Harrison County

Harrison County teen missing for 43 years finally identified

Texas cemetery worker alerts police to connection between John Doe, Mississippi cold case

Harrison County Sheriff's Investigator Bill Scarbrough explains in this February 2016 interview how a 43-year-old cold case is close to a possible resolution.
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Harrison County Sheriff's Investigator Bill Scarbrough explains in this February 2016 interview how a 43-year-old cold case is close to a possible resolution.

A Harrison County resident missing for 43 years has been positively identified as the unidentified teen killed in Texas City, Texas, in 1973.

Mary Raskin, mother of missing teen Joseph “Joey” Norman Spears, ended up looking at pictures of her son’s body to positively identify him, Harrison County Sheriff’s Investigator Kristi Johnson said Monday.

Officials with the Galveston medical examiner’s office were unable to get a proper DNA sample from Spears’ body to confirm the identity, Johnson said. Instead, they called on Harrison County cold case investigators to provide all the facts they had on the case for comparison to the evidence Texas officials had on hand.

Mary Raskin, Spears’ mother, identified her son.

“I have mixed emotions,” Johnson said after learning the news. “I am relieved the case is solved but I know it’s not the outcome Mrs. Raskin was hoping for. I’m sad for her but I’m glad she is getting the answers she was searching for for 43 years. The family has shared their appreciation for us working on this.”

Officials in Texas had hoped to be able to find a viable DNA sample from the unidentified body exhumed in February in Texas to see if it matched Spears.

At age 17, Spears escaped from the Harrison County Youth Detention Center. The date of the escape was July 31, 1973, and Spears’ family had never heard from since then.

Searching for an ID

Harrison County authorities who worked on the case, including Investigator Bill Scarbrough, are thankful a cemetery worker where the body was buried cared enough to try to figure out who he was.

The quest began shortly after Chelsea Davidson, an employee of Hayes Grace Memorial Park in Hitchcock, Texas, a town about 20 miles from Galveston, started trying to find the identity of the unidentified teen buried there since 1973.

As it turns out, Spears, 17, died Aug. 23, 1973, after a vehicle hit him as he was crossing a freeway in Texas City. 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.

Davidson told the Sun Herald she became interested when she started combing through newspaper clippings and learned how the Texas City community had come together and donated a funeral service, a casket and a small grave at the cemetery.

Davidson wanted to identified the unidentified teen in Texas so his family would know what happened to him.

She spent weeks and countless hours combing through missing persons databases and stories about missing person before she found information on Spears in the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System (NamUs).

Johnson had entered Spears’ information into NamUs as part of an ongoing cold case investigation. She and Scarbrough launched the investigation after Spears’ sister called to get an update on the investigation into her brother’s disappearance.

A possible match

In December, Davidson called Johnson to tell her she thought she found Spears, and the investigators started moving forward at a rapid pace.

Soon after Davidson’s call, Texas authorities went before a judge to get the body exhumed.

Davidson felt certain she had found a match in Spears because he had the same height and weight and shoulder-length hairs as the unidentified teen. Plus they looked alike, though that wasn’t enough for her to alert authorities at first.

She called Harrison County investigators to report her suspicions after she realized Spears had a scar from cigarette burns on his wrist that matched those found on the Texas body.

David John Florence, chief investigator at the Galveston County Medical Examiner’s Office, said the body was in great shape because the sealed vault the body was in at the grave site didn’t leak and preserved the body really well.

“With a little makeup, you could have done another viewing,” Florence said said earlier this year. “He was really in perfect shape.”

Investigator offers thanks

Johnson offered her thanks to Davidson for going to great lengths to help a family find a missing loved one.

“I just think it’s amazing that she had the courage to look into the unidentified remains to possibly find out who it was,” Johnson said. “Still, there are a lot of unidentified remains all over the country. If every cemetery had an employee like Chelsea, we would be able to solve a lot more cases.”

The body was released Friday to a funeral home in Texas for cremation, then the remains are being sent to his family in California, Johnson said.

Johnson credited Davidson and others, including the Galveston County Medical Examiner’s Office, for all of the work put into the case to solve it.

She also credited NamUs, because without that information available online for Davidson to view, Spears’ identity and location might have remained a mystery for years to come.

With that said, she added, “a 43-year-old cold cases can be solved if people just give the time and effort to help.”

Margaret Baker: 228-896-0538, @Margar45

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