Back in the '90s, she was an exotic dancer who had a secret life, perhaps as a prostitute with links to organized crime. Some say she was working on the fringes to send money back home to her two kids.
Still, 24 years after she was shot to death at a seedy Arkansas hotel, it's unclear if those kids ever existed. We don't even know her name.
She was known in the clubs as "Mercedes," and the detective who has doggedly searched for the truth calls her "El Dorado Jane Doe."
It's not a whodunit -- her killer was charged and convicted. It's a case of who is it: Who is Mercedes? The question has confounded authorities and, for the past 12 years, has become an obsession for Detective Lt. Cathy Phillips, a 23-year veteran of the El Dorado Police Department.
"It's frustrating, because I have all this information -- DNA, fingerprints, photographs -- and still can't identify her," Phillips told HuffPost.
Phillips, a mother herself, hopes for a lucky break. She dreams of solving the mystery and retiring. And she thinks of the heartbreak some mother and maybe kids have been enduring all these years.
I want to "give her family some peace and closure," said Phillips. "I go through this case and realize so many people have helped with his investigation -- and we're still not there. But I got faith we will be."
The story of Mercedes is that of a woman who had a history of prostitution and frayed relationships. James "Ice" McAlphin, her lover and alleged pimp, was convicted of killing her. McAlphin, who is breaking his silence for the first time, claims he's the only person who truly knows who she was.
"The identity is not a mystery to me," McAlphin told HuffPost from inside East Arkansas Regional Unit, a correctional center in Marianna, Arkansas. "But, if you solve this cold case, you'll find that you are also solving a couple more cold cases."
Mercedes' story has all the elements of hackneyed fiction, with the exception that it's all true. And this type of tale is far from fiction. There are about 40,000 cases of human remains in the U.S. that are unidentified, many with stories as fraught and nuanced as that of Jane Doe.
"Missing is worse than dead -- when you know somebody and cannot put their physical remains to rest," Todd Matthews, director of case management and communications for NamUs, a national registry of missing and unidentified people, told The Huffington Post.
"The stories that we find are sometimes more bizarre than I can imagine … Unfortunately, when the public feels like a John or Jane Doe [is a] criminal, they don't get the attention they deserve … it's harder [for people] to think of her as a victim."
In The El Dorado Jane Doe case, Matthews said the questions trail off before leading to answers. "She could've been a runaway, she could've been abducted, she could've honestly just lost her way," he said.
This much is certain: Mercedes knew the man who gunned her down. He served most of a 15-year sentence for killing her and remains in prison on an unrelated conviction. He has claimed at times to know Mercedes' true name, information that would bring closure to what remains of her family.
But McAlphin isn't talking. He suggested in letters to The Huffington Post that he knows the truth, but isn't quite ready to tell it. Instead, he dropped tantalizing hints.
Dismissed by some as an attention-seeker, McAlphin said Mercedes shot herself with his gun -- a story Phillips said ignores the witnesses who saw him hit Mercedes, fire the fatal shot and flee with the weapon.
Phillips said if Mercedes does have children, now grown, or a mother, someone should tell them what happened.
"Not a whole lot of people want to work on this case," Phillips said. "He's already done his time. You're not going to get an arrest or anything out of it. But I just want to know, and I want the family to know who she is. I think that's important."
McAlphin, jailed on a domestic battery charge, said he'll reveal Mercedes' real identity if someone pays him $4,000.
"If you're sincerely interested in this information, go ahead [and put the money] on my books and I'll give you all the information I have and I'll keep working with you in case I can remember more," McAlphin said.
The mystery of Mercedes' true identity began in 1991.
Today, an empty lot surrounded by patches of grass is all that remains of the Whitehall Motel in El Dorado. Before it was torn down, the motel was a haven for drugs and prostitution in what Phillips called "a bad area of town." It was where McAlphin and Mercedes sometimes called home.
The couple's tumultuous relationship, according to friends and police, would often send Mercedes to the emergency room with injuries she claimed McAlphin had inflicted on her. Her visits were so frequent that police officers were concerned.
"They tried to help get her away from him and that environment," Phillips said. "They felt like she had been drug into this situation."
Mercedes also had run-ins with police for prostitution and bad checks. She was often booked under the name Cheryl Ann Wick, a name she sometimes used around El Dorado. Occasionally, she would spell Cheryl with an "S."
In June 1991, Mercedes summoned the courage to leave McAlphin and moved into the apartment of her friend, Andrea Cooksey.
"I met Mercedes at a club and we became friends," Cooksey told HuffPost. "She said that she used to be a stripper and was from out of town. She told me her and her mother didn't get along and that her momma was raising her two kids. I know she had said the one was a girl, but I can't remember what she said the other one was."
Mercedes was afraid of McAlphin, Cooksey recalled.
"We had been living together about a month when he called Mercedes and told her he was going to kill her," Cooksey said. "She had been seeing another man and he wasn't happy."
According to Cooksey, McAlphin called again one night in July 1991 and promised to give Mercedes money if she'd come to his room at the Whitehall Motel. Mercedes told Cooksey she wanted to use that money to send presents to her children.
Mercedes made the short walk to the motel. It wasn't long before she and McAlphin got into a heated dispute, partially witnessed by Roy Charles Menon, who was staying in a nearby room. He stopped by McAlphin's room to ask for the return of some cassette tapes McAlphin had borrowed, according to a police report.
"Upon his knocking, McAlphin opened the door, at which time [Mercedes] told [Menon], 'You need to talk to him,' suggesting to Menon that she and McAlphin were having some type of problem."
Menon told police that when Mercedes stepped out of the room and into the parking lot, McAlphin rushed past him. He hit Mercedes and said, "Get back in the room, bitch." Then he knocked her down and dragged her back into the room, according to Menon.
Menon returned to his room, where he listened as the argument escalated.
"I heard them going back and forth with each other and then pow -- a gunshot," Menon told HuffPost in a telephone interview. "That was it. I never went back over there. I didn’t open my door or nothing till police got there."
Cooksey, who was walking past the motel, also heard the gunshot.
"I thought, 'Oh no he didn't,' and I ran to the room and found Mercedes laying on the floor," Cooksey said. "She was dead."
Witnesses said they saw McAlphin get into his vehicle and speed off. Police tracked him down and charged him with first-degree murder and second-degree battery.
McAlphin denied killing Mercedes -- and still does.
"No murder occurred," McAlphin said, though he admitted hitting her. "She grabbed my gun ... [and] said she was going to kill herself. I thought she was fucking around because she had done that before. I told her, 'Do us both a favor,' and I heard a shot so loud that it still rings in my ears 24 years later."
Phillips dismissed McAlphin's story, saying the facts contradict suicide.
"There were witnesses," the detective said. "He hit her and after he shot her. he fled the scene with the gun."
McAlphin told police he wouldn't give them Mercedes' true identity "unless we did something for him," Phillips said. The only thing he would tell detectives was that he had once met Mercedes' mother and sister. He said they lived in Florida, but refused to provide names.
With McAlphin not talking, authorities turned to Mercedes' personal belongings. They found a Social Security card and an identification card for Cheryl Ann Wick. The identification card had a photo of Mercedes. Investigators traced Wick's family to Minneapolis and placed a call to her parents.
"My sister lived at home and she called me up crying," the real Cheryl Wick told HuffPost. "The police told my parents that I had gotten murdered and I was like, 'No, I'm fine.'"
Cheryl Wick said she never met Mercedes and believes Mercedes stole her cards from her purse when Wick was working as a dancer for a Minneapolis company called Party Time.
"At that time, I used to carry a lot of my stuff in my wallet," Wick said. "When you're a dancer on stage, people can have access to your stuff. I never noticed it missing until the police called me. If I knew anything I would help, but unfortunately I don't recognize her."
Investigators went back to Mercedes' belongings for clues. They found menus from restaurants in Texas and Virginia; diary entries in which she refers to "Tyrone" and "Gail"; and a Bible inscribed with family members with the last name Stroud. Detectives followed up on all.
They didn't even know her age, guessing from the autopsy that she was between 20 and 30. She was 5 feet 10 inches, 162 pounds, and had old scars over her right eye and on her left waist that suggested an intimacy with violence.
El Dorado police found friends and law enforcement agencies that knew Mercedes by names other than Wick, including Cheryl Kaufman, Shannon Wiley, Sharon Wiley, Kelly Lee Carr and Kelly Karr. McAlphin told HuffPost she also used the name Helen Stenner and once told him she was from Oklahoma.
Sloane McCaster, a member of Websleuths, an Internet forum of armchair detectives who look into unsolved crimes, met Mercedes at a club in Fayetteville, Arkansas.
"This would have been around 1989 or 1990," McCaster told HuffPost. "I kind of bonded with her. She was very sweet, but timid and scared to death of her boyfriend. I felt like he had something on her to keep him under his thumb. I remember her saying she had been in Dallas for quite a while, but beyond that I don't remember a lot about her."
McCaster added: "She's actually the reason I started to get involved in unsolved cases."
McAlphin's niece, Danielle McAlphin, was a child when she first met Mercedes, whom she called "Aunty Cheryl." Her uncle and Mercedes were together for at least a year before the killing.
"When he brought her to my grandma's house, he said they had been in Florida," Danielle McAlphin told HuffPost. "She was real sweet and kindhearted. She didn't bother anybody, because she was kind of timid. It seemed like she was running from something. I also remember thinking she was a stripper because of the stuff she wore -- tank tops and the short booty shorts that were cut off. But she always had money -- like wads of money, all the time."
Police learned Mercedes had once worked as an exotic dancer in Dallas -- where she first met McAlphin. She also danced at strip clubs in Little Rock, Arkansas, and possibly in Virginia and Minnesota.
"She told quite a few different things to different people," Phillips said. "She told people she was in the witness protection program and that her father was in the Mafia. There were rumors she was wanted for bank robberies on the East Coast, and she told some people she had been with a black male at a truck stop. She said he made her go up to the trucks and make contact with the truck drivers and that he actually shot and killed one of the truck drivers and they were on the run for that."
Police briefly considered her a possible person of interest in the Nov. 12, 1988, slaying of Dwayne McCorkendale, a 27-year-old truck driver who was fatally shot at a highway rest stop in Chandler, Oklahoma. The suspects were described to police as a white male and a black male, sometimes accompanied by a white female, in a brown Ford Pinto.
The lead investigator in the case "wasn't able to determine anything," Phillips said. "So we don't know. We're just left guessing."
Mercedes shared a story with a volunteer at the Salvation Army in El Dorado, where she briefly stayed in March 1991. According to Phillips, she told the volunteer she once lived at 1100 Cadiz St. in Dallas -- an address that corresponds to the Dallas LIFE Homeless Shelter.
"She told the lady that when she was there, a child had been taken away from her by social services and that when the child was taken from her, she was using another name, so she could not go get the child back," Phillips said.
The shelter's records from the period have been destroyed and everyone who worked there at the time is gone, a spokesperson said.
Phillips said Mercedes fell under suspicion in at least one bank robbery, but was quickly cleared. Investigators found no evidence she was involved in the Mafia or a witness protection program.
As detectives worked to identify Mercedes, James McAlphin entered a plea agreement with the prosecutor. He pleaded guilty to second-degree murder in exchange for a sentence of 15 years.
"Cost me 13 years of my life," McAlphin said. "Went in at 26, came out at 40. Guess everything [that] looks good, ain't good."
McAlphin has spent most of his adult life in jail and has a criminal record that "reads like an encyclopedia," Phillips said.
Though he said he won't reveal Mercedes' true identity unless he's paid, he did share some details about her, which may or may not be true.
McAlphin said Mercedes chose to disguise her identity "because the lifestyle she chose would have embarrassed the people she left behind."
"She was very young when she was taken. At one time, she was taken from her loved ones by force, but as an adult it was willingly," McAlphin said.
McAlphin said Mercedes was older than him -- he said he was 26 when they met -- and she had two children she left with "someone" in Fort Worth, Texas.
"Mercedes was on the street since [the] age of 16," he said. "A black guy she fell for allowed her to be pimped in Fort Worth and Dallas. These guys had other young girls, some kidnapped by force. These girls ... ended up across the border in El Paso or Brownsville, traded for Mexican girls if they were rebellious. Most of the loyal girls were trusted. Mercedes was one of these girls because of her relationship with a pimp named 'JD,' [whom] she ran away [from] with Tyrone. ... When I found out, I took Mercedes and ran for Louisiana. This and the things done with Tyrone were [the] reason for [her] alias name."
JD is Mercedes' former pimp, Jeffrey "JJ" Davis, of Dallas, Phillips said. Tyrone, detectives believe, was Mercedes' pimp in Florida. Investigators have been unable to locate him.
McAlphin also claimed Mercedes "grew up friends" with three girls kidnapped from a Fort Worth mall in the 1970s.
"These girls were like sisters to Mercedes," he said. "We use[d] to visit them. They grew up in captivity in the Dallas/Fort Worth area, sometimes in the same town where their parents were. By the time they were adults, they were willing members of the stable. The younger girl died giving birth to a child."
McAlphin appears to be referencing the Dec. 23, 1974, disappearance of Rachel Arnold Trlica, 17, Lisa Renee Wilson, 14, and Julie Ann Moseley, 9, from Seminary South Shopping Center in south Fort Worth.
Phillips said it's hard to believe anything McAlphin says.
"I've known him since I've worked here and he just doesn't have the truth in him," the detective said. "She may not have even divulged a whole lot of truths about herself to him. I think she's a runaway, and I think he's a creature of habit, and if he knew who she was he'd tell to try to get out of something."
For now, the evidence in Mercedes' case sits in a storage facility inside a box labeled "El Dorado Jane Doe." What the case won't do is go cold. The information McAlphin shared with HuffPost has given authorities new leads to explore in the ongoing pursuit of Mercedes' true identity.
"We're all trying to give her the proper burial she needs," Phillips said. "If I were her mother, I would want to know and I would want the rest of the family to have some peace and closure."
Anyone with information about this case is asked to contact Lt. Cathy Phillips at 870-881-4810. Anyone wishing to remain anonymous may provide information by calling El Dorado Crime Stoppers at 1-870-863-4636. Additional information can be found at eldoradojanedoe.wix.com and facebook.com/ElDoradoDoe.
H/T: Lesha Johanneck, for recommending this case to The Huffington Post.