Hold the Starch: Confounding Carbohydrates in the Deaths of Donna Doll and Elizabeth Lightfoot

Posted: November 15, 2014 in Uncategorized

A dear friend on a draconian post-pregnancy diet bivouacked in my spare room last week,
and as a gesture of solidarity I starved alongside her—the self-denial was torturous.
After subsisting for five straight days on nothing but lemon water and kale my crankiness began to metastasize into free-floating rage; for the first time I understood on a visceral level why famine and revolution have traveled hand-in-hand throughout history.
By day six I was ready to grab a pitchfork and storm the Bastille.

Moments after my friend’s departure
(free at last, free at last—thank god almighty I was free at last)
I sprinted to my favorite boulangerie for a warm, crusty baguette; never would I have guessed I’d crave carbohydrates so much more than sweets—I wanted to backstroke nude through a vat of buttery noodles,
swan-dive off a cliff into a garlicky ocean of mashed potatoes.
As I devoured the fragrant, chewy loaf my glucose levels spiked and pleasure hit my brain like a dopamine sledgehammer—and as my mind reveled in carb-fueled glory
my thoughts were drawn to Donna Doll and Elizabeth Lightfoot, two women whose mysterious (unrelated) deaths will forever be linked to high-starch foodstuffs.

Photo credit: the fabulous David Shipley

Photo credit: the fabulous David Shipley

One potato, two potato, three potato, four / five potato, six potato, seven potato more
—-traditional counting rhyme

As we’ve previously discussed, the 1970s were a different time;
in the psychedelic VW bus of the Me-decade hanging loose was paramount, man,
so when Northern Illinois University senior Donna Doll failed to meet a friend after her shift at the Swen Parson Library
on October 2nd, 1970 no hue and cry ensued;
communication was sporadic in the pre-cell phone era, and the college’s bucolic DeKalb campus was largely crime-free—peace and good vibes were the currency of the realm.

When two days passed and Donna hadn’t returned to her rooming-house on Lincoln Highway, however,
her friends and family grew perturbed.
After all, the twenty-one year old honors student wasn’t a reefer-maddened, bra-burning beatnik;
she was an ambitious, hard-working scholarship recipient, a Russian-language major who dreamt of a career as an interpreter.
At 11:30pm on October 4th her houseparents filed a missing person’s report,
but the DeKalb police were unconcerned—they insisted Donna was off on a frolic, finding herself, perhaps, or getting her groove on. She would reappear soon, detectives assured her increasingly-frantic loved ones.

Donna Doll

Donna Doll

Donna’s friends and family, however, knew the responsible former National Honor Society member would never leave town with nary a word of warning; besides, all of Donna’s belongings remained in her room,
including an uncashed paycheck and her much-needed allergy medication—tuning in and dropping out with only ten dollars cash and a runny nose seemed an unlikely scenario at best.

Compounding the family’s distress, the Dolls began to receive menacing phone calls.
“I know where your daughter is,” the caller would hiss before slamming down the phone.
Yet law enforcement, lulled into complacency by the safety of the NIU campus
and the era’s laissez-faire missing persons protocol,
still refused to take Donna’s disappearance seriously; nine days elapsed before a horrifying discovery in a nearby cornfield forced investigators to acknowledge Donna Doll hadn’t hitchhiked to San Francisco with flowers in her hair.

At 8:30pm on October 11th three teenagers waded into a cornfield approximately a mile off campus to retrieve some hooch they’d stashed in the greenery;
despite the encroaching darkness one of the teens spotted Donna’s partially decomposed corpse amid the stalks,
and the trio quickly alerted law enforcement.
The DeKalb police department’s inaction had afforded Donna’s killer a nine day head start;
unfortunately, this gaffe would prove to be but one of many obstacles which hampered the search for her slayer.

Due to the passage of time an initial autopsy was unable to determine Donna’s cause of death but a second examination detected traces of vomit in her lungs,
an indication she’d been smothered.
Interestingly, there were no hairs or fibers in her nasal passages—a traditional hallmark of suffocation—leading the coroner to suspect she’d been smothered with some type of plastic.

The absence of fibers in her airways wasn’t the only anomaly present during Donna’s autopsy;
her body had been drizzled with an unknown liquid, a substance which to this day has never been identified.
Even more mystifying were the contents of her digestive tract;
although the coroner estimated she’d been slain on November 2nd, the day she’d last been seen,
Donna hadn’t died immediately after leaving her library shift.
Sometime between clocking out at 9:59pm and her demise
she’d ingested an “inordinate” amount of potatoes, at least five or six pounds.
The source of these mystery spuds has never been determined, and whether Donna consumed them willingly or under duress is unknown.

The crime’s baffling circumstances weren’t confined to the autopsy results.
When last seen at the library Donna was wearing a black trench coat,
but when found she was clad instead in a blue jacket. Yet her white blouse and checked skirt were intact,
and her body bore no indicia of sexual assault;
so what possible motivation could Donna’s killer have had for changing her outerwear?
Donna’s trench coat wasn’t the only item absent from the murder scene;
despite a thorough search by law enforcement her shoes and brown leather purse have never been recovered.

Disinclined to believe a serial killer prowled the NIU campus with a tater-fetish and a yen for fashion accessories,
detectives hewed to more traditional avenues of investigation and soon homed in on Donna’s boyfriend Charles Burke, a graduate student in the NIU math department.
Donna had informed several friends she was planning to sever their relationship,
and Burke’s apartment at Suburban Estates was close to the field where her body had been found.
Moreover, in a Northern Star  article Donna’s best friend describes Burke as “a possessive jerk—a nerd who did not have an intellect that matched Donna’s.”
DeKalb detectives believed the phantom phone calls and “inordinate” potato consumption were simply McGuffins;
Donna had been slain, investigators deduced, in the most mundane of homicide equations:
possessive boyfriend + attempted breakup = female corpse.

With a brashness that in hindsight seems hubristic,
officials at the DeKalb Police Department weren’t shy about broadcasting their conclusion that Donna had murdered in a domestic dispute.
On October 20th, little more than a week after the discovery of her remains,
a department spokesperson announced a “prime suspect” had been developed in Donna’s murder,
and it was clear from the media coverage that Charles Burke was the person of interest the police had zeroed in upon.
Cracking under the pressure, Burke slashed his wrists;
whether his suicide attempt was prompted by guilt or grief over Donna’s death is unclear,
but the non-fatal wounds inarguably heralded the death of his cooperation—upon leaving the University Health Service Burke retained counsel and ceased communicating with investigators.
After issuing their ill-timed press release the DeKalb Police Department’s inquiry stalled,
and the investigation into Donna’s murder eventually grew cold.

Personally, though romantic partners are always statistically viable suspects,
I’m underwhelmed by the evidence against Donna’s boyfriend—jealousy may be a classic motive,
but Burke’s proximity to the dumpsite is circumstantial at best and there appears to be no concrete or forensic evidence tying him to the crime.
The mystery substance drizzled on the corpse, the blue jacket of unknown origin, the “inordinate” potato consumption—none of these clues seem to point in Charles Burke’s direction,
on a superficial level at least.
Donna’s family apparently concurred with this assessment,
or at least they did in the days immediately following her murder—Donna was buried in a pair of earrings Burke had given her, and he acted as a pallbearer at her funeral.
Perhaps he cut his wrists because he was terrified of being railroaded for her murder;
being a “possessive jerk” may have made Burke a bad boyfriend, certainly, but it wouldn’t necessarily make him a killer.

More than forty years later the question remains: if Charles Burke didn’t murder Donna Doll then who did?
And did she eat six gut-busting pounds of spuds willingly, or was she force-fed by a deranged fiend with a feeder fetish?
Tragically, with the passage of four decades—investigators’ gaze still fixed firmly on Charles Burke—Donna’s baffling death may well remain a mystery.

At least Donna had the glucose spike from her “inordinate” carb consumption to cushion her final agonized moments; not all homicide victims are so fortunate.

Elizabeth Lightfoot

Elizabeth Lightfoot

According to the The Dallas Morning News, “[t]he investigation into Elizabeth Lightfoot’s murder keeps coming back to ramen noodles.”

The twenty-two year old hair-stylist’s remains were found at 1:45am on November 4th, 2011, incinerated in her car behind a strip mall.
Earlier that evening Elizabeth had enjoyed a girls’ night out with fellow stylists at YourWay Burgers and Wings, a bistro then located at 13605 Midway Road in Farmers Branch,
just outside Dallas.
After an evening of cocktails and salon gossip Elizabeth excused herself at 1130pm to visit the powder room but instead exited the restaurant—a move colloquially known as “an Irish goodbye,”
often employed to stop friends from deeming the departing guest too drunk to drive.
Although she’d been in constant text contact with her boyfriend Tuan “RudeBoy” Le throughout the evening
Elizabeth’s phone died or was turned off at 11:43pm.

At midnight Elizabeth was captured on videotape at the Tom Thumb convenience mart located at 14999 Preston Road—while in the store she deposited $90 in the ATM and purchased two packages of ramen noodles, the staff of life for tipsy twenty-somethings.
The footage then shows Elizabeth jauntily swinging her grocery sack as she exits the store and climbs into the car destined to be her crematorium;
the stylish hairdresser, a devotee of glamour, Hello Kitty and all things pink,
has only an hour and forty-five minutes left to live.
At 1:45am her car was found behind a nearby strip mall engulfed in flames.

Upon the discovery of her charred corpse investigators seemed certain Elizabeth had been murdered:
“We believe someone intentionally set the car on fire with her in it while she was still alive,” a Dallas Police Department spokesperson announced to the media on November 7th, three days after her death.
The indications of homicide were myriad:
when found, Elizabeth’s upper body was splayed across the car’s center console,
her head on the passenger seat—it appeared she’d been crammed unconscious into the vehicle and the door then slammed against her feet.

The condition and positioning of her silver Nissan also indicated foul play. There was no evidence of a collision and thus no reason for the car to ignite,
and the vehicle had been tipped halfway into a ravine, presumably in a bid to hide the crime—the Nissan’s undercarriage had snagged on underbrush,
however, impeding the car’s descent.
Yet despite these harbingers of homicide the motive for Elizabeth’s death remained opaque;
there were no signs of sexual assault, and though her noodles were missing her cash and credit cards remained in her purse.

Nevertheless, the situation was far from clear-cut,
and the status of the DPD’s homicide investigation was soon imperiled by the findings of the Dallas medical examiner.
In a stunning twist, the coroner proclaimed Elizabeth had died not by murder but by misadventure;
her blood alcohol level was 0.317 percent, approximately four times the legal limit,
and she’d made no attempt to flee her burning car—her cause of death was determined to be carbon monoxide poisoning from the fire.
Based on these facts the medical examiner declared Elizabeth’s death accidental,
but his ruling left left many questions unanswered:
the Tom Thumb and the strip mall are only 2.3 miles apart; where had Elizabeth been in the hour and forty-five minutes between her midnight ramen run and the discovery of her flaming car at 1:45am?
And absent evidence of a crash, what had caused Elizabeth’s Nissan to burst into flames?

The Tom Thumb surveillance tape also seems to belie the coroner’s finding of accidental death.
If Elizabeth’s blood alcohol level was nearly toxic why isn’t she visibly inebriated in the video?
Although she may be slightly snockered she’s clearly not smashed;
her motor skills seem unimpaired and she exits the store with a lilt in her step, not a wobble.
Furthermore, Elizabeth retained the presence of mind to remember her pin number and make an ATM deposit,
a seemingly unlikely feat for a girl who will still be so drunk
nearly two hours later
she’ll slumber Sleeping Beauty-style through a deadly conflagration.

Of course, as is fitting for today’s blog topic,
the most perplexing mystery in the curious death of Elizabeth Lightfoot is carb-centric:
where oh where had Elizabeth’s recently purchased ramen gone?
The noodles weren’t in her car.
The noodles weren’t in her trunk.
The noodles weren’t in her stomach, not that she would’ve had an opportunity to cook them.
Had a hungry Elizabeth somehow transported the noodles with her to the afterlife through sheer force of will?
The two packs of ramen were as elusive as a rational explanation for their absence.

To their credit, the Dallas Police Department has pledged to proceed with their investigation despite the medical examiner’s findings:
“This case will remain open until conclusive evidence is found that fully explains Ms. Lightfoot’s death,”
the department vowed in a media press release.
And although the accidental death ruling will make prosecution well-nigh impossible I applaud the DPD’s pledge to soldier on with their inquiry;
Elizabeth’s loved ones, aghast at the coroner’s ruling,
deserve some answers—I have no idea what transpired in the missing hour and forty-five minutes,
but I’m reasonably certain the vanished ramen didn’t sprout noodle legs and skitter out of the car on its own.
Two sets of inexplicable circumstances, two women who died much too young,
and two carbohydrate-related conundrums—even though my brain is buzzing from my starchy-food binge I can’t help but grieve for lives unlived,
promise cut short, and closure forever withheld from devastated families.
To lose a loved one is painful enough,
but to have the agony exacerbated by a torrent of how, whys and what-ifs is grossly unfair.
Although I remain fascinated by their mysterious demises on an intellectual level it’s important to recognize that these women were so much more than the peculiar facts surrounding their untimely deaths.
Tonight I will raise my fork and eat a carbohydrate-rich meal in Donna and Elizabeth’s memory,
and I hope you’ll do the same.

  1. Sarah says:

    Interesting article. You have the location of YourWay Burger wrong, it was in Farmers Branch TX off of Midway just south of Spring Valley we hung out there often. Elizabeth was one of my very close friends, I was with her that afternoon.

  2. Alyson Cobb says:

    Her blood alcohol level was later reported to be completely wrong (she was not drunk at all) and the ME later apologized to the family for their error, but it never made it to the media because of the previous report they had given that it was “accidental”. They didn’t want to publicly admit their mistake and gross misconduct. It was a private admission and apology to the family only. The media had long lost interest in the story after the ME deemed it “accidental”. It was also quickly determined that she was not the person who bought ramen noodles or used the ATM, but that never made it into a “news worthy” story either because as far as the media was concerned, the case was closed.

    She was found thrown into and over the console of her car, face down, hands behind her back (rear end in the air). She was unconscious but alive. The driver’s seat was pushed back all the way, meaning someone with very long legs was in the driver’s seat (Elizabeth was tiny). She was MURDERED!!!!!!