Sunday, February 24, 2008

HARRISONBURG, Va. — Nancy Austin may have finally determined her mother’s fate after 27 years of frustration and mystery.

Her mother, Georgia Darlene Nolan, has been missing since 1976, when Mrs. Austin was 2 months old. Now, after years of searching, Mrs. Austin has come to Rockingham County, where the remains of a young, slain mother found in 1980 by a hunter in the George Washington National Forest match Mrs. Nolan’s physical description.

Mrs. Austin, 31, from Keene, Texas, stumbled upon an artist’s sketch depicting what the body’s face could have looked like and said she thinks it resembles her own. She saw it on the Web site of the Doe Network, a volunteer organization that helps in cold cases involving unexplained disappearances and unidentified remains.

“This is about inner peace and understanding my family history and about justice,” Mrs. Austin said. “I’m hoping it’s her.”

Mrs. Nolan was last seen with her estranged husband in Harlan County, Ky., on Nov. 28, 1976, when she was 30, according to the Doe Network.

Mrs. Austin said her mother, who then lived in Harlan, jumped out of a car on an interstate highway near the Kentucky-Illinois border after an argument with her husband and was never seen again.

Formal charges have never been filed.

“It’s horrifying going to bed every night thinking your mom’s a homicide victim,” said Mrs. Austin, who now has a daughter of her own. She vowed to find the truth behind her mother’s disappearance.

“A lot of people were very hurt [by the disappearance], but they wanted to go on and forget it. But I couldn’t,” Mrs. Austin said. “The last eight years I’ve been searching for her have been tormenting.”

The woman’s remains in Rockingham County were found by a deer hunter in a shallow grave and clearly indicated she had been killed, despite no clear signs of foul play, said Sgt. Felicia Glick of the Rockingham County Sheriff’s Department.

“There was a log over the shallow grave area,” Sgt. Glick said. “It couldn’t have gotten there by itself.”

Authorities found a silk slip, a heart-shaped necklace and a 1964 dime in the grave.

Years of research with the assistance of forensic anthropologists from Virginia Tech helped the sheriff’s department learn more about the remains. Investigators concluded the body was that of a woman in her 20s who had given birth at least once. They also determined she possibly had been a hairdresser or a seamstress because tooth wear showed she may have often mouthed a bobby pin.

But those few clues yielded no leads, and the case remained cold until Mrs. Austin came across it last September.

“As humans, we need closure in our work,” Sgt. Glick said. “This is just stayed in the back of our minds.”

A bone sample from the woman’s leg was sent to the Quantico, Va., FBI lab, where investigators hope to extract DNA and to compare it to a DNA sample from Mrs. Austin’s mouth.

A match would mean her mother is a murder victim, but Mrs. Austin said she was eager to know her fate anyway.

“I’m not afraid of the truth,” she said. “I’m scared of not knowing.”

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