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Family Remembers Shawna 'Grace Doe' Garber

April 29, 2021 at 8:09 a.m.

The remains in a 30-year-old case were identified as Shawna Garber, the television reporter announced. Roger Uitts realized they were talking about his sister. "I actually saw it on the news," he said.

The Topeka, Kan., man never stopped looking for his sister. He was 15-years old at the time and his younger brother was around five or six. Little Shawna was about four when they all were taken away from their mother and placed into foster care.

Little brother, Rob, was in kindergarten and Uitts was in high school. The principal came into his classroom and said he would be going home to Uncle Junior and Aunt Erma's house. He'd have to take a different bus home.

It would be years before he knew exactly what happened.

For Uitts, going to church meant his chance to see his little sister. Their foster care families went to the same church, so Uitts saw Shawna on Sundays.

The last time he saw little Shawna was in 1973. "I never quit trying to look for her. I wanted to find her and see how she had come out in life." Her rocky start in life with childhood abuse would become one of her first and biggest hurdles.

Uitts hoped to reconnect. He never thought her absence -- and discovery -- would come through a television-broadcasted news announcement.

"You never once think it's happening to you," he said.

Childhood Memories

Uitts has fond memories of Shawna. But it's taken him years to process her horrific start to life.

"I haven't come to grips with what happened to Shawna in the first place when she was a baby," he said.

Over the years, Uitts looked for Shawna and wondered what she had made of her life. He was shocked to discover she had been murdered 30-years ago.

"Grace Doe was" discovered on Dec. 2, 1990, near an abandoned farmhouse on Oscar Talley Road, between Lanagan and Pineville, according to reports. A couple collecting cans discovered her remains. Her killer utilized six different types of cord and clothesline for bondage, investigators have said. The six different types of cord included military cord that was not available to the public in 1990, reports said. Investigators believe Doe was raped before being strangled.

Recently, DNA testing revealed Grace Doe was Shawna. Tragically, Shawna's life was impacted early on by a horrific family incident.

Uitts was out of foster care when he finally learned about the past. The three children -- Roger, Rob and Shawna -- were siblings who were taken away. Later, their mother gave birth to Danielle, who had a different father.

That man, half-sister Danielle's father, told Uitts that his mom was angry that day. She wanted to borrow the keys to take the car into town. She and her husband got into a fight. She was angry and screaming and went into the house. She set Shawna on fire, Uitts said.

For some 20 years, Uitts did not discuss the details with his wife. Only two friends really knew what happened. "It's a painful thing," he said. "I suppressed it for quite a long time."

Uitts' mom was hospitalized before she died four years ago. Uitts was working for the hospital at the time and took a full day off to be with her. He tried to make amends as best he could. "I never have forgiven my mom but we were able to make peace," he said. "She had some mental issues. She never was really good with relationships."

Over the years, Uitts tried to put the rocky childhood memories behind him. He tried to move on while seeking Shawna.

Now, as he comes to grips with what happened, he begins processing all the new facts: what exactly took place; why was Shawna murdered.

"It's beginning a whole new journey," he said.

Uitts certainly wants to find her killer. He seeks justice.

"I just want to find the person responsible," Uitts said. "That will put my heart into one piece again."

More News

SIDEBAR

Shawna Garber had a lot of people pulling for her. As the “Grace Doe” mystery started to unravel, several instrumental people behind the scenes greatly contributed.

Othram, the private lab hired to help bust open the case, enlisted the help of several Southeast Missouri State University students. Those students provided anthropological analyses, providing valuable information for the investigation, Othram official said.

With the supervision of Dr. Jennifer Bengtson, students learned about records research by searching missing person databases for people who matched the updated biological profile they developed. They also had the opportunity to learn about specialized microscopic analysis, Othram officials said.

Students performed anthropological analysis of the skeletal remains, according to Michael Vogen, Othram’s director of case management. “They did a study on the bones while we were doing the DNA testing,” Vogen said. The University Foundation contributed a “substantial” amount of funding to help fund the experiential learning opportunities for the students.

“Jennifer, the main anthropologist, had donors in her department and university who contributed,” he said. Once a profile is established, it is uploaded, then matched against databases. Officials conduct records research, investigate probable relationships, build family trees and come up with viable candidates.

Othram, an independent lab in Texas, utilized DNA processes, modern genome sequencing and genealogy to determine Grace Doe’s identity. Othram then provided McDonald County Patrol Supervisor Mike Hall, who formerly served as sheriff, with 12 possible relatives of Doe.

Candidates are presented to law enforcement to pursue and investigate, Vogen said. “It puts some new life into the case,” he said.

Hall contacted Danielle Pixler, who was on the list of possible relatives. Pixler took a DNA test, submitted it to Hall, who then submitted it to Othram. Analysis determined she and Grace Doe — Shawna Garber — are half-sisters.

Local investigators are now tasked with uncovering why Shawna was murdered. As they begin piecing together the parts of the puzzle, Othram officials are now concluding their portion of the case, Vogen said. Othram officials are working on other various cases, including two from Columbia.

The firm is always looking at possible cases to uncover. Othram officials can provide law enforcement with a no-cost evaluation to review uploaded case information and previous DNA tests. That way, officials determine if the case could be taken on and analyzed by Othram, Vogen said.

Anyone who has information that could help this investigation move forward is encouraged to contact the McDonald County Sheriff’s Office at 417-223-4319.

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