OPELIKA, Ala. — For more than 13 years, Sherry Wiggins faithfully paid child support to the father of her daughter, Amore Joveah Wiggins, whom she lost custody of in 2009 when Amore was 3.
In December, the Maryland woman faced every mother’s worst nightmare: She learned her daughter was dead — and had been for more than a decade.
Amore’s skeletal remains were found Jan. 28, 2012, in some woods behind a trailer park in Opelika, Alabama. She would have turned 6 that New Year’s Day.
The girl, who had become known as “Baby Jane Doe” among law enforcement, was never reported missing by her father or stepmother, according to Alabama authorities. Investigators last year turned to genetic genealogy to determine who the Baby Jane Doe was.
Last week, Opelika authorities announced that they had solved the mystery.
They also announced the arrest of the girl’s father, Lamar Vickerstaff Jr., 50, and his wife, Ruth Cenyatta Vickerstaff, 53, in connection with Amore’s slaying. The couple was arrested in Jacksonville, Florida.
Lamar Vickerstaff is charged with felony murder, and Ruth Vickerstaff is charged with failure to report a missing child. Both are being extradited to Alabama to face the charges.
At an emotional news conference last week, Opelika Police Chief Shane Healey spoke of the arrests and the long-sought identification of the girl.
“The level of dedication to this case, I have never seen in my entire career — to see a group of men and women coming together searching for a name,” Healey said.
The chief, whose voice faltered as he fought back tears, said from the day she was found, “Baby Jane has been a part of our OPD family.”
Sgt. Alfred White, who has worked on the case since 2015, said he never doubted the hard work would pay off.
“I knew we’d get here I just didn’t know how,” White said. “We’re never done with a murder, especially with a child’s murder, because it affects all of us. A lot these detectives have children.”
Watch the department’s news conference on Baby Jane Doe below.
A heartbreaking discovery
Authorities believe that Amore had been dead for a year or more on Jan. 28, 2012, when a small human skull was found in the yard of a mobile home in the Brookhaven Trailer Park, located off Hurst Street in Opelika.
After the skull was found, responding officers discovered more skeletal remains just a few feet into the tree line behind the trailer and an adjacent lot, police officials said.
“During the search of the area, a pink child’s shirt and a small bundle of curly hair were also recovered,” authorities said in a news release.
The hair was still styled in the cornrows the unidentified girl wore when she died.
The child’s autopsy, performed at the FBI’s lab in Quantico, Virginia, uncovered evidence of long-term abuse.
“Her autopsy notated fractures to her skull, arms, legs, shoulders and ribs, totaling more than 15 individual fractures that were attributed to blunt force trauma,” Healey said. “These injuries all had evidence of healing and had occurred sometime prior to her death.”
Authorities believe Amore was blind in her left eye because of an eye socket that had been fractured at some point in her short life. Her remains showed signs of scarring on her eye.
The medical examiner also found she had been malnourished.
“Amore suffered a tremendous, horrible death,” Opelika police Capt. Johnathan Clifton said.
Amore was estimated to have died sometime between the summer of 2010 and 2011, when she would have been either 4 or 5 years old. CBS News previously reported that residents of the trailer park told police that in the fall of 2011, they detected the smell of decay coming from the area where the girl’s remains were later found.
Opelika detectives have spent “an unmeasurable number of hours” on the case over the past 11 years, Healey said. They pored over more than 15,000 case files from the Alabama Department of Health and investigated thousands of tips, following leads across the U.S.
They also received photos early in the investigation that may have shown Baby Jane Doe attending vacation Bible school at Opelika’s Greater Peace Community Church in 2011. The photos appeared to show a young girl matching the description of the slain child, including a damaged eye.
Healey said last week that detectives have never been able to confirm the identity of the girl in the images.
Neither the photos nor any of the other tips in the case led to Baby Jane Doe’s identity. An initial attempt to obtain a DNA profile for the girl was also fruitless due to the condition of her remains.
In January 2022, however, advancements in DNA technology and the advent of genetic genealogy led to a breakthrough in the case. The breakthrough came with help from two companies that specialize in genetics, the Texas-based Othram Inc. and the California-based Astrea Forensics.
“Otham labs successfully extracted DNA from the scalp and Astrea labs, from the hair,” the chief said.
Othram then used genetic sequencing to build a genetic profile for the child. The comprehensive profile created by the scientists was handed over to renowned genealogist Dr. Barbara Rae-Venter.
Rae-Venter, who helped identify California’s infamous Golden State Killer in 2018, used public DNA databases to identify relatives of the slain girl.
In October, the investigative leads from the genealogist led to Lamar Vickerstaff.
Great work by Othram and Barbara. Sad case but shows how identifying the victim is paramount to allowing an investigation to truly start in most instances. https://t.co/xEiP0k8NVS— Paul Holes (@PaulHoles) January 20, 2023
“Vickerstaff was born and raised in Opelika before enlisting in the U.S. Navy,” Healey said. “During his lengthy Navy career, he resided in Norfolk, Virginia; Honolulu, Hawaii; and Jacksonville, Florida.”
Vickerstaff was preparing to retire from the Navy but was still active duty at the time of his arrest, the chief said.
In December, detectives traveled to the Naval Station Mayport in Jacksonville, where Vickerstaff was stationed, to notify him of Amore’s death. At that meeting, Vickerstaff provided no information about the identity of the girl.
Investigators turned to Ruth Vickerstaff, who has been married to Lamar Vickerstaff since May 2006, when Amore was 4 months old. Ruth Vickerstaff told police she did not know his daughter or who the daughter’s mother might be.
Rae-Venter went back to the family tree and was able to determine several possible matches for the girl’s mother. One of them was Sherry Wiggins.
Investigators met with Wiggins, who confirmed that she was the unidentified girl’s biological mother. Wiggins, 37, offered more than proof of Baby Jane Doe’s identity, however.
Wiggins was able to provide investigators with documentation showing that Lamar and Ruth Vickerstaff obtained custody of Amore in 2009, at which time Wiggins’ visitation was suspended.
“Sherry also provided documents indicating that she has continuously paid child support to Lamar Vickerstaff since 2009,” Healey said.
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Detectives reached out to the various school boards and pediatric offices in the states in which the Vickerstaffs have lived since 2009. None had a record of the girl being enrolled as a student or receiving any sort of medical care typical for a child her age.
After discussion with Lee County prosecutors, detectives obtained arrest warrants for both Lamar and Ruth Vickerstaff.
“Our hearts go out to Sherry Wiggins, who was a tremendous help in solving the case and helping bring justice to her baby girl,” Healey said.
The case remains under investigation, and Healey said investigators need the public’s help in gathering additional details regarding Lamar and Ruth Vickerstaff’s relationship with Amore, as well as the time the girl spent in Opelika.
Anyone with information is asked to contact the Opelika Police Department’s detectives at 334-705-5220 or the Secret Witness Hotline at 334-745-8665. Anonymous tips can also be submitted through the Opelika Police Department’s mobile app.
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