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Mystery of remains found in Youngstown in 1995 solved

YOUNGSTOWN — The mystery of the body found in a Westlake Terrace apartment in 1995 has been solved with dental evidence showing that the body is that of America Williams, 30.

Detective Dave Sweeney of the Youngstown Police Department and Theresa Gaetano, an investigator with the Mahoning County Coroner’s Office, confirmed Monday that the final piece to solving the mystery was obtaining photographs taken while Williams was alive that showed her teeth.

The photographs were taken to Robert C. Johnson and Erik R. Johnson of Boardman, both forensic odontologists who were able to determine that the teeth in the photographs matched the teeth saved in the evidence room at the Youngstown Police Department from the remains of the Jane Doe found on Wirt Street in 1995.

Because an autopsy on the body listed “undetermined” as the cause of the woman’s death, the case is closed, Sweeney said, and the remains will be turned over to Williams’ daughter, Monique.

“Now we are just attempting to locate the remains so we can get them back to her family,” Gaetano said of the ashes from Williams’ cremation. The Fox Funeral Home, which cremated the body, is working to locate them, Gaetano said.

The identification means Monique, 37, no longer has to wonder whether her mother is alive or dead.

“I feel relief. I feel like I finally found her, but there are still a lot of unanswered questions,” Monique said Monday.

“Those questions may never get answered, and I may not want to know. All I know is I will be able to lay her to rest as soon as her remains are returned to me,” she said.

Gaetano said the autopsy indicated no visible injuries on the body and no holes in the clothing to suggest a homicide. Because soft tissues were missing on the skeletonized remains, it was not possible to determine whether there were injuries to the soft tissues, Gaetano said.

TEAMWORK

Sweeney, who has been working on cold cases for a couple of years, teamed up with Gaetano a couple of months ago to investigate a new type of case — unidentified remains — and brought the case to the public through news coverage in recent months, including two articles in The Vindicator.

News coverage led to calls from two people — an unidentified woman who knew Williams, and Monique, whose last name was Williams growing up and lives outside of the Youngstown area.

Monique learned of the investigation through the news media. She told Sweeney and Gaetano she thought the description given of the woman and her clothing matched well with her mother, including a pair of Air Nike high-tops tennis shoes found with the remains. Her mother regularly wore that type of shoes.

No DNA could be collected from the teeth and a jaw bone, so Sweeney and Gaetano looked in a couple of other areas before trying to make the match using photographs.

Monique remembers the day in mid to late 1991 when she and her brother were taken away from their mother, who was a drug addict and also was abusive toward Monique. America, Monique and her brother were living in the Silver Meadows apartments in Kent at the time. Monique was 6 or 7.

Monique and her brother had several visitations with their mother after that. But her mother “stopped showing up” for the visitations, she said. Perhaps the toughest moment in Monique’s life was being told at age 8 that she would not be allowed to see her mother again until Monique was 18.

By the summer of 1993, Monique and her brother had been adopted. Monique was 11 at the time the body on Wirt Street was found in 1995.

TRAUMA

“This has been hard for me my whole life, being told I could never see my mother again until I was 18 at 8 years old. Do you know what that does to a child? It traumatized me,” she said.

Sweeney learned that America moved around a lot in the 1990s, having spent time in the Ravenna, Kent and Rootstown areas, in addition to Youngstown, where Monique was born. Old letters indicate they lived on Wilson Avenue, Monique said.

Monique, who studied criminal justice, wonders if more investigating could uncover what led to her mother’s death.

“You know how you get a gut feeling about something and it’s real strong? Usually you’re right. But I’m just glad we know her whereabouts,” she said.

“Now it’s just a matter of healing and grieving and getting to a point where I can let go of it now and close that chapter of my life, finally, and not have it bother me so much anymore,” she said. “The older I got, the more it bothered me.”

It’s been 30 years since Monique knew where to find her mother, but she was able to help detectives identify her by providing a photo of the side view of her mother’s smile. “That’s what confirmed it,” Monique said.

“I’m happy, and I’m grateful and I’m relieved that I was able to figure out what the heck happened to her,” she said. “It has brought a lot of relief to me.”

runyan@vindy.com

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