Murder Mystery

Woman’s body finally identified: Questions still dog detectives

Detectives say that Tia Payne (left) is the woman found two years ago near Young. At right is an artist’s sketch based on her remains released in 2011.

Detectives say that Tia Payne (left) is the woman found two years ago near Young. At right is an artist’s sketch based on her remains released in 2011.

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After two years of wondering, authorities now know the identity of a young woman found murdered off the Young Road.

Her name is Tia Payne, a 19-year-old model from the Valley and a member of the Yavapai-Apache Nation.

Who killed her and why remains a mystery.

Gila County Sheriff’s Detective George Ratliff is unraveling how Payne ended up in the forest 2.5 miles off Highway 260, miles from home and unreported for months.

Ratliff believes someone dumped her body in the forest, just 80 feet off Forest Road 512, near several young saplings, sometime after Sept. 30, 2009. He figures her body couldn’t have been there before that date because a forest fire in the area would have damaged the body.

A hunter found the body in late July of 2010 while out walking his dog.

No one reported Payne missing for months after deputies found the body and no one made the connection to the missing person’s report at the time.

“Sometime after we found her she was reported missing,” he said.

Ratliff believes someone murdered Payne due to evidence of strangulation and blunt force head trauma.

Authorities found some of Payne’s personal effects, including a backpack and ID, in a wash near Tonopah, Ariz., west of Phoenix.

Officials determined Payne’s identity earlier this year using the Combined DNA Index System (CODIS). The database stores DNA profiles entered by crime laboratories for the identification of suspects or victims of crimes.

DNA information from Payne’s body matched DNA samples the Phoenix Police Department had taken from her mother and father.

Ratliff says he has some leads on the case, but is not yet ready to make an arrest.

Diana Bonnaha, Payne’s mother, said she had not seen her daughter for many years, since Tia lived with her father.

“We had spoken for a brief time and I had hopes that we could reconcile,” she wrote. “I have been trying to find answers and it pains me to know all this time she was up in Payson with no identity.”

Bonnaha said she was planning to purchase a headstone for Payne’s grave and was trying to find some closure “although I don’t think it will come until this case is solved.”

Bonnaha added she loved her daughter dearly “even though I was not in her life” and she was well loved by her father and friends. She described Payne as beautiful person and a gifted poet.

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