Finding Lisa: a story of murders, mysteries, loss, and incredibly, new life

SHE WAS A WISP OF A GIRL, dressed in clothes that were faded and frayed, a few sizes too small. She had no toys, and was often hungry. She slept in the back of a red pickup truck under a camper shell with her father, a family adrift.

It was the summer of 1986 when 5-year-old Lisa showed up outside Katherine Decker’s mobile home at a trailer park in Scotts Valley, Calif. While her father worked as a handyman, Lisa played for hours with Decker’s young grandson, yearning for everything he had. She nestled up to the kindly woman every chance she got. Before long, she was calling her grandma.

Her father, Gordon Jenson, also leaned hard on Decker. He cried as he told her about his wife, who had died when Lisa was still a baby, and his struggle to raise their daughter on his own.

…In 2003, the results came back, confirming her suspicions. Whatever his real name, (Jensen) was not Lisa’s father.

…Lisa never stopped wondering who she was or where she came from. Who were her biological parents? Were they still alive?

Two years ago, she embarked in earnest on a quest for her identity, joining millions of others who have turned to DNA databases to trace their roots. Law enforcement officials and genealogists alike would join the search, determined to help Lisa find her place in the world.

While Lisa waited for her results, Peter Headley, the San Bernardino deputy, e-mailed a question to the operators of another website,, which provides guidance on DNA searches. Could the same techniques adoptees used to search for their biological parents help a woman who knew nothing of where she came from?

Barbara Rae-Venter, a retired patent attorney and genealogist who volunteers for the website as a “search angel,” said she was confident it could be done. But it wouldn’t be easy. She enlisted a small team of volunteers from the Monterey County Genealogy Society in California to help her unravel the mystery. They called it the Lisa Project.

Eventually, Lisa’s family tree would grow to some 19,000 people, just on her maternal side.

Meanwhile, the results had come in, and they revealed that Lisa shared varying amounts of DNA with several thousand people, including one very close match. The man, an 81-year-old who lived on the East Coast and was of Canadian ancestry, was contacted and agreed to have his DNA profile shared on a site that searches for matches from several genomic testing companies…

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