WATCH: A woman found 44 years ago may have been a serial killer's victim. Police now know her name
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By Caroline Anders
He killed her, police say, then forgot her name.
The Black woman was short, probably wore a wig, and had a gold tooth at the front of her smile.
She was known as "Escatawpa Jane Doe" for more than 40 years after her remains were found in 1977 at a Mississippi construction site. It's not clear how she died, though her suspected killer tended to strangle his victims.
Serial killer Samuel Little confessed to 93 killings, including what is suspected to have been hers. If confirmed, that number would make him the nation's most prolific killer. FBI crime analysts have said his confessions are credible.
Little died in prison at age 80 in December, less than a year before the Jackson County Sheriff's Department announced the woman's name Tuesday: Clara Birdlong.
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At the time of Little's death, nearly half of those he confessed to killing had not been identified.
Little is known for targeting people - mostly Black women - who he thought would not be missed, including sex workers, drug users and the poor. The killings he confessed to stretch across 19 states and more than three decades.
"I'm not going to go over there into the White neighbourhood and pick out a little teenage girl," he said in an interview obtained by The Washington Post in its three-part investigation of how police tried to catch him.
His victims' disappearances often went unnoticed, and many of their deaths weren't initially investigated as homicides. Birdlong was never reported missing, according to police.
"In a case like this, you've got detectives dealing with a whole load of cases, and this woman is a sex worker, or homeless," former FBI agent Brad Garrett told The Post last year, speaking generally about Little's victims. "There's nothing to tie her to anybody in particular."
So to Pascagoula Police Lt. Darren Versiga, who found Birdlong's remains in a forensic anthropologist's office nearly a decade ago, "getting her name back" is a triumph.
Versiga checked the remains against the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System in 2012 and ordered a DNA analysis. The efforts were unsuccessful.
But in January, more pieces of the case began falling into place.
A DNA research facility in Texas worked to create a family tree from the remains' DNA samples, according to a news release from the Jackson County Sheriff's Department. The lab identified a potential distant relative.
An investigator in Mississippi went to Texas to find the relative, who sent him to her 93-year-old grandmother, according to the news release. The grandmother told police that her cousin, Birdlong, had been missing since the 1970s. DNA confirmed their relation.
"And lo and behold, Clara Birdlong is reborn," Versiga said.
The relative said Birdlong had last been seen in Mississippi's Leflore County, and an investigator found a woman in the county who said she remembered Birdlong.
"She said Clara left Leflore County in the 70's with an African American man who claimed to be passing through Mississippi on his way to Florida," the news release said. "Clara was never seen or heard from again."
Little is the prime suspect in Birdlong's death, according to the Jackson County Sheriff's Department.
Before Little's death, Versiga said the serial killer told investigators that he met the woman now believed to be Birdlong at a Mississippi bar and took her to a restaurant for a meal before strangling her and dumping her into a hole.
Little said he thought the woman worked at Ingalls Shipbuilding in Pascagoula because her hands were rough and worn, according to Versiga.
But Versiga said Little got some of the details wrong. Birdlong worked at a cotton operation in Leflore County, he said, though one of Little's surviving victims had worked at Ingalls.
Little recalled Birdlong's wig, Versiga said, though he did not remember her gold tooth. The man was also known for the drawings he made of dozens of his victims, which the FBI posted to a website alongside tapes of Little describing women he said he killed who had not been identified.
Versiga hopes Birdlong's name being connected to her remains will prompt new movement in other cold cases. He said that the DNA research facility that helped find her distant relatives, Othram, has helped identify several other people, and that the matches will continue.
"Once they're done, we're going to identify every lost soul that there was," he said.
He said the intensified interest in solving missing persons cases since the disappearance of Gabby Petito could advance other investigations.
Petito's remains were found in a Wyoming national forest Sunday after she was reported missing Sept. 11. Her story received significant attention from Internet sleuths posting about the case and trying to piece it together.
Versiga said that kind of civilian detective work could encourage progress in cases that have been cold for years.
"People understand that there's a lot of bodies out there that have not been identified," he said. "The interest is there. There are people out there looking for these cases, trying to help law enforcement."
The lieutenant said Birdlong's remains being identified has been the highlight of his career.
"Getting all the information together to identify someone that has been lost for so long, and the family never knew what happened to them and giving them a name back, has been the best thing that I think I've ever done in law enforcement," he said.
"It may not be 100 percent closure, but once you know [their name], you can give that name back," he said.