Texas cemetery worker alerts police to connection between John Doe, Mississippi cold case
HARRISON COUNTY -- Chelsea Davidson spent weeks combing through missing persons databases to see if she could help solve the mystery behind the identity of a teenager struck and killed by a motorist and buried in Texas City, Texas, in 1973.
She is a family counselor at Hayes Grace Memorial Park in Hitchcock, a town about 20 miles away from Galveston. When she started working there, she learned about the boy, believed to be 17 or 18, who was buried in a small grave at the cemetery.
She learned about how the community came together when no one could identify him and donated the funeral service and the small grave where he is buried. The local grandmother's club raised the money for a headstone.
Like others before her, Davidson often wondered who the boy was and how his family must be hurting.
"It was really important to me to give this man a name and to let his mother know that though he hasn't been with you for 42 years, he has been cared for," Davidson said Monday. "His mother of all people deserves to know where her son is and to know he was cared for, that he always had flowers (on his grave), that he had a proper funeral and that he still has visitors even though he doesn't have a name."
Davidson was determined to find the identity, and she may have done just that.
Harrison County sheriff's Lt. Coley Judy said investigators hope to know soon whether the boy buried in Texas is James Norman Spears. At age 17, Spears disappeared after his escape from the Harrison County Youth Detention Center. He was being held there on charges out of Long Beach, which included a felony charge of assault on a police officer. When he escaped, he broke into a counselor's office and stole $130.
Kristi Johnson, a crime scene investigator, and Investigator Bill Scarbrough, both at the Harrison County Sheriff's Office, started taking a second look at Spears' disappearance after his sister called to get an update on the case.
Johnson entered Spears' information into the database for the National Missing and Unidentified Persons Systems in hopes of finding Spears for his family. In mid-December, Davidson called Johnson to say she thought she may have found him.
Davidson had come across Spears' information after weeks and hours of combing the Internet for missing or unidentified persons.
She first started searching the Doe Network, a website set up by a volunteer organization to help find the missing and identify the nameless.
Once she looked at each of those files, compiling any that might have similar characteristics, she noticed the link to NamUs and continued to hunt for a possible match for the boy in the cemetery.
She already had a description of the teen killed in Texas from newspaper accounts about the death and the subsequent search for his identity.
She knew the estimated height and weight but she focused on a description of circular scars on the dead teen's left wrist, likely from cigarette burns.
"Initially, we looked for just basic descriptions," she said.
Once she had gathered up a list of missing persons with some of the same characteristics, she started digging a little deeper.
She ruled out people based on their height, their weight and their race.
She knew the unknown teen in Texas had no tattoos, so she scratched any of the missing who did off the list.
She focused on the scars, and for weeks she scoured the sites for a match.
Then one day in mid December, she found information about Spears and thought she may have finally found a match.
Spears' height and weight matched that of the boy buried in Texas and both descriptions included shoulder length hair and mustache.
She compared the pictures and thought they were similar.
But what struck her the most was the description of the scars from cigarette burns on Spears left wrist.
Still, Davidson was little leery of calling authorities.
"I actually emailed all my coworkers to see if they agreed with me, so I knew I wasn't crazy," she said. They agreed.
Davidson picked up the phone and called Johnson, the contact listed on the NAMUS website where Spears was featured.
Soon, authorities in Texas were going before a judge to get the unidentified boy's body exhumed.
Last week, Davidson was there when officials lifted the boy's burial vault from its grave, the first step in the process of recovering his remains and collecting DNA samples to compare to DNA Johnson and Scarbrough worked with authorities in San Francisco, Calif., to obtain from Spears' brother and sister.
Now, the wait begins.
Harrison County authorities said it will take months before the DNA tests are completed.
Davidson said she's a little anxious, but very hopeful.
If it turns out to be Spears, Davidson said she'd like to tell the family she is sorry for their loss.
"Everyone here just wants people to know he was cared for," she said. "If it is him, we all here hope this brings the family some kind of peace and some kind of closure."
The Spears investigation is among 48 cold cases Harrison County authorities are looking into.
"Some of these like this one are 40-years-old," Judy said. "They still have families out there waiting to know what happened to their loved ones."
As for the lead in the Spears investigation, he said, "If we didn't put it (the information) in NAMUS, it would have never happened."