Tawni Mazzone's family finally has closure, nine years after she disappeared
The tragic and mysterious case of 99-305 was ice cold for nine years. Until last week.
What unfolded over a matter of mere hours last Wednesday and Thursday amazed police detectives and others to whom investigative twists and turns are the norm.
But it really happened.
On August 20, someone at the Maricopa County Attorney's Office referred area resident Mike Mazzone to the Unidentified Persons Bureau at the county's Medical Examiner's Office.
He was looking for his long-lost little sister, Tawni.
By all accounts, Mazzone is not particularly Web savvy, which is why neither he nor family members knew that the medical examiner has a Web site right up the alley he was looking.
The agency's Unidentified Persons Bureau is the one-person operation of investigator Suzi Dodt ("Cold Case," July 18, 2008). It includes a site with detailed information about the 200 or so unidentified dead people whose remains have been found in the county since 1973.
Tawni Lee Mazzone disappeared in January 1999, shortly after running away from her mother's home in Phoenix. Family friends and others had reported sightings of the 17-year-old in the weeks after her disappearance, but Tawni never turned up.
A receptionist at the Medical Examiner's Office instructed Mazzone over the phone how to view the agency's Web site, which he did.
The first case he saw was 99-305, which included a morgue photo of a young woman who died on January 27, 1999, a day after she fell or was pushed out of a Cadillac speeding east on Interstate 10 near Casa Grande.
Mazzone saw the haunting postmortem photo of the girl and immediately knew it was his beloved sister. He also saw a close-up photograph of a small, blue tattoo depicting a heart near the girl's chest, another clincher as to her identity.
Stunned, he contacted family members for advice on the next step. An uncle surfed the Net and came upon a site called websleuths.com, which includes forums on true crimes and on the missing and/or unidentified.
Back in October 2006, someone named Reb had introduced 99-305 to the site with the message, "Okay, here's a new puzzle for you sleuthers to chew on."
The case has struck a chord ever since, with dozens of people on websleuths spending endless hours, in thousands of posts, speculating on 99-305's identity.
On the night of August 20, Tawni Mazzone's aunt from Massachusetts e-mailed a websleuths moderator from Georgia named Christine Jones. The aunt reported that "Maricopa Jane Doe," as websleuths were calling 99-305, was Tawni Mazzone.
The aunt, whose first name is Tammy, then spoke on the phone with another websleuther whose screen name is Believe09 (a homemaker from Massachusetts), who had become obsessed with putting a name to 99-305.
Tammy revealed that her niece was a native of Lynn, Massachusetts — a troubled teen who bounced between her divorced parents, finally landing in Phoenix with her mother in the fall of 1998.
About 9 that night, someone who claimed to be Tawni's cousin wrote on the site, "We never knew she was killed. We thought she just ran away and still, to this day, avoided contacting anyone. It is a complete shock and it's very tough for everyone in my family."
Early the next morning, Christine Jones — the websleuths moderator in Peachtree City, Georgia — posted a message on the site that said, "We are 99.5 percent sure that we know who she is . . . OMG, I am reeling."
Believe09, her colleague from Massachusetts, sent a detailed message to Suzi Dodt in Phoenix, including the information that Tawni's former dentist in Massachusetts just had turned over the girl's dental records and X-rays to Aunt Tammy.
Dodt responded, asking Believe09 to fax her a copy of the dental charts and to put the originals of the X-rays in the overnight mail.
While waiting for the fax, Dodt contacted Mike Lancaster, a detective with the Gila River Police Department in Sacaton, Arizona.
Lancaster is a skilled detective whose work was instrumental in the 2005 apprehension on the reservation of murder suspect Samantha Somegustava ("The Case of the Fatal Femme," March 9, 2006).
Earlier, Lancaster had taken on the task of trying to identify 99-305 after visiting Dodt's Web site. He'd noted that the girl had tumbled to her death on a portion of Interstate 10 located on tribal ground, and decided to reinvestigate the case.
"I saw this pretty young girl's photo and told myself that, in this day and age of the Internet and everything, there just had to be a way to get her ID'd," Lancaster said last Sunday.
Working on his own time, Lancaster in recent weeks coincidentally had dug up critical new pieces of information:
Most important, he learned that the name of the driver of the Cadillac was William Walker, not Alonzo Fernandez. The latter was the name that the man had given police after being detained in 1999. (How Walker kept his true identity from authorities throughout his entire criminal proceedings is fodder for another story.)
Walker spent about four months in the Pinal County Jail in 1999 before a judge sentenced him to time served and a long probation term after he plea-bargained to one felony count of leaving the scene of an accident. He soon disappeared, and a county judge issued a warrant for his arrest, which he evaded until the Alameda (California) Sheriff's Office arrested him a few weeks ago on unrelated charges.
Lancaster had uncovered Walker's real name after tracking down the other person in the Cadillac that night in January 1999: Spokane, Washington resident Lindsey DeJong, who hadn't been charged.
DeJong repeated a story similar to what she'd told police in 1999 — that the young girl, whose name she allegedly couldn't remember — had leapt from the Cadillac on the freeway after Walker wouldn't pull over and let her out.
"Based on what [DeJong] told me, I believe that Walker was trying to turn Tawni into a prostitute and that they were on their way to a truck stop in Eloy or someplace near there," Lancaster told New Times on Sunday. "Lindsay said she tried to grab her by her feet, but she just went out the window, and William wouldn't stop to help her. It was a very cold-blooded act on his part. She was just a piece of meat to him."
(Police had stopped the Cadillac on I-10 about 20 miles east of the tragic scene after passersby called in.)
William Walker waived extradition from California to Arizona, to await disposition of his 1999 probation-violation case. He did so just days before the dizzying series of events that was about to end with the formal identification of 99-305.
Walker is being held without bond in the Pinal County Jail.
Last Thursday afternoon, authorities at the Medical Examiner's Office confirmed that dental and fingerprint records of Tawni Mazzone matched those of the girl long known as 99-305.
The news was bittersweet to the "many good souls," as Detective Lancaster puts it, involved in trying to identify her, including the websleuthers, the detective himself, and, of course, her family.
"I have no explanation for how things just came together almost overnight after so many years," Lancaster says. "I'm not even going to try to figure that out. It's pretty amazing."
Several of Tawni's family members flew to Arizona over the weekend. Her brother Mike and her father installed a shrine at I-10 milepost 173 as a tribute to her memory.
Suzi Dodt is trying to learn where Tawni was buried, though it probably was at the county potter's field, at White Tanks Cemetery in the West Valley.
Without Dodt's Web site, which she created a few years ago, the odds of Tawni Mazzone ever having been identified would have been very long.
"I am so relieved that she has finally been given back her name," Dodt says. "Now I know a bit about her life, I have met her family, and I know that she was very loved."
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Phoenix, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.