Facebook post helps solve 34-year mystery

Francis X. Donnelly
The Detroit News

Kalamazoo — For 34 years, detectives didn't know the identity of a body found in the Louisiana woods.

Six days after creating a Facebook page in February, they had the answer.

A woman who saw a composite drawing of the victim on the Bossier Doe page matched it to a missing person photo posted on Craigslist by a friend of a Michigan family.

The victim turned out to be Carol Cole, 17, of Kalamazoo, who vanished in 1980 after she and her mom moved from Michigan to Texas.

"It's utterly amazing," Lt. Bill Davis of the Bossier Parish Sheriff's Office said about the fluke discovery. "There's not a whole lot more to say about it."

In another twist, John Chesson, who discovered the body in 1981, would be convicted of an unrelated murder 16 years later.

His daughter, Frances LeBlanc, said Cole's photo in news stories in March triggered a memory of Chesson picking up Cole, who was hitchhiking, and her staying with the family a month before she disappeared.

LeBlanc believes her father, who she said abused her, killed Cole.

"This is his history," she said. "I had to live with a monster."

The sheriff's office is investigating the claim but isn't looking to charge Chesson, who is serving life in prison at the Wade Correctional Center in Homer, Louisiana.

Investigators already considered Chesson a person of interest because of his subsequent murder conviction.

As for Cole, relatives described her as a restless child. She, a brother and a sister were raised by their grandmother.

When Cole's mother moved from Kalamazoo to San Antonio in 1979, Cole wanted to go with her, while her siblings remained in Michigan, said relatives.

Cole ran away several times and was placed in a juvenile detention facility for girls in Austin. She ran away from the center in October 1980, said police.

She turned up in Shreveport, Louisiana. There, she was staying with a family and babysitting for them, Cole told her grandmother during a phone call in December 1980.

It would be the last time her family heard from her.

"I told her, 'You're welcome to come home,' " said her mother, Sue Cole, who talked to her weekly on the phone. "I still love you."

A body that turned out to be Cole's was found in January 1981 off a logging road a mile and a half into a wooded area 15 miles from Shreveport, said detectives.

The young woman had been stabbed nine times in the chest and back. She was buried under a pile of leaves, said LeBlanc, who was with her father when he found the body.

The 34-year mystery was nearly solved at the start, said investigators.

When authorities were trying to identify the body in February 1981, Cole was one of a dozen people they considered.

Her grandmother had reported her missing several weeks before the body was found.

But the coroner excluded Cole for "numerous differences" that weren't described, old police records say. The coroner, George McCormick, died in 2005.

A decision to 'buckle down'

Jeanie Phelps of Kalamazoo was 14 when her older sister went missing.

She wasn't sure what happened, trying to piece together dribs and drabs she heard from relatives over the years.

The sisters were close, pretending to be Laura and Mary Ingalls from "Little House on the Prairie," said Phelps.

After a few years, Phelps began looking for her sister, calling police departments in Texas and Louisiana. During a six-month stretch in the 1980s, she talked with Shreveport police 10 times, she said.

"We looked at so many Jane Does," said Phelps. "I think we even looked at that one (in Bossier) but overlooked it."

Phelps was haunted by her sister's disappearance, said a close friend, Patty Thorington.

Thorington was so saddened by her friend's plight that she joined the search.

She went to the library to look up the addresses of police departments and mail them letters. Most went unanswered.

Their quest to find Cole would ebb and flow over the years and Thorington eventually moved to Davenport, Iowa.

But the search picked up again last November after the two friends spoke by telephone, they said. Cole was born that month, so it's always a tough time for Phelps.

Talking to her melancholy friend, Thorington decided to resume the quest. "We said we're going to buckle down and work harder," she said.

Over the years, Thorington had posted photos of Cole on Craigslist in cities where Cole was or could have been. In January, she posted the photo once again on Craigslist in Shreveport.

'Meant to have an identity'

Meanwhile, an investigator in the Bossier Parish Sheriff's Office was at her wits' end.

Off and on for 34 years, the department had tried to identify the young woman found in the woods.

Lt. Shannon Mack had revisited the case in September, reviewing files, searching missing person databases, comparing DNA samples, and contacting law enforcement agencies and news outlets in nine parishes in Louisiana.

Her efforts produced a few leads, none of which panned out.

"We got to the point where we eliminated just about everyone," said Mack. "What else is there to do?"

Out of "desperation," she created a Facebook page on Feb. 6 that showed a composite drawing of the unidentified woman.

A forensic anthropology lab at Louisiana State University based the drawing on her bone structure.

Facebook doesn't allow anyone to use Jane Doe as a name, so the page was titled Bossier Doe.

Six days after the page was launched, a Bossier Parish emergency services dispatcher was scrolling through the Shreveport edition of Craigslist.

Linda Erickson was checking the for-sale section to see if there was anything interesting when she came across the photo of Cole that had been posted by Thorington.

Her first thought: Why is this in the for-sale section? Her second thought: Cole looked familiar.

Erickson knew about the Bossier Doe Facebook page. In fact, she had stayed up late the night before to poke around the Internet, trying to solve the case.

But her stumbling across Cole on Craigslist wasn't related to her search. It was just happy happenstance.

"I can't explain it other than this child was meant to have an identity," said Erickson.

She called an investigator to say she thought she had solved the riddle. Detectives eventually matched the body's DNA to that of Cole's parents in Michigan.

A place to visit

After seeing Cole's face in news accounts, LeBlanc said she recalled the girl spending a week with her family, cleaning the house and babysitting her and her brother.

She believes her father was involved in her death because he was a brutish man who was physically abusive to her, she said.

In 1997, Chesson was sentenced to life in prison for second-degree murder for stabbing the former mother-in-law of his estranged wife.

In talking about Chesson, LeBlanc doesn't refer to him as her father but as "Mr. Chesson."

"Nobody deserves this," she said about Cole. "It's like someone opened the closet to a nightmare."

Phelps said she was relieved but saddened by the solving of the mystery. She had a crazy hope her sister was still alive.

After Cole was identified, the Facebook page created to help find her was renamed "Carol Ann Cole (Bossier's Doe)."

Her remains were cremated, and Phelps keeps some of the ashes in a silver charm hanging from her necklace.

She is trying to raise enough money for a gravestone. Now that she has found her sibling, she wants a place to visit her.

Through, Phelps has raised $2,145 of the $6,000 she needs.

"There are so many twists with the whole story," she said. "It's just crazy."

The latest twist: Louisiana has a reparations fund for crime victims but Cole isn't eligible. She was found 18 months before the fund went into existence.

She hopes to have something in time for a memorial service on June 18. She picked that date because it was their grandmother's birthday.

Besides Cole's name, the gravestone will include the moniker that helped find her after all these years: Bossier Doe.

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Twitter: @francisXdonnell