Joyce Meyer Sommers identified as ‘Christmas Tree Lady’
“The way she planned it was her,” said her sister, Annette Meyer Clough, one of two remaining immediate family members. “She was very careful. We couldn’t find her.
Who is the “Christmas Tree Lady”? A laboratory seeks to identify a woman who committed suicide in 1996
For a quarter of a century, the unidentified woman at Pleasant Valley Memorial Park was known as ‘the lady of the Christmas tree’ because she placed a small Christmas tree on a blanket next to her early on. on December 18, 1996. , elegantly dressed, her pockets contained no identification but two envelopes with a $50 bill and the same note typed in each: “Deceased by his own hand…I prefer no autopsy. Please order cremation, with funds provided. Thank you, Jane Doe.
Then she lay down and choked.
Fairfax police tried for years to identify the woman, and her death has become a lasting topic among real crime groups on the Internet. In 2000, with the help of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, the police released a color drawing of the woman. Nothing.
In recent years, genetic genealogy has developed as a law enforcement tool, in which forensic analysts attempt to match a person’s DNA profile with another similar DNA pattern, and comb through the family tree for connections. So in January, Othram Inc., a Houston-area lab that successfully identified remains found as early as 1960, picked up the “Christmas Tree Lady.”
In May, Othram got a potential hit: An 88-year-old Virginia Beach man named David Meyer could be the woman’s brother. Fairfax Police detectives drove to Virginia Beach, Detective Melissa Wallace said, and showed her the color drawing of the woman. But he couldn’t confirm it was his sister because he hadn’t seen her for at least 50 years, Wallace said. The woman had long been estranged from her family.
The man’s family directed detectives to a sister living outside of Phoenix: Clough. Clough told investigators the color drawing was “1000%” her older sister, Joyce Meyer Sommers. Detectives submitted Clough’s DNA and Othram analyst Carla Davis confirmed the unidentified woman since 1996 was Sommers.
“I was stunned. Just stunned,” Clough said. “The family had been looking for her. They were still looking for her a year after her death. …I’m relieved to know that something horrible didn’t happen to him. It sounds like something she had been planning for a long time.
In an interview, Clough shared what the family knew about her sister, who essentially disappeared in the 1980s. She said Joyce Marilyn Meyer was born in July 1927, the eldest of three girls and two boys, and had grown up on a farm outside of Davenport, Iowa. Sommers attended Iowa State University and then moved to Los Angeles where she got a job at Seventeen magazine and lived with an aunt, Clough said. “She was very creative and very smart. She was artistic,” Clough said.
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Then Sommers left Seventeen to start teaching second grade at a Catholic school in Los Angeles.
“It was tough,” Clough said of her sister’s life as a teacher in the 1950s. “She had 60 sophomores and she had no education background. She was very meticulous, staying up until the early hours to plan lessons.
Around this time, Clough said, Sommers began seeing a psychiatrist. “At that time, psychoanalysis was about blaming the family, blaming the mother. It kind of took her away from the family. Clough said his sister first married around 1959 and later divorced.
Sometime in the 1960s, Clough said, their mother traveled to California for a 24-hour confrontation session with Sommers, during which Sommers accused the mother of being a terrible parent. “It was just awful,” Clough said. “It broke my mother’s heart.
Clough continued to write letters to her older sister, but Sommers rarely revealed much when she replied. Sommers moved to Seattle and married James E. Sommers, but did not inform his family of the event. Police found a divorce certificate showing Joyce and James Sommers divorced in 1977 and had no children.
Sommers then moved to Tucson. “She had a trailer in a trailer park,” Clough said. “She was not very happy in this situation.” In the 1980s, her siblings all went to visit Sommers in Tucson, where she asked the family to build her a house, Clough said. The family couldn’t do that and Sommers was unhappy, Clough said.
“After that visit, she left the face of the earth,” Clough said. Her family has heard nothing from her.
The siblings attempted to locate her in the early 1990s, Clough said. His late brother Larry Meyer drove to the trailer in Tucson, but it had been abandoned, Clough said. Inside a fridge in the trailer, the brother found four copies of a book called “The Target Child”, which Sommers apparently wrote and self-published, about what she claimed was a traumatic childhood. Clough said she didn’t think her parents were abusive or that any of her siblings suffered growing up.
In the early 1990s, Larry Meyer and Clough’s ex-husband hired a private detective to try to find Sommers, Clough said. “We assumed she was somewhere with a cult,” Clough said. She said the effort to locate her sister was considerable, and there were clues that Sommers had moved to the East Coast, but “they never found her anywhere. The case was cold.
Wallace said police databases show Sommers may have lived in Northern Virginia in 1996, possibly in Alexandria. A LexisNexis database — which compiles public records – revealed an address for Sommers in downtown Washington, a townhouse on Massachusetts Avenue which has since been incorporated into another building.
And then, somehow, Sommers chose Little River Turnpike Cemetery in Annandale, in a section near where babies and children are buried. Detectives found no connection between Sommers and any of the graves, and Clough said she believed his sister had no children, despite a large scar on her stomach which detectives believe may be from a cesarean delivery. Clough speculated that her sister chose the children’s section of the cemetery as a symbolic nod to her belief that children can be permanently damaged by their parents.
But where Sommers spent the last decade of her life, what she did during that time, and why she decided to take her own life are still unknown.
“I always thought that somehow we would find a way to identify him,” said retired Fairfax detective Steve Milefsky. “I was thrilled to hear that someone’s family would find out what happened to them.” He said detectives “always thought she was from out of the area and didn’t want to be found.” Milefsky noted that Fairfax has other unidentified bodies, and “I think it’s significant to identify these people.”
Wallace said she hoped more Fairfax cases would be resolved. Virginia has 222 “unidentified long-term” active cases statewide and created a position specifically to investigate them last year, according to Arkuie Williams of the state medical examiner’s office. Nationally, the Department of Justice’s National Missing and Unidentified Persons System, or NamUs, aims to match missing persons cases with unidentified bodies or skeletons, and approximately 8,200 unidentified people are included. in the database.
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Othram and other genetic genealogists use open public databases of DNA profiles to search for matches to unidentified remains, a process some have criticized as an invasion of privacy. “We hope it won’t be closed,” said Detective Jon Long of Fairfax’s cold case team. “It’s a really great tool, to be able to solve some of these cold cases, when we can’t do it any other way.”
Othram, who specifically built his lab to use genome sequencing to help law enforcement, has helped “break several hundred cases at the local, state and federal levels,” said Kristen Mittelman, director of development, “many of which hadn’t been solved for decades and were previously considered ‘unsolvable’ by all other technology. There’s no better feeling than knowing you’re playing a key role in identifying victims, perpetrators, providing answers to families and facilitating justice.
If you or someone you know needs help, call National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255). Crisis text line also provides free confidential 24/7 support via text message to people in crisis when they text 741741.