Lucie Van Heeckeren appears in the 1970 Paul D. Schreiber...

Lucie Van Heeckeren appears in the 1970 Paul D. Schreiber High School yearbook. Credit: Paul D. Schreiber High School

Lucie Van Heeckeren traveled across the United States in the final decade of her complicated life before she returned to Long Island, where in 2015 a hiker found a set of unidentified remains that police labeled “Setauket Jane Doe.”

Where Van Heeckeren was remained a mystery until recently, when police matched her to the woman whose skeletal remains had been discovered near a Gnarled Hollow Road trail. Before then, relatives knew nothing of her fate for about a decade.

Suffolk police confirmed in May they had positively identified remains as Van Heeckeren's, but they declined to provide additional details about the case.

“Cause and manner of death are undetermined therefore it is unknown if she was the victim of homicide,” police said in a statement. 

WHAT TO KNOW

  • Lucie Van Heeckeren’s whereabouts remained a mystery until recently, when police matched her to unidentified remains labeled “Setauket Jane Doe.”
  • The identification of Van Heeckeren, who lived as a teen in Port Washington, was made possible through a genetic DNA profile created by scientists with Othram, a private forensics laboratory.
  • Online obituaries, profiles of Van Heeckeren’s siblings and court records reveal she was born on July 17, 1953, to an old Dutch noble family.

To piece together details of Van Heeckeren's life, Newsday reviewed three decades' worth of filings in her guardianship case. Those records include statements from family, doctors and a court-appointed advocate, as well as annual reports providing updates on her well-being.

The records on file in Montgomery County Circuit Court in Rockville, Maryland, show Van Heeckeren's whereabouts were unknown to her family much of the time even when she was alive.

A postcard from Oakland, California, in July 2003 and phone calls from “kind strangers” who “crossed paths with her” in Oregon and Washington in 2007 gave clues to her travels in those years. 

When the cold settled in the twin cities of Minnesota in December 2008, social services officials placed Van Heeckeren, a diagnosed schizophrenic who family members say was homeless by choice, on a bus to Washington, D.C., where she would return to live with family in a nearby suburb. That didn’t last long.

Sometime around the summer of 2013, the occasional communication from the former Port Washington resident stopped, records show.

No longer 'Setauket Jane Doe'

The identification of Van Heeckeren, who lived as a teen in Port Washington, some 40 miles from where her remains were found, was made possible through a genetic DNA profile created by scientists with Othram, a Texas-based private forensics laboratory that helps law enforcement solve cases of unidentified persons.

Suffolk police sent forensic evidence to Othram in February 2021, the company said. A profile the lab created was then sent to the FBI to develop leads into her identity, Othram officials said.

“It means everything to help a family get answers or justice,” Othram founder and CEO David Mittelman said in an interview.

Van Heeckeren, who would have been 61 when her remains were discovered, is the eighth person to be identified by Othram in New York. The lab also played a critical role in the identification last year of Karen Vergata, one of 10 victims whose remains were found near Gilgo Beach.

While Vergata, whose remaining body parts were found stuffed in a bag on Fire Island, was a victim of a homicide, Van Heeckeren falls into a category of previously unidentified persons whose demise remains unknown.

Police officials have declined to comment further on the case, and they have not said when a positive identification was made or what prior efforts were taken to use DNA to find Van Heckeeren's relatives.

Van Heeckeren’s remains were found about 20 feet from the Setauket Greenway Trail on March 22, 2015, when a hiker spotted several deer in the area, police said at the time.

“He saw animals near and he went to investigate,” Det. Lt. Kevin Beyrer, commanding officer of the Suffolk Homicide Squad, told Newsday in March 2015.

At the time her remains were found, Suffolk police said they could not so much as determine a gender but hoped DNA would one day enable them to identify her.

“Hopefully we'll determine how long that person's been there and how that person died,” Beyrer said in 2015.

That August, police said they believed she had been there for about a year. They also released a sketch that month of what they believed she looked like. They described her as likely between 30 and 50 years old and between 5 feet, 3 inches and 5 feet, 9 inches tall.

Suffolk police produced a sketch of the woman whose skeletal...

Suffolk police produced a sketch of the woman whose skeletal remains were found on a walking trial in Setauket in 2015. Credit: SCPD

While the estimation of her age proved to be off by about a decade, the sketch was similar to publicly available photographs of Van Heeckeren, including her light-colored hair.

A noble upbringing

Online obituaries, profiles of Van Heeckeren’s siblings and court records reveal she was born on July 17, 1953, to an old Dutch noble family, with her parents and their six children all holding the title of baron or baroness until settling in the United States. For much of their childhood, Van Heeckeren and her siblings lived abroad on a boat before arriving in Nassau County in 1965.

Van Heeckeren graduated from Paul D. Schreiber High School in Port Washington in 1970, according to school records. A blurb above a smiling photograph of Van Heeckeren in her senior yearbook mentions her involvement in the school’s Sports Nite and Junior Prom Decorating Committees. She enjoyed swimming, gymnastics and playing the piano, the yearbook notes.

Van Heecekeren went on to attend classes at Cornell University in Ithaca, records show.

Within the next decade, however, mental health issues redirected the course of Van Heecekeren’s life, court records show.

By the mid-1980s, Van Heeckeren was living in a state-run facility in Maryland, where her mother and a sister had moved. In 1989, she was placed under an adult guardianship, which remained in effect for the remainder of her life, even as she began to drift further away from contact with her fiduciaries, guardianship records show.

A Maryland psychiatrist diagnosed Van Heeckeren with “chronic schizophrenic condition with a depressive overlay,” according to a 1989 report publicly available in Montgomery County. Despite her noble upbringing, Van Heeckeren had few assets to report during her guardianship, court records show. In 1989, her assets were valued at $300 and limited to her clothing.

In the last publicly available report before her guardianship was terminated due to her death, Van Heeckeren’s estate was valued at $1,521.

Family members, including a sister and adult nephew who served as her legal guardian, did not respond to phone calls or emails seeking comment.

Relatives described Van Heeckeren as being at times nonverbal and on other occasions combative during her adult life, court records show. She was often anxious and apologetic, according to reports filed by a social worker and family members tasked with caring for her.

Van Heeckeren chain-smoked cigarettes, refused to eat and often felt she was dying, worrying she was poisoned, her mother, Joanna Van Heeckeren, told the court.

“Her illness causes her to withdraw and become too passive to cope with reality,” Dr. William E. Legat reported in July 1989.

Van Heeckeren had stints in mental health facilities in Maryland, Washington, D.C., Florida, California and New York during her two decades living under the guardianship, records show.

It was at a hospital in Westchester County where Van Heeckeren was last known to be, according to the recent announcement from Othram. Her nephew Adriaan Carter, of Cabin John, Maryland, who served as her guardian following the death of her mother, reported to the court she left New York Presbyterian Westchester Health in July 2013.

In annual fiduciary reports that span several years after his aunt’s remains were found but unidentified, Carter wrote that one of his siblings had offered her a place to stay. A fear of doctors, which was well documented throughout her guardianship, kept her on the move, court records show.

“Lucie prefers to be in charge of her own destiny,” Carter wrote in one filing.

A nomadic life

Van Heeckeren’s first effort to live as an adult apart from family and outside of mental health facilities came in August 2000 when, at 47 years old, she moved to Ithaca to stay with college friends, according to a guardianship report filed in 2001. Van Heeckeren previously spent more than 10 years in the Florida mental health system and the family hoped the move would give her a “fresh start.”

“The decision to do so was done with great deliberation,” Carter told the court in 2001.

In Ithaca, Van Heeckeren picked vegetables for a food co-op to earn a modest income. She also briefly washed dishes at a restaurant, records show.

Over the next several years, she spent part of her time with family, but most of it on the road. Her family maintained the guardianship, with each of her siblings receiving notifications on court filings, to make it easier to help her when she needed it, Carter reported to the court.

In 2002 and 2003 alone, she reported back home from Woodstock, Rochester, Chicago, Cleveland, Houston, Southern California and San Francisco, according to a 2003 filing.

“She is now traveling the U.S.,” Carter told the court. “I wire her money or buy her a bus ticket to wherever she wants to go whenever she calls.”

At times that meant bailing her out of jail in Orange County, California, or arranging for her return to Maryland from a police station in Fishkill, New York, court records show.

The thought of being hospitalized continued to drive her away, Carter routinely told the court.

“Lucie left the area probably because she was worried I would try to place her in a mental hospital,” he wrote in 2006. “I am pretty sure she will remain homeless for the foreseeable future.”

The family picked up on her whereabouts when she would end up in the legal or mental health systems, or when she would write or call home. Sometimes a stranger would call on her behalf.

In the years Van Heeckeren remained unidentified, court filings show the family held out hope she was safe. Carter noted her ability to get by with clothing handouts and food from soup kitchens.

Suffolk homicide detectives gather in front of a walking trail...

Suffolk homicide detectives gather in front of a walking trail off Gnarled Hollow Road in Setauket on March 23, 2015, near where a hiker found human remains. Credit: Andrew Tetreault

In a report filed eight months after her skeletal remains had already been found, Carter reported hearing secondhand that Van Heeckeren had settled into an idyllic place. She had taken up residence with a “kind person” on a farm in rural Virginia, the family was told.

The final accounts the family received came in 2017, as her remains were still unidentified in Suffolk County, when friends thought they may have seen her back out on the streets or living in the woods of Bethesda, Maryland, just a few short miles from family. Carter said in that year’s report that he didn’t seek her out for fear it would “only push her further away.”

Eventually, the annual filings in Van Heeckeren’s guardianship case simply stated that her whereabouts were unknown. While that statement was true at times for much of Van Heeckeren’s adult life, it’s no longer the case. 

Mittelman, the Othram CEO, said with advances in technology, the gap in time from when someone goes missing to when their family gets answers, is closing.

“Many families have waited decades, or at least years,” Mittelman said. “This doesn't have to happen anymore.”

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