Real Crime Blog

Cold Case of the Week: The Murder of 15-Year-Old Darlene McKenzie

“Missing White Women Syndrome” (as coined by PBS News Hour co-anchor Gwen Ifill) means that members of communities of color feel that their missing persons aren’t given the same level of media attention given to the disappearance of white women such as Laci Peterson, Natalee Holloway, and Chandra Levy. Below, the case of Darlene McKenzie, missing at age 15 in 1975, went unsolved for decades. The young African-American woman’s case was also decades before the the social media that we take for granted today.

The Victim
Darlene McKenzie, 15, left her family home on Detroit’s west side on a summer day in early June, 1975. Not only was she a missing young woman of color, but she was also a mother. Her daughter Carlita was barely a year old. Reportedly, an argument led McKenzie to leave her mother’s and stepfather’s home. When she didn’t return, her now-elderly mother Doris Leverette told WXYZ-TV 7 Action News reporters that she drove around looking, and that a friend sat in the car holding the baby while she knocked on doors. However, Leverette did not recall filing a missing person report.

The Crime
On June 10, 1975, the body of a young woman was found by workers near Interstate 696, about a half-hour drive from McKenzie’s home. The Oakland County Medical Examiner ruled the death a homicide by strangulation. At the time, the police worked with local agencies, but McKenzie’s identity was not discovered and she was buried as a Jane Doe.

The Evidence
After some 40 years of agony for McKenzie’s family, Farmington Hills Cold Case Detectives Chad Double, Scott Rzeppa, and Jason McDonald re-evaluated the case of their Jane Doe in 2014. They examined existing evidence and sent a DNA sample to Lori Bruski of the National Institute of Justice — National Missing and Unidentified Persons System. They also reached out to Carol Schweitzer, of the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, and Michigan State Police Sergeant Sarah Krebs. The original DNA testing was inconclusive, so FHPD worked with Oakland County Medical Examiner Dr. Ljubisa Dragovic and Oakland County Assistant Prosecutor John Pietrofesa to exhume the body and obtain an adequate DNA sample.

The Investigation
Only a baby when her mother was killed, Carlita McKenzie Ransom is now in her 40s. Unaware of the Farmington Hills PD efforts, she reached out to Detroit Police Department Sergeant Shannon Jones to take a look at her mother’s 1975 disappearance. The family provided a DNA sample for comparison. Dr. Dragovic compared the DNA samples and — decades later — identified Jane Doe as Darlene McKenzie.

Where it Stands
Ransom, who is studying to be a mortician, says that she feels that her mother’s killing was not the act of a stranger. “I truly believe that it was someone that was close to her or who may have had ties to her,” she told 7 Action News reporters. She added, “You have not gotten away with it. It’s just a matter of time.”

The family is raising money to give Darlene a proper burial through a GoFundMe page.

Crime Stoppers is offering a reward of up to $2,500 for information leading to an arrest in this crime. Tipsters can call the Farmington Hills Police Department at (248) 871-2610 or Crime Stoppers at 1-800-Speak Up.

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(Image: Chris Clor/Blended Images)

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