner’s office, was inspecting the ranch in search of old pesticides, when he came across an unusual and tightly sealed copper box tucked away in the seed cabinet. Inside was no pesticide, but rather cremated human remains. Thus began an interesting journey of discovery.
Among the powdery white “cremains” were several non-bone items — metal nails, staples, and screws, undoubtedly parts of a coffin. Something dark — a large garment snap. Several teeth, obviously false ones. And an eternity ring made of platinum and very small diamonds, presumably a wedding band. Based upon the snap and the ring, we believe these are the remains of a woman. But who was she, and why was she in the seed shed on Santa Cruz Island?
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Our first call went out to Larry Gillespie, Chief Deputy Coroner of Santa Barbara County. He advised on further research steps that might be taken: Take the copper container to the Santa Barbara Cemetery to see if they can date it; check thrift shops and antique stores to date the snap; have forensic dentist John Arguelles, DDS, check the teeth; have a jeweler examine the ring to determine its age and style and identify the metal and stones. Here is what was learned:
CEMETERY: Randy Thwing explained that copper boxes have been used to hold cremains since before WWII. During the war, they were discontinued due to a copper shortage, then put back into use. He further explained that cremation takes place at 1,100 to 1,200 degrees, thus it is normal for metals such as staples, nails, and screws to survive the heat. Thwing guessed the ring to be platinum, because gold tends to melt at cremation temperatures, while platinum does not. There was no way to determine where the box originated or when the cremation occurred.
ANTIQUE STORE: Bea, the “Button Lady” on Brinkerhoff Avenue, determined the snap to be typical of those used in the 1920s-1930s. After that, she explained, snaps became smaller.
JEWELER: At Patco Jewelry on East Haley Street, they confirmed the stones are diamonds, now glazed by the heat of the fire. As suspected, the metal is platinum. As to date, eternity rings have been popular since the turn of the century onward.
DENTIST: Dr. John Arguelles said that human teeth usually explode during cremation. The false teeth were sent to Keno Laboratories, where it was determined these particular polymer blends were manufactured between 1950-1980.
FORENSIC ANTHROPOLOGIST: UCSB physical anthropologist Dr. Phil Walker confirmed the cremains are of a woman, based on details of wrist fragments. There is evidence of arthritis, indicating an advanced age. He believed the cremation took place sometime in the 1950s-1960s.
Despite the tidbits of clues pieced together after all these research efforts, we were left stumped, not knowing the identity of the unknown woman or why her cremains were left in the seed house. Who to call in the early 1990s? Unsolved Mysteries, of course.
Between 1987 and 1997, Robert Stack narrated 233 episodes of the compelling mystery television show for national audiences. Season four, episode 17, “Jane Doe’s Ashes,” aired on January 15, 1992.
Despite the dozens of “clues” and tips that followed, many from people who claimed to be psychic, none ultimately led to the identification of Santa Cruz Island’s mystery cremains.
It is this Correspondent’s belief that the woman was likely the mother of a mid-century island ranch worker who intended to bury or scatter her remains on the island, but never did so. She is now interred with a simple cross in an unmarked grave in the island’s cemetery.