Severed head cold case in western PA to be featured on two Netflix shows

Scott Tady
Beaver County Times

One of Beaver County, Pennsylvania's most bizarre mysteries has caught the interest of two Netflix series.

Producers for both "Unsolved Mysteries" and a new show tentatively using the working title "Body Parts" both will travel to Beaver County in western Pennsylvania to interview local detectives and law enforcement officers still searching for clues in the case of an unidentified, embalmed head discovered in an Economy field in December 2014. 

Taking the first crack at the severed female head will be "Unsolved Mysteries," the Netflix reboot of the popular true-crime show that aired from 1987 through 2002 on network TV.

Forensic artist Michelle M. Vitali created a clay likeness of a woman whose embalmed head was found in a wooded area of Economy in 2014. The sculpture on the left is as the woman appeared at the time of her death. The sculpture on the right is an age regression of what the woman may have looked like in her 30s.

"They contacted us about coming here in April to scout the area, and look at where the head was found and talk to people involved in the investigation," Beaver County Chief Detective Andy Gall said.

EARLIERMysterious case of embalmed head found in Economy woods weighs on investigators

MORE ON THE HEAD‘Jane Doe,’ whose remains were found in Economy, buried in Beaver

AND STILL MOREInvestigators determine location of ‘Jane Doe’ before her death

The still unofficially titled miniseries about body parts hasn't set a date for its Beaver County visit, but producers notified Gall's office that they, too, intend to use interviews with local sources.

Both TV shows know about each other.

"I hope we get a little publicity from this that makes people think about it again," Gall said.

Edinboro Institute for Forensic Sciences artist Michelle M. Vitali created a cast and made drawings for local authorities to distribute to help identify the woman whose severed head was found off Mason Road in Economy on Dec. 12, 2014.

Perhaps a Netflix viewer will come through with a crucial clue for the one-of-its-kind mystery that's had all sorts of twists.

"We had a guy who — I won't call him a person of interest, but we were very interested in talking with him — who committed suicide in September," Gall said. "He jumped off a bridge on the Ohio Turnpike into the path of a tractor-trailer."

Local detectives can't base their investigation on any similar cases of severed embalmed heads, because there aren't any.

"When you Google 'severed embalmed head' we're all that comes up," Gall said.

An eighth-grader walking home from the bus stop found the severed head in a wooded area over an embankment 31 feet off Mason Road on Dec. 12, 2014.

Based on environmental factors, authorities believe the head had not been laying there for long.

Adding to the mystery were the two red rubber balls that had been inserted where the eyes once were.

MORERubber balls were in place of eyes in embalmed head found in Economy

MORESearch continues for answers in case of embalmed head

MORELocal officials talk to students at Penn State-Beaver about severed-head mystery

"Nobody who does embalming puts rubber balls in there," Gall said. "But maybe someone in Idaho watching this show will say, 'We put rubber balls there when we embalm people.'"

This is an aerial view of the site along Mason Road in Economy where a severed, embalmed head of a woman was found on Dec. 12, 2014. There is still no information as to the identity of the woman and how she came to her final resting place

Detectives have tried multiple DNA tests on the head's teeth, hair and skin, but nothing can be determined because of the embalming process.

"We've had new DNA testing companies say 'We can do it,' but then it's 'Sorry, we tried but we couldn't,' " Gall said. "It's been very disappointing."

The public remains fascinated.

While shopping at the Kohl's in Cranberry Township recently, a man approached Gall and said, 'I know who you are, and I want to know about the head ... it bugs me.'" They talked about it for 10 minutes.  

Similar fascination is counted upon by "Unsolved Mysteries," a hit show when it debuted on NBC in 1987 with the stern-faced Robert Stack of TV's "The Untouchables" as host. 

The Netflix version sticks to the original format of investigating "suspicious deaths, missing children, encounters with spirits and other true-life tales," according to the streaming service.

Less known about is the premise for the "Body Parts" series, though Gall has heard the show will examine odd and unregulated uses of cadavers.

This 2015 file photo shows Economy police chief Michael O'Brien as he talks with county officials at the borough police station to update them about the status of a woman's head found in Dec. 2014.

Gall and Economy Police Chief Mike O'Brien previously were interviewed about the severed head by a Reuters journalist who is collaborating on the new Netflix show.

"We'll never give up," Gall said about the investigation. "It's one of the most unusual things I've ever looked at in my lengthy career."

Gall has become a go-to source for crime documentary TV shows.

His insight was tapped last week for "On the Case with Paula Zahn" on Investigation Discovery channel, which will air an episode about the murder of 14-year-old Rochester Township girl Sarah Boehm.

Four months after she had gone missing on July 14, 1994, Boehm's body was found by hunters in a wooded area of Portage County, Ohio. However, she was not identified until nine years later after now-retired Beaver County detective Kim Clements searched the national Jane Doe Network and figured out that the hunters had found Boehm.

While in town a week ago, "On the Case with Paula Zahn" producers also interviewed Rochester Township Police.

Before the days of COVID-19, Investigation Discovery flew Gall to New York to talk on camera with Zahn, who recalled many childhood days visiting her aunt's house in West Aliquippa. That interview appeared in a different episode centered on the murder of 23-year-old Catherine Janet Walsh in her Monaca home in 1979.

Gregory Scott Hopkins, 71, was convicted in November 2013 of third-degree murder for the strangulation of Walsh. The case went unsolved for more than 30 years until DNA evidence led to the 2010 arrest of Hopkins, who was a businessman and Bridgewater councilman.

Scott Tady is the local Entertainment Reporter for The Beaver County Times and Ellwood City Ledger. He's easy to reach at Follow him on Twitter at @scotttady