August 23, 2008
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
By Michael A. Fuoco, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

High hopes have been dashed for solving the nearly three-decades old missing person case of former Erie resident Nellie Florence Cornman Flickinger.

Scientists in California were unable to extract DNA from a Jane Doe's skeletal remains found in 1982, meaning there's no way to positively determine if the woman, who likely died from foul play, is Ms. Flickinger.

Since last summer, when a possible link between Jane Doe and the missing Erie woman was discovered, Ms. Flickinger's family has held out hope DNA would provide the key to the mystery of her disappearance. Even if it meant that Ms. Flickinger had been dead for 25 or more years, at least the family would experience some closure, relatives said.

But now, given the inability to extract DNA from Jane Doe's femur and tooth, the stinging mystery continues, said Joni Lapeyrouse, of Pensacola, Fla., whose father, Perry Cornman, of Union City, Erie County, is Ms. Flickinger's brother.

"I've been floating on a cloud the past year, wanting this to happen for my Dad," she said. "When I got the call [about the DNA], the cloud disappeared from beneath me and I fell to the ground and crashed."

Ms. Flickinger's family hasn't heard from her since March 1979, when the then-30-year-old Apollo native left for California to get her troubled life together. She promised her mother she'd come back to Erie for her five children, ranging in age from 6 to 12.

And then she was off with a thin man with the thin mustache whose name no one knew. The family's efforts over the years to find out what happened to her proved unsuccessful.

It was Ms. Lapeyrouse's work that provided what appeared to be the biggest break in the missing person case. In July 2007, she contacted the Doe Network , an Internet-based volunteer clearinghouse of missing persons and unidentified bodies. The next day, the Doe Network reported a possible match with the female skeletal remains a farm laborer discovered in a drainage ditch along an interstate exit ramp in Colusa County, Calif., northwest of Sacramento.

The remains offered Colusa County authorities no clues to the woman's identity or how she died, although foul play was suspected. She became a "Jane Doe" and was buried in a local cemetery, forgotten for years -- until Ms. Flickinger's personal data was entered on the Doe Network .

The hair color, height and age all seemed to match that of Ms. Flickinger. And, most importantly, the remains had a metal plate screwed into bones of the right leg. Ms. Flickinger likewise had a plate and screws holding together her right leg, the result of a motorcycle accident in the 1960s.

Jane Doe's remains were exhumed in March. In June, an initial attempt to extract DNA proved unsuccessful. Ms. Lapeyrouse said she wasn't devastated then.

"I was actually keeping my hopes up. I just thought the first one failed and they'd do another set, do more testing, and it would work out this time," she said. "In my mind, I was hoping for a better result. In my mind, I was preparing to bring Nellie home.

"I got my hopes up too far, obviously."

The Colusa County coroner's office told Ms. Lapeyrouse they would be able to tell her within a couple weeks whether there was any hope that additional, more complex DNA testing performed by a private lab might be able to secure a sample sufficient to attempt a match with DNA provided by Ms. Flickinger's relatives.

She doesn't know where to turn to now and hopes that if more complicated testing is possible, a private lab will do the work for free. Anyone interested in the case can reach her at 850-602-2743.

"I'm just trying to keep a good thought. I hope this can lead us to the next step."

Memo: Michael A. Fuoco can be reached at [email protected] or 412-263-1968.