DNA & new search tool put a name to 23-year-old cold case

jennifer.arnold@shj.comAugust 8, 2013 

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— She sometimes disappeared for days in Gaston County, N.C.

It was the nature of her transient lifestyle. There were drugs, and prostitution arrests, and 23 years ago, when she was 32 years old, the mother of two may have gotten into a car at U.S. 321 and Interstate 85.

Authorities say she was likely stabbed to death and her body dumped alongside Davis Chapel Road in Spartanburg County, near I-85. A resident walking a dog found her skeletal remains a month after she was reported missing in Gaston County in July 1990. The skeleton was missing its head, feet and one hand, making it difficult to find out who she was.

Her bones would be stored in an evidence room at the Spartanburg County Coroner’s Office for more than two decades as investigators struggled to identify her. A Spartanburg County Sheriff’s Office investigator even mailed letters to orthopedic doctors in several states, hoping to generate a lead and identify the mystery woman. A forensic anthropologist who studied the remains determined that the woman had Bertolotti’s syndrome, a condition associated with chronic back pain.

On Thursday, Spartanburg County Coroner Rusty Clevenger announced that his office had identified their victim as Madelyn Cox Thomas.

During a press conference at his office and flanked by Sheriff Chuck Wright, Spartanburg and Gaston County Police investigators, Clevenger gave a timeline for identifying Thomas.

In 2007, Thomas’ mother was swabbed for DNA and the profile entered to the national database, NamUS, in hopes that it would be a match for unidentified remains in San Bernadino, Calif. The lead didn’t pan out.

In 2009, DNA from the remains found in Spartanburg County generated a profile, but it wasn’t enough to be entered into NamUs.

But Spartanburg County Coroner Rusty Clevenger and his team of investigators kept pushing, as DNA technology continued to improve. In April, a more complete DNA profile, strong enough to be entered into NamUs, was generated.

NamUs found a match, between Mary Wieson, the woman swabbed for DNA in Texas in 2007, and the unidentified remains found in Spartanburg County 23 years ago. After many prayers and intensive investigation, Clevenger said, his office made its positive identification.

“Without NamUs, our chances of identifying her would have been greatly diminished,” Clevenger said.

NamUs is an online system that can be searched by medical examiners, coroners, law enforcement officials and the public to solve missing persons or unidentified remains cases, made available through the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Justice Programs. Identifying Thomas, who was declared legally dead in 1998, is only the first step. Now authorities are tasked with finding out exactly what happened to Thomas, and who is responsible.

“Our case died due to a lack of leads,” said Capt. Jay Human of Gaston County Police. “We didn’t have a whole lot to go on. Her husband (who reported her missing) died 8 years after the report was filed.”

The Spartanburg County Sheriff’s Office and Gaston County Police will be working together to solve the case now that the identification has been made, Sheriff Chuck Wright said. “We can’t establish whether she was murdered in North Carolina or South Carolina, and we don’t care,” Wright said. “We’re going to work on this together.”

Clevenger urges families who may have a missing person to go to law enforcement and be swabbed for DNA that can be entered into NamUs. A match can help solve a crime, or bring closure to a family whose loved one disappeared.

Spartanburg County Coroner’s Office investigator Teri Carter traveled to Pennsylvania to notify Thomas’ children that their mother’s remains had been identified.

“It was welcome news to them,” Clevenger said.

Cordellia Yokum, 34, had just turned 10 when her mother, Thomas, disappeared. She and her brother lived in foster care until they became adults, but Yokum has never forgotten about her mother, and is thankful that some investigators didn’t, either.

“I can’t thank Rusty Clevenger enough,” Yokum said Thursday night. “He was tenacious with this. My family has mourned this loss for 23 years. The details of this are horrific and I wouldn’t wish this on anyone.”

Yokum said she knows there are other women living like her mother did, and who died and become lost, their identities unknown. She hopes that investigators will remember that these women are people, too.

“My mother made questionable decisions, but everyone has,” Yokum said. “People see ‘prostitute’ or ‘drug dealer’ in a headline, but she was a person to those of us who loved her. Her eyes lit up every time she saw her children. She would cut out cartoons and keep them, so she could see our smiles when she got to show them to us. It’s really been hard on all of us.”

Anyone with information about the case may call CrimeStoppers at 1-888-CRIMESC.

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