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Expanding the search

County team works to end mystery of unidentified bodies

ABOVE: Youngstown police detective Jerry Fulmer is along the south bank of the Mahoning River near the Covelli Centre, showing the area across the river where the body of a man was found June 29, 1980, just east of the Market Street bridge. Fulmer and others are trying to determine the identity of the man and other bodies found over the decades.

YOUNGSTOWN — Detective Dave Sweeney of the Youngstown Police Department, who has been working on missing-persons cases for a couple years, couldn’t help but expand his search a couple of months ago to a new area — unidentified bodies.

As part of his work, he and Theresa Gaetano, an investigator with the Mahoning County Coroner’s Office, identified a Youngstown case from 1980 and one from 1995 in which the identity of a person found dead was never established.

They released information on the cases, which led to a positive result: Someone contacted Gaetano and said they may know something about the woman whose body was found in a Wirt Street apartment in October 1995.

After several weeks of additional work, Sweeney and Gaetano have reached a point where they believe the body is that of America Williams, 30, who was traveling around between Ravenna, Kent and Youngstown in those days.

Her mother, Linda Williams of Youngstown, later reported her missing but told a police officer she believed her daughter was still alive. Linda Williams has since died.

The information Sweeney and Gaetano released last month was that the body was found in the former Westlake Terrace apartments after an apartment employee noticed the front door partly open.

The body was on the couch. It was a woman 30 to 40 years old, 5-foot-3 and about 110 pounds, and she had been deceased a while because the remains were skeletonized. Drug paraphernalia was found on the body. The woman’s hair was brown or black and collar length, straight and fine.

The clothing on the body was Levi 5 pocket jeans and a short sleeved shirt with “Golden Age Games, Sanford, Fla.” written in yellow on the front and “Post Natural Bran Flakes” in yellow letters on the back.

Also there was a long-sleeved button up cardigan style sweater with blue and gray stripe / swirl designs, a halter-style sports bra with multicolored, swirl design. The shoes were Nike Air high-top athletic shoes size 8.

A person called Gaetano and said, “‘Hey, my friend, America Williams, is missing,'” Sweeney said. That led to interviews with the people close to Williams and collection of DNA from a blood relative that Sweeney hoped could be matched with the remains, but there wasn’t sufficient DNA on the remains.

Gaetano said the next hope was for dental or X-ray images to be compared with the the teeth of the victim recovered from 111 Wirt St.

“If we had dental records, we could identify her, but I don’t even know how long dental records are stored for or where we would even start to look because this person would travel,” Gaetano said.

“She lived in Ravenna for a while, then in Kent and sometimes in Youngstown, so she was all over the place. I am going to try to reach out to some of the local hospitals that the family reported that she had been to and see if they have any imaging” from X-rays, she said.

YES OR NO?

Gaetano and Sweeney said they think body is that of America Williams.

“We have a good inkling but nothing to say yes this is her or no,” Gaetano said.

Sweeney calls it a “high probability” that the Wirt Street body is that of Williams. “But certainty is a must,” in this type of work, Sweeney said. He hopes further news coverage of the case might prompt someone to remember something about Williams or unearth a photograph of her that could tie the clothing from Wirt Street to Williams.

Gaetano says investigating old unidentified-body cases is difficult because she and Sweeney don’t have a lot to work with. In addition to the Wirt Street case, she and Sweeney are also looking into ones from 1976, 1980 and 1982.

“Back then, things were so different. We’re going off of handwritten notes and blurry Polaroid photos,” she said of images in the files of the police department and coroner’s office.

“They would take like one picture, and that was it,” Gaetano said. “We’re trying to do what we can with very little.”

Still, the Wirt Street case gives her hope.

“So the one from 1995 is definitely exciting to have somebody who says, ‘I think this is who this is’ and to kind of put the pieces together. I mean the family is obviously very grateful once it is determined, so it’s definitely exciting.”

Sweeney said handwritten reports may explain why America Williams was not on any missing persons list when her friend contacted Gaetano recently to report that she might be the person from Wirt Street. The America Williams missing persons report may have never been transferred to a searchable, digital database, Sweeney said.

Sweeney and Gaetano believe that the best way to publicize an unidentified body case like the one from Wirt Street is to provide the public with information about all of the current unidentified body cases.

Sweeney looked up all of the ones he could find in Mahoning County and found one more in Youngstown, one in Smith Township near Sebring and one along Western Reserve Road in either Boardman or Beaver Township.

MAHONING RIVER CASE

Gaetano, Sweeney and fellow detective Jerry Fulmer are continuing to investigate the additional Youngstown case, which involves the body of a male along the north bank of the Mahoning River just east of the Market Street bridge in June 29, 1980.

Mahoning County coroner’s investigator Armaund Casanta told The Vindicator in 1980 that the body had been in the water several days.

Clothing on the body was a green, long-sleeved, button-down shirt and brown pants, silk socks and brown, buckled shoes.

The man’s pants and underwear were down around his thighs and ankles, but investigators at the time said that could have been because of the “action of the water” in the river, Casanta said. It did not appear the victim had been the victim of foul play or sexual assault, Casanta told the newspaper.

Investigators believed the man entered the river west of the Market Street bridge and was carried downstream by the current.

The body became lodged on some rocks and was visible from the railroad tracks along the south side of the river and from the south end of the bridge above. The day the body was retrieved from the river, people gathered on the bridge to watch.

The man was believed to be 50 to 55 years old, white, 5-foot-8 and about 150 pounds.

The public also is asked to provide any information they may have on the Smith Township case and the Western Reserve case, but Sweeney would pass those tips on to the agencies resposible for those areas, he said.

WESTERN RESERVE ROAD

On Aug. 12, 1982, authorities found the body of a man on Western Reserve Road in either Boardman or Beaver Township. Available records do not specify which township, Gaetano said.

The victim had been walking west on Western Reserve Road when he was hit by a car traveling in the same direction, investigators said.

He was 5 foot 11, about 140 pounds with brown hair, a full beard and mustache with hazel eyes and a cross-shaped tattoo on his right forearm. No clothing desription was given.

SMITH TOWNSHIP

Oct. 4, 1976, the body of a female was found covered in brush in a drainage ditch along side of South Range Road about a half mile east of 12th Street in Sebring.

The woman had been dead six to eight months, investigators estimated. She was described as being five feet tall and 180 pounds. Her age could not be determined, but she was wearing green pants. A blue patent leather belt was found near the body by Mahoning County sheriff’s deputies.

In one sock, detectives found a hair pick. Much of the body had decomposed. Members of an Ohio Edison crew found the body while working along a wooded stretch of the road.

Anyone with information is asked to call Sweeney at 330-742-8268, Fulmer at 330-742-8237 or Gaetano at 330-740-2175.

How to help …

Anyone with information is asked to call Detective Dave Sweeney at 330-742-8268, Detective Jerry Fulmer at 330-742-8237 or coroner’s investigator Theresa Gaetano at 330-740-2175.

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