Human remains found in ditch could be one of two missing Iowa women, police say

Autopsy will determine if remains are those of Douthart or Syperda

Human remains discovered by children riding their bikes in rural southeastern Iowa could be those of one of two missing women from Mount Pleasant, including a 24-year-old mother who vanished last year amid suggestions of foul play, investigators said Monday.

Investigators are looking into whether the remains are those of either Jackie Leigh Douthart, who disappeared in May, or Elizabeth Syperda, who vanished in 2000 at age 22, Mount Pleasant Police Chief Terry Sammons said. The women are the only two missing persons in Henry County, he said.

An autopsy was conducted Monday, but investigators said a more thorough examination of the bones was planned.

"They are attempting to identify the remains and determine whether or not it is one of our missing people," Sammons said. "We're waiting for the autopsy results and hopefully it will eliminate one of the two missing persons, anyway."

Two children riding their bikes from Lockridge to Rome along Old Highway 34, about 10 miles west of Mount Pleasant, saw an object in a ditch between the road and railroad tracks on Saturday evening, investigators said. Upon closer inspection, it turned out to be a human skull. They notified their parents, who came to the scene and then called police.

Investigators from Henry County, the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation and the Mount Pleasant Police Department searched the area and discovered skeletal remains of a human body. The remains were transported to the State Medical Examiner's Office in Ankeny, where the autopsy was conducted, said Special Agent Jeff Uhlmeyer of the Division of Criminal Investigation.

Uhlmeyer said an anthropologist will do a more thorough examination that could help determine how long the remains were exposed to elements and possibly the gender. He said DNA analysts at the state crime lab will also try to identify the remains, but it could be a month or longer before more information is available.

Because the remains are bones and do not include any flesh or organs, Uhlmeyer doubted that DNA analysis could link a suspect to them. But he said every avenue would be explored, including whether the remains are those of other missing persons from surrounding counties.

"We're looking at all possibilities," said Uhlmeyer, who has led the investigation into Douthart's disappearance.

The disappearances of Douthart and Syperda have long frustrated investigators and residents of Mount Pleasant, a city of about 8,700 people in southeastern Iowa.

Ben Biggs, a 24-year-old who was a "person of interest" in Douthart's disappearance, committed suicide in July after a violent police chase and standoff across the border in western Illinois. Biggs drove into a cruiser with a stolen car and shot at an officer before crashing the car and fleeing on foot. Authorities say he hid in a house during a six-hour standoff in which he shot and injured an officer before shooting himself in the head.

Biggs told authorities he dropped Douthart off in Mount Pleasant on the day she vanished, according to Iowa Cold Cases Inc., a nonprofit that tracks unsolved homicides and missing persons cases where foul play is suspected.

Douthart's mother, Tammy Haynes, said in a brief phone interview Monday that investigators were in contact with her on Saturday night and again on Sunday.

"They told me what they were doing. They are not sure" who the remains belong to, she said. "Today wouldn't be a good day to talk to me."

Syperda was last seen by her roommate in July 2000, at the apartment they shared. She hasn't been heard from since. A month before she vanished, her estranged husband had a no-contact order issued after being charged with burglary and domestic abuse. Police said he reached into a car and ripped off Syperda's shirt, and he later pleaded guilty to reduced charges and was placed on probation.He has not been named as a suspect in her disappearance.

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