The body was discovered in Moss Point, Jackson County, Mississippi. According to witnesses, a baby was seen near the area with an adult female, possibly her mother, about two days before the discovery, on Mississippi State Highway 63 as well as National Interstate 10, near the border of Alabama. It is believed that this baby might be the victim later found in the river. The woman was carrying the child and walking above a bridge between midnight and one o'clock in the morning two days previously, reportedly distressed but refusing help from passing vehicles.
Within two days after these sightings, a man called police to report the discovery of a body in the river, clothed in a blue plaid shirt, lying face-down, at about 7:00 AM on December 5, 1982. This body is now presumed to be that of the adult woman. Authorities responded to the scene, located along Interstate 10, but instead came across the child's body. The sheriff who found Delta Dawn initially mistook her for his daughter, who was later found to be alive and well at his residence. Authorities immediately believed that the girl had been thrown from the bridge to the area where her body was found, as it was blocked by weeds and it was unlikely that the girl's body had drifted to the location.
The woman's corpse was never found, and she has never been located alive, if the body seen was not hers. At the time of Delta Dawn's discovery, the river bottom in the vicinity where it was seen was dragged in hopes of finding the remains, which was unsuccessful. Searches were also conducted with helicopters and boats. On December 9, the skeletal remains of an African-American man, aged eighteen to twenty-two were found, sixty yards away, by one of the search teams. He also remains unidentified, but is not likely connected to the case.
An autopsy performed on Delta Dawn's body concluded that she had been alive when she entered the water and had been intentionally deposited into the river. Evidence in her lungs indicated that she drowned, although someone had attempted to smother her before she entered the river. It was concluded that the official cause of her death was inhaling the water upon impacting its surface.
Delta Dawn was a healthy toddler between the ages of one and two years old, most likely eighteen months. Twelve of her teeth had erupted at the time of her death, which influenced the age estimation. The girl was Caucasian with curly strawberry-blond hair. Because of the amount of time she was in the water, approximately thirty-six to forty-eight hours, her eyes had clouded to the point where estimating the exact color was very difficult, but it was believed that they were either blue or brown. Despite the elemental damage to the eyes, her face was described as in a "recognizable" condition. She was around two feet six inches and weighed around twenty-five pounds. The girl wore a pink and white checkered dress or shirt, decorated with three flowers on its front, along with a diaper.
Extensive searches have been conducted to find the body of the woman reported to the police, but these have been fruitless. Several scenarios have been conceived, some asserting that the woman seen with the baby was her mother, who had caused the victim's death and subsequently committed suicide. An earlier report, of a woman who told sheriff's deputies that she had "given away" her child to a group of men, was originally connected to the case by the investigating officers; it was later determined that the subject requesting assistance had a male child. Newspapers later published the stories throughout the country and featured pictures of the child, but were unsuccessful with ascertaining her identity through this technique.
The victim was adopted posthumously by a police officer and his wife, who funded the victim's funeral and burial. The officer's wife coined the victim's nickname. She is buried in the Jackson County Cemetery after an hourlong service. The means of paying for the ceremony were donated by local businesses and their employees. In 2007, a graveside memorial service was conducted in memory of the victim.
Since her discovery, the girl was reconstructed forensically in efforts to identify her through facial recognition. The National Center for Missing & Exploited Children has released two illustrations and other artists have produced their own renderings.