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Testing helps narrow search to ID woman found last fall

OBSERVER file photo by M.J. Stafford First responders are pictured in September 2021 in the town of Portland.

More than a dozen people have been ruled out as matches to human remains found last fall in northern Chautauqua County.

Using NamUs, the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System, and working with other police agencies, local investigators have been able to narrow their broad search in attempts to identify a woman discovered by hikers in the town of Portland. The skeletal remains were found not far from another body later determined to be a Buffalo woman who had been reported missing.

Lt. Alex Nutt in the Criminal Investigation Division with the county Sheriff’s Office said about 19 to 20 people to date have been ruled out as a match for the still unidentified woman. He said the majority involved missing person cases in Western New York.

“We’ve had family members of missing persons come forward,” Nutt said. “Families call us, and what’s helpful is we can go to NamUs and look at the dental records.”

Forensic odontologists use dental records from the remains to compare them with open cases both locally and outside the region. DNA from the remains also has been entered into national databases.

Early on in the investigation, police were able to rule out Lori Ceci Bova and Corrie Anderson as the victim. Bova, a resident of Lakewood, was last seen in June 1997 when she was 26 years old; Anderson, a resident of Busti, went missing at the age of 36 in October 2008.

Through testing, police believe the woman discovered Sept. 26, 2021, in Portland was 15 to 35 years old and between 4 feet, 11 inches and 5 feet, 7 inches tall. The remains were found buried in a shallow grave near a trail on Woleben Road. The following day, the body of Marquita Mull of Buffalo was discovered.

Testing conducted by the Applied Forensic Sciences Department at Mercyhurst University in Erie, Pa., estimates the skeletal remains had been at the site for at least a decade. A shirt worn by the victim and recovered at the scene, believed to have been sold in the early ’90s, has helped police establish a potential timeline for how long the body may have been buried.

“Any time you have a timeline that lets you include potential victims or excludes missing persons can be very helpful,” Nutt said.

But, as Nutt pointed out, the number of missing person cases is voluminous.

A search of NamUs’ missing persons database returns 8,856 people who were last seen or heard from in the United States between Jan. 1, 1990, and Dec. 31, 2011. Of those, 3,266 are cases involving women, of which 146 are women with connections to New York state.

In Chautauqua County, two women were reported missing between 1990 and 2011 — Bova and Anderson.

A name that had cropped up locally as a possible match early on was Patricia Laemmerhirt. The Westfield woman was 27 years old when she was reported missing by her husband in April 1976. Even without dental records to compare, the shirt worn by the victim found in Portland likely rules out that it’s Laemmerhirt.

Nutt said NamUs is an extremely useful tool for investigators.

“You go in there, refine your search of missing persons in the counties and areas of the state,” he said. “You can check here, in Erie County, but certainly she can be from anywhere in the country or even in the world.”

Testing of the remains found in Portland has not yet determined the victim’s race or ethnicity, Nutt said.

In a news release this week, the Sheriff’s Office released updated information on the case. The department also released four images of the shirt worn by the female — a striped size 18/20 shirt by Jacque & KoKo.

“The Chautauqua County Sheriff’s Office is looking for anyone who can recognize the clothing or has any knowledge of a missing person who might have been wearing this clothing,” the department said in its news release.

Still uncertain is whether Mull’s discovery is in anyway connected to the other body left near the trail. Mull was last seen June 25, 2021, in Erie County and was reported missing to Buffalo authorities the following month.

Because Mull was a resident of Erie County, the Sheriff’s Office this week said it’s possible the “unidentified person may also be from the Erie County area in New York.”

NamUs has 10 missing person cases involving women in Erie County with last contact coming between January 1990 and December 2011.

“We are still working with (the) Buffalo Police Department,” Nutt said of the case and discovery of Mull’s body. “We are working very hard trying to identify these sets of remains, hoping to make some progress. There could be some developments soon.”

Anyone with information on Mull’s disappearance or the unidentified woman is asked to call investigator Jacob Stahley of the Sheriff’s Office at 716-753-4973 or send an email to UnsolvedChautauqua@sheriff.us.

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