HARRISON COUNTY -- Harrison County cold case investigators are hoping DNA tests on an unidentified body exhumed in Texas will match that of a Harrison County teenager who has been missing for more than 40 years.
An employee of a Texas cemetery where the body has been buried since 1973 wanted to find out who the dead teenager was and started combing through old newspaper clippings about the teen's death.
When the worker compared a picture of the dead teen in Texas with a picture of 17-year-old Joseph "Joey" Norman Spears from the National Missing and Unidentified Persons Systems database, she thought she had found a match.
Soon, she was reaching out to Harrison County investigators.
"She called us," Harrison County Investigator Bill Scarbrough said Sunday. "She gave us some information on the teen that was buried there but was never identified. All of the physical features matched the description of Joey -- the hair, the weight and the timeline -- all matched."
The cemetery employee would have had no way of comparing pictures and characteristics of the two teens had it not been for Scarbrough and Harrison County Crime Scene Investigator Kristi
Johnson, who had listed Spears' information in NAMUS.
Johnson and Scarbrough had been working the cold case for two years after Spears' sister called to see if there was any new information on her brother's whereabouts. Her family had already done a little research of their own and learned Joey's social security number, name and birth date had not been used since his disappearance.
Spears had disappeared on July 31, 1973, after he escaped from the Harrison County Youth Detention Center. He had been held there on various charges from the Long Beach Police Department, including felony assault on a police officer.
Spears, Scarbrough said, had been very combative after his arrest, and it took several officers to restrain him. On the day of the escape, he said. Spears broke into a counselor's office at the youth jail, stole $130 and ran away.
Cold case, until . . .
No new leads in the case came until about a month ago when the curious cemetery worker called Scarbrough to find out if the dead teen in Texas could be Spears.
Harrison County investigators worked with authorities in California, where the Spears family now lives, to get the out-of-state agency to collect DNA samples from Spears' sister and brother.
Then, investigators worked with Texas authorities to get a court order to exhume the remains of the unidentified teen.
DNA testing under way
Now, the DNA collected from Spears' family and that of the dead teen is in the process of being tested for a comparison, and Spears' family is waiting on an answer.
"They understand nothing has been confirmed," Scarbrough said. "They are hopeful, but they are also realistic. They don't want to get involved in any press at this time."
In addition, Johnson said, Spears' mother is very fragile right now.
"She is very emotional about all of this," Johnson said. "Imagine wondering what happened to your son for 42 years."
John Doe's burial
The unidentified teen buried as a John Doe in Texas got a Christian burial, according to newspaper accounts in Galveston, Texas.
He died Aug. 23, 1973, after a vehicle struck him as he was crossing a freeway in Texas City, Texas. At the time of his death, he was wearing a pair of faded blue jeans with a white nylon rope holding them up. He wasn't wearing a shirt and had no form of identification.
Texas authorities tried to find out the name of the dead teen, featuring pictures of teenager along with a physical description in newspaper in hopes of identifying him, but that never happened.
For seven weeks, the teen's body sat in a Texas funeral home.
Then the cemetery and local church worked together to give the unknown teen a proper burial.
Six people volunteered to be pallbearers and 15 others attended the service along with two ministers. In the hours leading up to the funeral, an elderly woman arrived at the funeral home to sit with the body until the service.
A year later, reports show, a grandmother started working with local clubs to raise enough money for a headstone.
Never too late
"The main thing to take away from this is we still do not know if it was Joseph," Johnson said. "I've spent a lot of time working on Joey's case, and I wanted to find him to help his family. It's not the answer you want to hear that your loved one is deceased (if that's him), but they wouldn't have to wonder anymore. We are hopeful it is him, but we are waiting on those DNA results."
Johnson said she also hopes this serves as a reminder to others to pay attention to cold cases, because "it is possible to solve a case as old as 42 years."