DNA identifies missing Navajo Nation woman as homicide victim found in California

Christine Lester's identity was matched to remains in California that have been labeled as “Jane Doe” since the 80s.
Published: May. 2, 2023 at 8:07 PM MST
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NAVAJO NATION, AZ (3TV/CBS 5) - Thirty-five years ago, a Navajo Nation woman went missing on her way to Flagstaff and was never seen again. Now decades later, there’s been a massive break in the cold case. Her identity was just matched to remains in California that have been labeled as “Jane Doe” since the 80s, and now it’s an open homicide investigation.

Memories have been preserved in pictures. It’s all Christine Lester’s family has had for 35 years. “She left May 5 of 1987 and Mother’s Day was coming up,” said Shawna Rockwell.

Shawna, Herbert, and LaBrenda Rockwell remember that time well for the worst reason. Their 24-year-old sister was heading out from the Navajo Nation to the Flagstaff mall to get their mother and grandmother gifts for the holiday. “She always hitchhiked. Back in the day a lot of people did,” said Shawna.

Christine told her uncle she’d be back home by the time he was off work. “We don’t know if she made it to Flagstaff, we don’t know, but that’s where she wanted to go,” said Shawna. They filed a missing persons report as the days went on, but nothing changed; Christine was never seen again, yet her family believed she was still alive somewhere. “We’ve always had that hope she’ll come through that door and introduce her family. Introduce her little family,” said Herbert.

Then, just two weeks ago, the Rockwells received a bittersweet call from authorities, but not in Arizona, from the Madera County Sherriff’s Office outside Fresno, California. “I didn’t want to hear the news. I wanted her to come home,” said Shawna.

Christine Lester’s remains have been buried in a gravesite for decades labeled “Jane Doe.” The Madera County Sheriff’s Office said they found a woman dead on the side of a rural county road just 16 days after Christine went missing, but no identification was made.

In 2020, a deputy renewed the effort to identify her, and her body was exhumed to create a DNA profile. In March 2023, a DNA match to one of Christine’s brothers was finally made. The sheriff’s office said this is now an open homicide investigation.

Christine’s siblings said they have no idea who killed her but did receive an odd letter written to Christine more than five years after she went missing. “To this day we don’t know who wrote it. She left in ‘87, and the letter was written back in ‘92 or ‘93. Which was really weird because she didn’t have a boyfriend that we knew of,” said Shawna. “It was kind of explicit. I don’t think Christine would ever do some of the things this guy mentioned. To me it was…he knew something about Christine.” That letter is now in the hands of authorities.

Christine’s siblings were reunited with their sister after her remains were delivered to them personally by authorities Monday, after over 30 years of broken hearts. “I’m going to cherish all the good memories that I had with her,” said LaBrenda. “I’d just like to say, ‘Welcome home, Christine. ‘Shadi’, which means big sister,” said Herbert.

Her family is holding a procession for Christine on Friday to escort her remains from Flagstaff to their family plot at a gravesite on the reservation, and they’ll hold a service for her there.

The Madera County Sheriff’s Office said they know the cause of death but aren’t releasing it publicly because it’s something only the killer would know, and they don’t want to jeopardize the investigation.

As for leads, they would say there are several investigative avenues they’re approaching right now but need to keep them confidential. They ask anyone with information on the homicide of Christine Lester to call the Madera County Sheriff’s Office at 559-675-7770 and ask for Detective Luis Padgett.