How a Cook County sheriff’s detective apparently solved the nearly 100-year-old mystery of a missing Chicago girl

The detective’s work has convinced two families that Mary Agnes Moroney — kidnapped from her home in Chicago in 1930 — was raised as Jeanette Burchard and became a nurse in Florida. She died 20 years ago.

SHARE How a Cook County sheriff’s detective apparently solved the nearly 100-year-old mystery of a missing Chicago girl
Detective Jose Rodriguez, with the Cook County Sheriff’s office, explains how familial DNA sequencing works Tuesday.

Detective Jose Rodriguez, with the Cook County Sheriff’s office, explains how familial DNA sequencing works Tuesday.

Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere/Sun-Time

The disappearance of Mary Agnes Moroney has gone unsolved for nearly 100 years.

But answers to this Chicago mystery seemed to reveal themselves only months after a Cook County detective began looking into her case last year, this time with the help of commercial DNA tests.

Katherine Moroney with her daughter, Mary Agnes, in 1928.

Katherine Moroney with her daughter, Mary Agnes, in 1928.

Provided

Mary Agnes was reportedly taken as a 2-year-old from her South Side parents on May 15, 1930 by a woman using the name Julia Otis. The case made national headlines in the 1930s, and again in the 1950s when the Chicago Daily News wrongly claimed to have solved it.

Now, members of two families are convinced she is the woman who died 20 years ago as Jeanette Burchard of Florida.

Mary Agnes’ nephew, Don Moroney, and Burchard’s daughter, Terri Arnold, reached that conclusion based on the work of Jose Rodriguez, a detective with the Cook County sheriff’s office. Rodriguez said he was assigned to investigate Mary Agnes’ disappearance on June 10.

“This was a mystery that I, personally, just had to figure out how to solve for myself,” Rodriguez said. “Fortunately enough, this case just provided the right information needed to be solved. And it was good timing.”

Rodriguez’s work was part of Sheriff Tom Dart’s Missing Persons Project. Cmdr. Jason Moran said it focuses on cases of women who have been missing for more than three years and who appear in the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System, or NamUs. 

Dart described Mary Agnes’ case as one of those “wild turns in direction you never anticipated.”

“I wasn’t expecting a 1930 case to pop up,” Dart said.

Dart’s office has also done significant work identifying victims of John Wayne Gacy. And while there are plenty of present-day issues for law enforcement to grapple with, Dart said there are rewards in pursuing cold cases like the disappearance of Mary Agnes.

A family at the center of the 93-year-old missing persons case now finally has closure.

“One of our hopes was that, when Mary was taken, that she led a good life and she was taken care of,” Don Moroney told the Chicago Sun-Times. “And she was.”

The late Jeanette Burchard, the woman thought to be Mary Agnes Moroney, in approximately the 1930s or 1940s.

The late Jeanette Burchard, the woman thought to be Mary Agnes Moroney, in approximately the 1930s or 1940s.

Provided

Rodriguez and Moran said the sheriff’s office cannot confirm, definitively, that Burchard and Mary Agnes are the same person. Doing so would likely require the exhumation of Burchard and Mary Agnes’ mother, Katherine, who died in 1962, in order to see if their DNA matched.

That means Mary Agnes’ case does not fit the official criteria for removal from NamUs, which lists Mary Agnes’ case as the oldest from Illinois in an online database.

Still, Moran said he plans to explain that “the family accepts the findings and are no longer searching for Mary Moroney. So if the family is no longer searching for their missing loved one, then could we have that removed from the website?”

Dart, Rodriguez and Moran sat down with the Sun-Times this week to discuss the nearly century-old mystery, and why two families are now convinced it has been solved.

The investigation began with a search for original police reports. Rodriguez said he then began to search for members of Mary Agnes’ family. Eventually, he discovered an online forum where someone had identified themselves as a Moroney and made contact.

The detective found out that some members of the Moroney family had accounts with commercial DNA testing companies like Ancestry and 23andMe. Another member of the family agreed to also submit DNA. 

Within the results of the tests, Rodriguez said he was searching for an unfamiliar person who would be listed as a Moroney relative. A granddaughter of Burchard’s, Lori Hart, was ultimately identified as a second or third cousin of the Moroneys.

Hart said Rodriguez reached out to her, and she put him in touch with Arnold, her aunt.

Arnold told the Sun-Times she didn’t initially believe the detective’s theory, but she agreed to take a test. She said her maternal grandmother’s family hailed from Poland, so she expected to see Polish DNA.

Instead, she said it showed she is mainly Irish. Not only that, but Rodriguez and Moran explained that it also revealed a genetic association with Don Moroney and his cousins, suggesting Arnold was also their cousin.

The Cook County sheriff’s office wound up sharing the findings with members of both families. However, Moran said there is no way to “responsibly investigate” the circumstances of Mary Agnes’ disappearance in 1930. 

That means it may never be clear how Mary Agnes made her way from the Moroney family to the people who raised her. And what role, if any, was played by a woman named Julia Otis.

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