A dozen people watched as a front-end loader slowly lifted the muddy burial vault from a grave dug at the edge of a Hitchcock cemetery more than four decades ago. When it touched down on the green grass beside the pit, men went to work on the lid with chisels, their task to reveal the wooden casket of an unknown boy.
The boy in the wooden casket had gone to his grave unidentified and remains so, despite efforts by investigators to identify him. He was known to be a teenager who was struck and killed by a motorist on Interstate 45 in 1973. He was buried without a name.
About a year after the boy had died, Pearl Schultz, a sympathetic Texas City grandmother, led an initiative to purchase a grave marker memorializing the “Unknown Youth.” Below are the words: “Unknown But Not Forgotten.”
“Somewhere there is a mother searching for a son and wondering where he is,” a columnist wrote in The Daily Sun, a newspaper then serving Texas City, La Marque and Hitchcock, after a ceremony to dedicate the marker.
“Somewhere there are two grandmothers wondering where has their grandson disappeared. If only there was some way to locate the youth’s relatives.”
And perhaps after all these years, there is.
New information uncovered by an employee at Hayes Grace Memorial Park, where the boy was buried, leads investigators to believe the unknown youth could be a teenager who went missing from Mississippi three weeks before the fatal accident.
On Wednesday, officials from the county medical examiner’s office removed the boy from his casket and took the body to their office to retrieve a sample for DNA testing. The results could provide answers for a family that has been missing a son and brother for 42 years.
Authorities who investigated the death said the boy’s skin was smooth, but the soles of his feet showed he walked barefoot often. A white nylon rope was fastened around his waist as a belt for his sun-faded bluejeans. He wore no shoes nor shirt, and long brown hair touched the shoulders of his sun-tanned body. The boy, who was becoming a man, had grown long sideburns, a thin goatee and a wispy mustache.
In the early morning hours of Aug. 23, 1973, he darted onto Interstate 45, near the former Bayou Drive-in Theater in Texas City, and a motorist struck him.
Other than a small, circular scar on his left wrist, former Galveston County Chief Medical Examiner Dr. William Korndorffer found few features to distinguish him from other young men. The boy carried no identifying information; he had never been inked for a tattoo; his teeth were virtually perfect.
“Usually, dental work can be used to identify bodies, but in this case, there is no dental work to speak of,” Deputy Robert Williamson, who worked at the time in the Criminal Identification Bureau of the sheriff’s office, told a newspaper reporter one day after the accident. “We’ve sent out the youth’s fingerprints and description to various areas around the country. We’re waiting for returns now.”
For seven weeks, his unidentified body remained at the James Crowder Funeral Home in La Marque. Galveston County officials and newspapers circulated descriptions of the boy, whom Korndorffer estimated to be 17 or 18 years old. They said he measured 5-feet, 9-inches tall and weighed 150 pounds. He had blue eyes.
Investigators followed leads and found dead ends. They conceded their search nearly two months after the boy had died and instructed the funeral home to bury the body.
On the mid-October morning he was buried, an elderly woman sat with his body at the funeral home until the service. Six boys from the La Marque High School Key Club carried his casket. A Texas City flower shop donated seven floral pieces, including a casket spray, to adorn the plain grave. The headstone bearing the name “Unknown Youth” wouldn’t be donated until the next summer. Two clergymen conducted a Christian funeral service attended by community members.
“I just have a feeling, though, that his family will be found,” the cemetery owner told a newspaper reporter after the funeral.
“I expect in about two years that I will be moving the lad so he will be with those who know him and care about him. But it is touching that even though we did not know who he was, we cared.”
The silent mass disaster
The unnamed grave bothered Chelsea Davidson. The 25-year-old family counselor at Hayes Grace Memorial Park, who has worked at the cemetery for about four years, has watched staff members place flowers on the boy’s grave. He was memorialized like those buried alongside him, but it still saddened cemetery employees, Davidson said.
“If it were our child, we would at least want his mother to know someone has cared for him since 1973,” Davidson said. “Anybody who sees something like that will get personally attached.”
For several years, the thought of identifying the boy remained in the back of her mind. Davidson intensified her search last fall. She sifted through records at the cemetery to determine whether details had been overlooked and gathered newspaper clippings from the funeral home. Using stories printed after the boy’s death, Davidson began comparing his description to missing people in a relatively new national database.
The National Missing and Unidentified Persons System — a publicly searchable database commonly called NamUs — was launched by the U.S. Department of Justice in 2009. Experts considered the epidemic of missing persons and unidentified remains to be a silent mass disaster. Tens of thousands of people vanish under suspicious circumstances every year. On any given day, there are as many as 100,000 active missing-persons cases in the country, according to the Justice Department.
Additionally, state and local law enforcement agencies are challenged by unidentified bodies. While the Justice Department was creating NamUs, it estimated 40,000 sets of human remains unidentifiable through conventional methods were held in medical examiner’s offices across the country. Statistics showed medical examiners and coroners received 4,400 unidentified bodies in a typical year; about 1,000 remained unidentified after one year.
Further compounding the problem, only a few states had laws requiring law enforcement agencies to prepare missing-person reports for adults, according to the Justice Department. Cases of missing people 18 years old and younger must be reported. Overall, there was a low rate of reporting missing people through the National Crime Information Center, a database of information stored by the FBI to support other agencies. The idea behind NamUs was to improve reporting.
A name appears
Davidson cannot remember the number of profiles she clicked through on the online database. She looked for every teenage boy who went missing from the 1960s to early 1970s, and wrote the names of those who matched a general description: brown hair, blue eyes and 17 to 19 years old. After Davidson compared faces of the known missing teenagers and the unidentified boy, the list was narrowed to one name.
Davidson shared her research and the boy’s name with Kristi Johnson, who works for the Harrison County Sheriff’s Office in Gulfport, Miss. The evidence technician said she stopped everything at once and called the Galveston County Medical Examiner’s Office.
“Until she called us, we had never looked at this John Doe,” Johnson said. “If it turns out to be him, it’s going to be because of Chelsea’s interest.”
Joseph Norman Spears escaped from a juvenile detention center in Harrison County on July 31, 1973. Few details about the 17-year-old’s disappearance were available; authorities never caught Spears, and his family has not heard from him, officials said. If Spears is alive, he’s 59 years old.
In July 2013, a relative of Spears’ called Bill Scarbrough, an investigator in the Harrison County Sheriff’s Office. He helped the family create a profile on NamUs. Spears had shoulder-length brown hair, a thin mustache, blue eyes and circular scars on his left wrist, but the profile lists no other distinctive features. The profile does include photos taken of him near the time he went missing and an age-progression photo visualizing him as an adult.
Information was also submitted to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, because Spears was a minor when he went missing.
Relatives provided cheek swabs using a DNA test kit, which NamUs distributes free. Their samples were submitted to the Combined DNA Index System, a federal database operated at the University of North Texas Health Science Center in Fort Worth.
More than two years later, Davidson shared her discovery with the Harrison County Sheriff’s Office. When Johnson called the Galveston County Medical Examiner’s office, investigator John “D.J.” Florence was initially skeptical.
“We get a lot of these calls, and they don’t usually pan out,” Florence said. “Usually, I’m pessimistic about it.”
Still, Florence retrieved the unidentified boy’s autopsy information from the county’s storage facility. Investigators compared the timeline of Spears’ disappearance and his physical features with the boy killed in Texas City. There was a strong connection between the cases. Additionally, Spears’ mother looked at a photo of the unidentified boy. She believes it is her son, investigators said.
In January, officials presented the case to the 10th State District Court Judge Kerry Neves, who signed an order of disinterment, the legal document required to dig up a body in Texas. The decision is examined on a case-by-case basis, Neves said.
“You’ve got to look at the facts and make sure it’s not something frivolous,” Neves said. “You need to have something more than mere suspicion. It can’t be a fishing expedition.”
The body was exhumed, because DNA testing did not exist when the boy died, so authorities didn’t collect specimens from his body, Galveston County Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Erin Barnhart said. The science has advanced considerably since DNA testing was in its infancy during the 1980s, Barnhart said. Previously, testing required a large specimen. Now it can be done with a drop of blood or a hair follicle with the root attached, Barnhart said.
The body taken from the casket was in good condition to extract a specimen, but it could take up to eight months to receive results, Barnhart said.
As a 20-year-old apprentice, James Crowder Jr. helped embalm the body with his brother, Ron Crowder. After the body remained at his father’s funeral home during the unsuccessful search, Crowder attended the funeral. He remembers community members crying and showing concern over the boy’s plight. On Wednesday, Crowder helped remove the boy from his grave.
Crowder recalled burying the boy with the expectation his body would be exhumed. No one predicted it would occur more than 40 years later, he said.
“We hope he will be identified and have a family,” Crowder said. “What’s incredible is there are people out there who are still missing. We shouldn’t ever forget any of those people.”