LAS VEGAS — In 1978, a garment bag containing a woman’s heavily decayed remains was discovered in a remote area of northern Nevada.
The case soon went cold — and the victim remained nameless for 45 years.
But on Wednesday, Nevada State Police announced that advancements in DNA testing have finally led to an identification. She was Florence Charleston, a Cleveland, Ohio, woman in her late 60s who had moved to Portland, Oregon, shortly before her death.
How Charleston wound up dead and buried in a shallow grave 535 miles away from her new home is still a mystery. Police said Wednesday in a news release announcing the DNA match that the investigation into her death is ongoing.
Diane Liggitt, one of Charleston’s few surviving relatives, said she was around 18 when she learned from her father that her aunt had left for the Pacific Northwest with a new boyfriend sometime in the early 1970s. Decades passed. The family never heard from Charleston again.
Throughout the years, Liggitt told The Associated Press, she thought a lot about her Aunt “Dolly” — a childhood nickname that stuck.
“Was she happy, or not? Was she safe?” Liggitt said. “All these questions I had, and it turns out she was dead.”
Charleston’s remains were found in October 1978 in the small Nevada town of Imlay, about two hours north of Reno. Inside the garment bag, officers with the Pershing County Sheriff’s Office — the initial lead investigating agency — also found some articles of women’s clothing.
An autopsy revealed the decomposing remains likely belonged to a middle-aged woman but failed to determine a cause of death, police said. Liggitt said her aunt would have been around 68 at the time of her death.
The case was later entered into the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System, along with a rendering of what detectives thought the woman looked like at the time of her death.
According to that entry, the woman was thought to be 5-foot-5 with red or auburn hair. Investigators also thought she may have been left-handed. The clothing items found with her remains included a dark-green sweater with a white safety pin attached to the front, dark-green trousers and a long-sleeved pink sweater.
In spring of 1979, Nevada State Police detectives were called in to help with the probe. They tried digital facial reconstruction. They compared dental records with other missing persons and unsolved cases. They looked for clues in the articles of clothing dumped with the remains.
But their efforts were unsuccessful.
Then last March, police said, they teamed up with Othram Inc., a private laboratory specializing in forensic genealogy analysis that has helped close countless other cold cases nationwide.
In a separate news release, Othram said Wednesday they used DNA taken from the remains “to develop a comprehensive DNA profile for the unidentified woman,” leading investigators to two of Charleston’s nieces still living in Ohio.
Liggitt said she received the news in April. She was on her way out of the house when her phone rang. She didn’t recognize the out-of-state phone number, but she answered it anyway.
On the other end of the line was Nevada State Police Detective Sean Koester, who had taken over the cold case in October 2022. By then, Koester said, the case had been dormant for 40-plus years.
Koester introduced himself. He’d been trying to reach her and her cousin, Donna, he said, to talk about a set of 45-year-old human remains.
“You found my Aunt Dolly?” Liggitt recalled telling the detective.
Soon after that phone call, Othram was able to link Charleston to the unidentified remains by using a DNA sample from Liggitt’s cousin.
Now around the same age as Charleston had been at the time of her death, Liggitt said she hopes to live long enough to learn how and why her Aunt Dolly was killed.