Skeletal remains found in an Alabama cornfield by a group of hunters more than 41 years ago left investigators stumped — until a recent “miracle” that helped them link the victim to a husband-and-wife pair of serial killers, authorities said.
The remains were found on Nov. 28, 1976, mostly intact, along with a partial dental plate, Mobile County Sheriff’s Office Detective J.T. Thornton told WKRG.
“The skull of the female indicated pre-existing injuries from traffic collisions,” Thornton told the station last week.
Authorities then shipped the remains to a laboratory in Oklahoma, where the skull was used to reconstruct images of the victim. But the investigation went cold after the images were publicly released and gave them no new leads.
But some eight months earlier, unbeknownst to the hunters and authorities in Alabama, a mother of three named Mary Ann Perez, 33, had disappeared, with her car found outside a bar near her home in Chalmette, Louisiana, WKRG reports.
But since communication between law enforcement agencies was far more sporadic and infrequent during the 1970s than what’s customary today, investigators in both states never made a link between the remains and Perez’s disappearance. That is, until police caught a recent development from evidence from a husband-and-wife serial killing duo, persistence and a little luck, according to the station.
Detectives in the case got their first break in 1980 when a drifter named David Courtney was arrested in Kansas, where he admitted that he and his wife, Donna, had killed five women in several states.
“All the bodies he had presented in different locations had been located,” Thornton said. “The last one he presented, they hadn’t found her. So that was questionable at that time.”
Despite Courtney’s confession, Perez’s body was never found, leading some of her relatives to hold out hope she’d eventually be found alive. Neither David nor Donna Courtney were charged in her death, and investigators missed the connection for another 35 years until Thornton was recently working another unidentified body found in Mobile County.
“I actually went to investigate another Jane Doe that was found in ’76,” he said. “And behind her, I found Jane Doe x2. So I thought there might be some correlation, so I started investigating and found there was no correlation.”
Thornton then continued digging in the cold case, eventually leading to a detective in Harrison County, Mississippi, who remembered Perez’s disappearance. Thornton felt confident enough about the possible link to visit Perez’s husband and children in New Orleans, WKRG reports.
“They advised me that she had been in a traffic accident, Mary Ann Perez had, that she had a partial dental plate, and they presented me with the demographics of her and I thought that’s almost a perfect match,” Thornton told the station.
DNA testing would prove to be yet another challenge in the case, as the location of Perez’s remains had become a mystery decades after her demise.
“It was actually a miracle,” said Thornton. “The state attorney general’s office sent an investigator down here, who also works cold cases. So when he comes in, he’s like, ‘Do you know anything about this case?’ And I said I do and I’ve been hunting for the remains. And he’s like, ‘We’ve been looking for the case that goes with the remains.’”
The remains, which had been warehoused in Oklahoma, are now being tested at a lab in Texas. Results are expected back within weeks and investigators believe it will match the body to Perez, ending a decades-long mystery.
“That goes to show that no matter the time length, these cases can be solved,” Thornton told the station.
Perez’s case had been featured on an episode of “Unsolved Mysteries” that featured how one of Perez’s relatives received an anonymous phone call from a woman who claimed she was alive but being held captive, the Advocate reported.
Perez’s son, Byron, told the newspaper in December that his relatives had been notified of the potential identification of his mother’s remains. But the family was still awaiting final confirmation from a DNA test, he said.
David Courtney, meanwhile, continues to serve a life sentence in Kansas. Donna Courtney died after being paroled in 1990.
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