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DNA Testing Gives Solace to Family of Missing Woman by Solving 1996 Suicide Case of ‘The Christmas Tree Lady’


Joyce Marilyn Meyer Sommers aka The Christmas Tree Lady (L) and her tree (R)

A decades-long mystery in Virginia has finally been solved.

Joyce Marilyn Meyer Sommers was found dead in an Annandale, Va. cemetery in 1996. Police believe she killed herself a week or so before Christmas that year. She was 69 years old at the time of her death. The mystery, however, seems to have all been part of her plan.

On Dec. 18, 1996, officers responded to reports of a deceased woman at the Pleasant Valley Memorial Park. She had two envelopes in her pocket when her body was discovered. Those envelopes contained: (1) a note explaining she had taken her own life; and (2) some money she had earmarked for funeral expenses, according to Washington, D.C.-based ABC affiliate WJLA.

“Deceased by own hand…Prefer no autopsy,” the note read. “Please order cremation, with funds provided. Thank you, Jane Doe.”

Though the notes were signed by “Jane Doe,” one adjacent decoration would inform the way she was spoken of for decades.

Next to her body, on a blanket, was a small Christmas tree, adorned with red ribbons, golden glass balls, sprigs of a small white flowers, and other assorted baubles suited to the Holiday Season.

So, to detectives who kept at her case for years, and even after her case went cold, she was: “The Christmas Tree Lady.”

After an investigation the Fairfax County Police Department determined there was, indeed, no foul play involved in the mysterious death, but her identity eluded law enforcement for some 25 years.

Then, authorities encountered a breakthrough in May of this year.

According to the FCPD’s Cold Case Unit, detectives recently began working with The Woodlands, Texas-based Othram, Inc. in order to develop a profile of the deceased via “advanced DNA testing and forensic-grade genome sequencing.” After that, it was off to the races.

Using what the FCPD referred to as “advanced Forensic Genetic Genealogy technology,” the DNA company identified a possible family member of the mysterious woman.

“Detectives connected with the family member, which led to additional family connections across the country,” the FCPD said in a press release. “A DNA sample confirmed a match, which was corroborated by conversations with long-lost siblings.”

One such family member recently spoke with The Washington Post.

“I was stunned. Just stunned,” her sister, Annette Meyer Clough, said. “The family had looked for her. They were still looking for her a year after she had died. … I am relieved to know that something horrible didn’t happen to her. It sounds like something she’d been planning for a long time.”

Police say the finality has been a boon to those who knew her.

“After decades of wondering what happened to their loved one, Joyce’s family is finally at peace thanks to the dedicated work of several generations of FCPD detectives, anonymous donors and Othram,” FCPD Bureau Commander of the Major Crimes, Cyber and Forensics Unit Ed O’Carroll said. “Our detectives never stopped working for Joyce and her family. Advances in technology will continue to help close cases and provide answers to victims’ families.”

Meyer Sommers was not reported missing at the time of her death. She also had no immediate family in the area to mount a search or respond to the news of the mysterious woman in the graveyard. Her family now says they lost contact with her sometime in the 1980s.

According to Clough’s interview with the Post, her sister left the family’s farm outside of Davenport, Iowa, to work for Seventeen magazine and then as a teacher in Los Angeles in the 1950s. She saw her nearest relatives infrequently after that. She later married, then divorced, a man named James E. Sommers in Seattle. By the 1970s, she was reportedly living in a trailer park in Tucson, Ariz. During the last-ever meeting with her family, Clough said, she asked her siblings to help build her a house, which they said they could not do.

“The way she planned it out, that was her,” Clough told the paper. “She was very careful. We couldn’t find her.”

[image via Fairfax County Police Department]

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