CAMPBELL — On an unusually cool June afternoon 48 years ago, Ellen Sevall was on a telephone call with her cousin Cheryl Ann McMillan, a confidant since childhood who was living the proverbial bohemian life in 1960s Los Angeles.
McMillan had been a no-show for a dress fitting in advance of Sevall’s upcoming wedding in San Jose, generating an expected sense of nervousness from the bride to be. But Sevall remembers her cousin offering reassurance that she’d be on hand for the big day.
After all, McMillan was the maid of honor.
“She said she couldn’t make the dress fitting for whatever reason, and I asked her if she was going to make the wedding,” Sevall said Tuesday from her current home in Cheyenne, Wyoming. “She said, ‘For sure.’ Then she never did.”
It was the last time Sevall heard from the cousin she had known “since we were babies,” and was likely the last contact McMillan’s family would have with her.
Relatives would spend the next half century with no insight about McMillan’s disappearance. Much of the family moved out of the Campbell area, where McMillan graduated from Campbell High School in 1964. McMillan’s mother Geraldine, who had brought her to California from the broader family’s roots in Detroit, with a stint in Florida in between, died two years ago.
“She never knew for sure,” Sevall said.
But on Sept. 22, after a convergence of amateur web sleuthing and facial reconstruction by volunteer cold-case solvers, the Los Angeles Police Department was able to confirm that the 21-year-old McMillan had not vanished, but was a woman who was found dead in Griffith Park on June 8, 1968 but was unidentified for nearly 50 years.
While the precise circumstances of McMillan’s death are likely lost to time, relatives long suspected her disappearance was connected to her involvement in the Mexican drug trade. Sevall said McMillan confided in her that she was running drugs from Ensenada in Baja California to Guadalajara more than 1,400 miles away.
“I just figured somehow while running drugs she got killed or captured, or was sitting in a Mexican jail,” Sevall said.
The clue that would lead to McMillan finally being identified as the Griffith Park Jane Doe was initially overlooked. When she was discovered in 1968, she was slumped over a picnic table near Mount Hollywood Drive, clad in a red-and-white polka dotted bikini, a white or light tan overcoat and dark sandals.
On her hand was a gold wedding ring with the inscription “C.B. to E.J. 9-4-20.” She was connected to a room at the Hollywoodland motel in Studio City. While authorities recorded her name as possibly being “Sherryl Miller,” she was named Jane Doe #18 by the Los Angeles County coroner’s office, dead from an apparent morphine overdose.
In 2010, 53-year-old Carl Koppelman saw the woman’s photo on the coroner’s website and used facial-reconstruction software to produce a portrait he shared on Web Sleuths, an online forum devoted to unsolved cases on which he served as a moderator. He posted the generated photo to the forum and multiple times on social media over the next few years.
Rita Hood, a former co-worker of Koppelman’s, saw the photo on his Facebook page in July and took note of the wedding ring inscription. With nothing but initials to go on, the amateur genealogist began poring over thousands of records that are published online in 36 states.
Hood found the 10 most popular women’s names of the era beginning with E, including Elizabeth, Ethel and Edna. She then searched records for women with those first names and last names beginning with J., who married men with the initials C.B. on Sept. 4, 1920. She searched diligently in her spare time and after four weeks, found a match: Edna Lydia Jay married Charles J. Bush in Detroit on Sept. 4, 1920.
More records searching led Hood to contact John Manzo Jr., Edna Bush’s grandson now living in Clovis, just outside Fresno, and both soon realized that the woman who last wore the ring was his missing sister, Cheryl Ann McMillan.
Manzo, who was barely in grade school when McMillan vanished, remembers her as a doting big sister “who loved her little baby brother” as he toddled around their home on Cherry Lane in Campbell. But most of his accounts of her are secondhand or generated from the decades-long search for any trace of McMillan. It never occurred to him that she was anything more than missing.
“We always looked for her alive,” Manzo said. “We never looked for Jane Does.”
Manzo said he was heartened by the notion that his sister never thought to pawn their grandmother’s ring all those years ago when she was in a haze of drug use, especially given its role in restoring her name and some semblance of clarity to his family.
She “wasn’t just another heroin drug addict found in the park,” Manzo said. “She was my sister.”
That sentiment was echoed by Sevall, whose June 22, 1968 wedding went on with her sister in place of McMillan. To this day, she retains a pretty clear image of her cousin, known for her friendliness, a literal flair for drama — as an actor in school plays — and as a trusty compatriot on teenage adventures to Santa Cruz and beyond.
“It does offer some closure, but I’m also wondering, what could I have done? Was there anything else I could have said? Should I have stayed in L.A.?” she said. “We always wondered. We were pretty close and a tight-knit family. We would just always hope that someday, she would find us.”