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Neosho Daily News - Neosho, MO
  • McDonald County detective pieces together cold case

  • Her name is Grace.



    Or at least that’s what McDonald County Sheriff’s Detective Lori Howard calls her — the Jane Doe whose skeletal remains were discovered more than 20 years ago near an abandoned farmhouse in McDonald County.


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  • Her name is Grace.
    Or at least that’s what McDonald County Sheriff’s Detective Lori Howard calls her — the Jane Doe whose skeletal remains were discovered more than 20 years ago near an abandoned farmhouse in McDonald County.
    Who murdered Grace or even how she died remains an unsolved mystery. But Howard believes the truth is out there — somewhere. That’s why three years ago she took it up herself to reopen the cold case file, which she continues to work in her personal time. Now it has caught the interest of producers of the “America’s Most Wanted” television program. And Howard is allowing herself to hope.
    She named her unidentified victim “Grace” after people told her it would only be by the grace of God that she ever finds out who the dead woman was.
    “So she became ‘Grace,’” Howard told the Daily. “I quickly became connected to this girl and began spending all of my time after work doing this.”
    MURDER VICTIM WAS ‘HOGTIED’
    Grace’s badly decomposed body was discovered on Dec. 2, 1990, in some weeds beside an abandoned house on Oscar Talley Road, between Anderson and Pineville. But Howard believes she was probably killed in October — possibly even Halloween night, to be exact. By the time the remains were found and reported, about a month later, there wasn’t much left but a partially scattered skeleton, some hair and some leg tissue. Based on the anthropologist report, Howard knows the victim was probably in her mid-to-late 20s, stood between 5-foot-1 and 5-foot-4 and was of a slender build.
    At the time of her murder, Grace was also hogtied with six different types of material: Nylon rope, lead rope, coaxial cable, telephone cable, parachute cord and clothesline. Because of the way she was bound, both hands behind the back and tied to one leg and a shoelace, Howard feels that Grace was also raped before she died.
    “I believe the bindings are basically the key to solving this,” Howard said. “It was complete overkill. Even if the murderer’s intent was to bind her as a result of sexual gratification, it does not fit that type of a binding case. It was overkill.”
    Howard said she can’t explain why Grace was tied with so many different types of material but speculates that she might have been held captive for some time before her death. In that scenario, the killer may have secured her with an extra binding each time he checked on her, Howard guesses.
    WITNESS TO MURDER?
    According to Howard, Grace was transported to the abandoned house on Oscar Talley Road, murdered there and dumped in the tall weeds near the house’s carport. The house has since been demolished, Howard said.
    Page 2 of 4 - How Grace was murdered isn’t entirely certain. There were no bullets or knife or bludgeon marks ever found. It points to either strangulation or suffocation.
    “The best suggestion is going to be strangulation, based on the fact that the bindings were so prevalent,” Howard said.
    And she has a witness. Or at least as close to one as she can get right now. A woman has come forward who believes she may have actually heard Grace cry out just before she was murdered. On Halloween night, 1990, the witness was a teenager. She had gathered with a group of other young people at a home just down the road from the murder scene. They were preparing to leave for a Halloween party when they heard “an old truck” with a loud muffler roar down the road past the house. The teenagers came out to investigate. In the darkness, they heard two vehicle doors open. And then they heard a woman scream.
    “They thought kids were playing,” Howard explained. “They yelled back up the road there, thinking it was just other kids doing things during Halloween. They heard another door slam and the truck drove off.”
    That witness account was not in any of the reports. It was given directly to Howard only after she began working on the old case.
    WHO WAS GRACE?
    Howard does not believe the unknown murdered woman was local. She has a “hunch” she may have been from the South but no real evidence to prove it. Whoever the victim was, tracked down dental records reveal she had had extensive dental work performed before her death. It consisted of things like braces, straightening and overbite corrections. Tellingly, certain teeth had been surgically removed to allow for the normal growth of other adult teeth, something that typically would have been done when the victim was a teenager or even before, Howard said.
    “Somebody cared about her, that’s what is astonishing to me,” Howard said. “Somebody spent thousands of dollars on this girl’s dental work.”
    Unfortunately, Grace’s remains are now missing. Their last known location was the medical examiner’s office in Columbia, Mo. Howard said she has interviewed the medical examiner “at length” but the skull and other bones appear to have been lost. According to Howard, there is no indication they were ever returned to McDonald County.
    Any DNA link at all would have been impossible except that Howard stumbled upon a fingernail among lab work that had never even been opened. In 1990, she explained, the crime lab wasn’t focused on DNA, but blood type, which wouldn’t have been that helpful in the case anyway. The fingernail was sent off to the University of North Texas Health Science Center, which had previously declined to help because of the lack of remains. From that fingernail, mitochondrial DNA has been established.
    Page 3 of 4 - “It’s parentage DNA is what it is,” Howard explained. “That is in the system now for Grace.”
    This means her parents can be verified, should they ever be located.
    Another important link in establishing Grace’s identity is an unknown person who may have stumbled across the victim’s body not long after she was murdered. Through people connected to the case, Howard learned that a 10-year-old boy had found Grace only days after Halloween — a month before she was “officially” discovered and had already decomposed to a large extent. The boy reportedly told his parents about seeing a woman’s body near the abandoned house he played in but they didn’t believe him. It was only after media reports came out on the murdered Jane Doe that the parents realized their mistake and came forward about their son’s early discovery. The 10-year-old, who would now be in his early 30s, is the only known person to have seen Grace’s body intact. Frustratingly, neither the boy’s name nor that of his parents was ever recorded.
    “Nobody can remember who these people were,” Howard said. “They were not people who had lived in the county a long time. The boy’s parents worked at one of the local chicken factories. That’s about it.”
    WHO MURDERED GRACE?
    There was never any suspect in the unsolved murder case. But Howard is confident that Grace’s murderer was local, even if his victim wasn’t, and that he may still be around.
    Nobody, Howard reasons, would drive down that particular country road with someone they intended to murder, or with someone they had already murdered and planned on dumping off, without first being being certain they could drive back out.
    “You’re not going to want to go down a road that you don’t know,” she said. “It could dead end. If you’re going to dump a body somewhere, you’re going to want to get back out there. Also, nobody lived at the house where the body was found. Somebody had to know that house was abandoned.”
    In the course of her investigation, Howard turned up a missing page from the original crime lab report in 1990. It noted that a single blonde hair had been discovered on the victim. Grace’s hair was auburn. Because of where the lone hair was found, which Howard asked not be revealed publicly, she believes it belonged to the killer. Howard has located the hair. Regrettably, it has decomposed to such an extent that no DNA evidence is extractable.
    But Howard isn’t giving up on justice.
    “If I could identify Grace, I think I could find a suspect,” she said. “My goal is to identify Grace.”
    Page 4 of 4 - HOPE FOR GRACE
    Howard reopened the cold case after years of hearing local people ask about the unsolved murder and if there were any new leads. Howard herself wasn’t at the sheriff’s office in 1990.
    “Finally, one day I said ‘OK, who is this girl? What’s going on?’” Howard related.
    She began by interviewing one of the two people who had found the victim’s body that December in 1990 as she and her husband were out collecting discarded cans for their church. That woman is now a sheriff’s deputy, but wasn’t at the time.
    “I started with nothing, not even a single piece of paper,” Howard said. “All I had was that interview.”
    As Howard dug deeper, she said she begin to feel a connection with the missing woman. She said she received encouraging support from then-sheriff Don Schlessman, who told her she could work on the case during her off-hours. For three years now, that’s just what she has done, logging in hundreds of road miles and man hours, trying to piece the puzzle together.
    She has pushed to have the case featured on America’s Most Wanted. It is already on that program’s website, but has never been aired. Recently, however, she was contacted by one of the assistant producers who told her that if there any more new developments in the case at all he would try to get it featured on television.
    “I really have a lot of faith they will,” Howard said.
    In the meantime, she will continue her hunt for the truth. And for Grace. Through the grace of God.
    “I’m not giving up,” Howard said. “I’ve been doing this for three years. I completely intend to keep trying — until I can’t try anymore.”
    * * *
    Anyone with any information about this case is encouraged to please call Detective Lori Howard at 223-7430.
     
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