How One Cemetery Employee Solved A 43-Year-Old Killing

Joseph Spears was identified 43 years after he died

Aug 17, 2016 at 9:40 AM ET

For 43 years, an unidentified body has been buried in Hayes Grace Memorial Park in Hitchcock, Texas. It belongs to a young man who was hit by a car and killed on August 23, 1973. He had dark blue eyes, long brown hair, and no identification. Despite a touched-up photo of his face appearing in the paper, no one came forward to identify him.

Eventually, the community of Texas City, where he died, raised enough money to pay for a funeral service, casket, grave, and headstone, and that’s where he stayed, in a grave marked “Unknown Youth“—until Hayes Grace employee Chelsea Davidson decided to find out who he was.

What couldn’t be done 43 years ago was achieved in 2016, thanks to Davidson’s persistence and an internet database of missing persons and unidentified bodies across the country. The National Missing and Unidentified Persons System—NamUs for short—is a publicly available and searchable listing of thousands of missing people and unidentified bodies. According to the Mississippi newspaper Sun Herald, Davidson spent weeks searching the internet looking for missing persons reports that matched her Unknown Youth’s physical description. She came across NamUs, and there was a 17-year-old named Joseph Spears, who had escaped from a youth detention center in Harrison County, Mississippi, in July 1973 and was never heard from again.

When Davidson came across Spears’ entry, with his long brown hair and blue eyes, she thought he might be a match. When she saw that he had cigarette burns on his wrist—just like her Unknown Teen—she called the Harrison County sheriff’s office and said she may have found Spears. The body was exhumed in February. On Monday, officials announced it had been positively identified as Spears.

Harrison County Sheriff’s Investigator Kristi Johnson told the Sun Herald that it was thanks to Davidson (“If every cemetery had an employee like Chelsea, we would be able to solve a lot more cases”) and NamUs that Spears’ family finally has closure.

“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 told the Sun Herald.

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These are the kinds of resolutions that prove just have valuable NamUs’s database is. But it’s a tool that often isn’t used, says Todd Matthews, NamUs’s director of case management and communications.

“Unless you need it, you don’t know about it,” he says, and that includes law enforcement and medical examiners. And if they don’t know to enter data into NamUs, then it isn’t there for people like Davidson to find. This is especially likely to happen to old missing persons reports like Spears, which tend to get lost in police filing cabinets if they were ever taken at all.

Fortunately, Spears’ sister kept in touch with the Harrison County sheriff’s office about her brother’s case, the Sun Herald reports, and he was entered into NamUs in 2013 (his case was also publicized on missing persons social media pages). Also a big help: The Harrison County Sheriff’s department received a grant from the Department of Justice so it could pay for overtime allowing deputies to investigate cold cases including Spears’ disappearance.

According to NamUs, 1,369 missing persons cases in its database (out of 11,161 closed cases) have been solved with the help of NamUs. NamUs has also helped to identify about a third of formerly unidentified bodies—779 out of 2,329.

So while Unknown Teen was finally identified, there are an estimated 40,000 other bodies in this country that are not—and only 11,096 of them are in NamUs right now. That’s because for most states, entering data into NamUs is strictly voluntary, and law enforcement officers and medical examiners don’t always have the knowledge, time, or desire to do so. There have been efforts make it a legal requirement to enter these cases into NamUs at a federal level, but those bills have stalled despite partisan support.

Right now, Matthew says, it’s up to states to pass these laws. New York recently signed its version of the bill into law, and Connecticut and California have similar requirements. Another version is slowly winding its way through Massachusetts bureaucracy (the sooner the better, since that state’s unidentified bodies listing has just five people, one of whom was identified years ago).

“It would be cool if every state established such policy,” Matthews says. “It’s just common sense.”