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Vacaville ‘Jane Doe’ was Santa Rosa woman’s mother

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Caitlin Johnson was in her Santa Rosa office last November when she got a once-in-a-lifetime call from the Vacaville Police Department.

A detective told her something remarkable: Improved forensic technology had helped authorities identify the body of a 38-year-old woman discovered in April 1991 at the site of what would become the Vacaville Premium Outlets.

The dead woman was Johnson’s mother, police said. Vacaville’s only “Jane Doe” had a new name, or rather, regained her old names: Cynthia Bilardi, also known as Cynthia Merkley.

Johnson, a Rincon Valley resident who works as a program coordinator with people who have developmental disabilities, remembered going to the outlets every August as a teenager to shop for school clothes. The detective’s call to Johnson, almost 28 years after Cynthia is believed to have died, unleashed a cocktail of emotion.

“It was a combination of shock, devastation and closure,” Johnson said Wednesday. “I was able to have an answer, but how much does it suck that that’s the answer? I would rather have her not want anything to do with me than to be told she’s passed away.”

Vacaville police went public with Cynthia’s identity Monday, hoping it would help them discover how her body wound up in a field off Nut Tree Road nearly three decades ago. They noted that nobody had filed a missing person’s report for her and that she had been estranged from her family for several years.

“Even after 28 years, Detectives never gave up hope that our only ‘Jane Doe’ case would one day be identified,” Vacaville police said on Facebook. “Our hope is that this post will generate new leads for Detectives to look into, to help determine what happened to Cynthia that fateful night back in 1991 that led to her untimely death.”

Johnson learned most of what she knows about her mom from her grandmother, who has since passed away. It was several years before that, Johnson said, that mother and daughter were separated. As Johnson’s grandmother told her, the family was homeless in Santa Rosa early in Johnson’s life. Cynthia was bathing a not yet 1-year-old Johnson in the restroom of a Santa Rosa restaurant in August 1983 when the manager called police because she refused to let any other patrons in.

Not only did Cynthia appear to be on drugs, but she fit the description of a suspected thief, having apparently purloined a knife from Macy’s, according to Johnson. When she asked her grandma why Cynthia stole the knife, she was told that “it was her way of providing security, and a way to protect us.”

Cynthia was arrested, and Johnson was taken to the former Valley of the Moon Children’s Home. She went into foster care and was later adopted, growing up to attend Madrone and Ursuline schools in Santa Rosa. She’s seen her mom’s mug shot from that day in 1983 and is struck by the resemblance, calling her own appearance “identical to a person who caused a bunch of chaos.”

Johnson was 18 when she went looking for answers in earnest, eventually finding her aunt’s address and going from there. Over the years, Johnson has been able to reconnect with some relatives — she’s one of seven siblings, the only one living in Santa Rosa — and has been able to put the pieces of her family tree together over time.

One thing she can’t figure out, though, is why nobody filed a missing person’s report.

“That was so concerning to me,” she said.

Cynthia had been dead for two to three weeks by the time her remains were discovered. There were no obvious signs of foul play or blunt-force trauma, police said, and the investigation continues.

“It’s one of those things where we’re still at a loss,” said Vacaville Police Lt. Chris Polen. He noted that identifying Cynthia helped some but left more questions unanswered. “We have a name, so now we’re trying to put that puzzle together.”

Vacaville police have asked anyone with additional information to contact Detective Andy Polik at 707-449-5407 or andrew.polik@cityofvacaville.com.

Johnson has no idea how her mom ended up abandoned in a Vacaville field. Her grandmother recalled last seeing Cynthia in 1989, roughly two years before her body was found. Johnson has learned that Cynthia was a frequent hitchhiker between San Jose and Santa Rosa, though Vacaville is well outside the obvious path between the two cities.

She doesn’t know much about her mom. Her older sister remembers “partying and drug use and all that jazz,” she said, as well as Cynthia’s fondness for ballet, including owning her own pair of ballet slippers.

Despite Cynthia’s absence in her life, Johnson said she “will never have an ill feeling about my mom” and tries to use her limited knowledge of her mother to inform her upbringing of her own two children.

“You either learn from your parents or become them,” she said. “Maybe a combination of both.”

You can reach Staff Writer Will Schmitt at 707-521-5207 or will.schmitt@pressdemocrat.com.

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