Remains of woman found in forest west of Harrisonburg may be ID’d after 27 years

Remains of woman found in forest west of Harrisonburg may be ID’d after 27 years

By CARLOS SANTOS, Richmond Times-Dispatch
Published: February 13, 2008

Nancy Austin (left) believes her mother, Georgia Darlene Nolan (center), may be the unnamed murder victim. Austin says she resembles a reconstructed image (right) of the dead woman.

After 27 years, there’s a chance the remains of a young, slain mother found by hunters in the national forest west of Harrisonburg may be identified.

A Texas woman has provided her DNA sample to authorities to compare with a sample that will be taken from the bones of the woman found in the woods.

Nancy Austin, whose mother, Georgia Darlene Nolan, disappeared when she was 2 months old, thinks the dead woman’s reconstructed face resembles her own.

“This is about inner peace and understanding my family history and about justice,” said Austin of the long search for her mother. “I’m hoping it’s her.’’

Austin said her mother, who lived then in Harlan, Ky., jumped out of a car in anger after an argument with her husband in November 1976.

The Virginia mystery began when a deer hunter found a skeleton on Nov. 14, 1980, in the Kephart Run area of Rockingham County about 14 miles west of Harrisonburg in the George Washington National Forest.

The human to whom the remains belonged had unequivocally been killed even though there were no indications as to the cause of death, said Sgt. Felicia Glick of the Rockingham County Sheriff’s Department.

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

Authorities found a silk slip, a heart shaped necklace and a 1964 dime in the hastily dug grave. But the leads led nowhere.

Over the years, with the help of forensic anthropologists from Virginia Tech, the sheriff’s department learned a lot about the remains.

The skeleton was that of a woman who may have been in the grave for several years before she was found. She was in her 20s, had given birth to at least one child, and had possibly been a hairdresser or a seamstress because tooth wear indicated she may have often mouthed a bobby pin.

The decades have passed with no answers though the remains have been securely kept in the department’s evidence room.

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

Artists drew two sketches and molded two clay sculptures based on the features of the skull found at the grave. The images were posted on The Doe Network is a volunteer organization that started a Web site in 1999 to help in cold cases involving unexplained disappearances as well as unidentified remains.

Austin, who now lives in Texas, has been searching through the Doe Network for clues to her mother’s disappearance for years. That’s when she saw the reconstructed face of the skull found in the George Washington National Forest.

“It looks a lot like her,” Austin said. Relatives also told her that her mother would “pin up her hair with a bobby pin and hold them between her teeth.

Nancy Austin is now about the age and height Georgia Dolan was.

Georgia Nolan was also a smoker who had scarring from deep stab wounds on her lower back from an unknown incident. She had given birth to four children, the last being Austin.

“There’s an answer out there,’’ said Austin, who is 31 with a daughter of her own. “I know there is.”

Contact Carlos Santos at (434) 295-9542 or [email protected]