How a former anthropology student in Ohio led police to identify two men missing for decades
It all started with a call from a former anthropology student to the Youngstown Ohio Police Department.
After reading an article about Youngstown's cold cases, the former student, Alisa Yelkin, decided to follow up on something that had "haunted" her since the days she took a forensic anthropology class in the early 2000s at Youngstown State University: a box of unidentified human bones she had seen in her classroom.
"I wondered who he was, I wondered what he looked like," Yelkin said.
Her call reignited a case that had grown cold for decades. Thanks to facial reconstruction technology, a clay model was produced that led to the identification of not one, but two sets of unidentified remains.
On Monday, police said they had identified the remains of Theodore "Teddy" Long and Robert Earl Sanders. The men had gone missing in the late 1970s and early '80s and their remains were found in Ohio counties 180 miles from each other.
"Cases like these are why I created Bureau of Criminal Investigation's cold case unit," Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost said at a news conference. "It's to put the pieces together and assist local law enforcement so they can help bring closure to loved ones."
The family of 23-year-old Sanders filed a missing person report on Aug. 13, 1976, Cpt. Jason Simon said at the news conference. At the time of his disappearance, Youngstown police searched for Sanders but weren't able to locate any leads or a body.
Eleven years passed and then, on Sept. 10, 1987, a grandfather and grandson were hunting squirrels near the old Mount Hope Cemetery when they came upon a human skull and other bones lying on or just below the surface, Simon said. Youngstown police started to work on identifying the remains, and took the bones to the anthropology department of Youngstown State University, Simon said.
The anthropologists did not identify the person but told police the bones most likely belonged to an African-American male between 30 and 44 years of age. Sanders came close to the description.
But with no further leads, the investigation went cold again for decades — until Yelkin called Youngstown police in August 2021.
"With that phone call, a case that had been cold for 34 years became warm," said Simon.
In 2022, the Ohio Attorney General's Bureau of Criminal Investigation, the Mahoning County Coroner's Office, and the Youngstown Police Department released the forensic facial reconstruction image in an effort to jump-start leads, police said. The image of the clay model was circulated on social media and local news.
That's when a relative of another missing man contacted detectives. Detectives passed the relative's tip to Ohio's Bureau of Criminal Investigation. Investigators thought the tip was connected to human remains found in Layette, a county in the northeastern part of the state.
With the new information, the Fayette County Sheriff was able to identify Long, who is believed to have been killed.
"It gives us some comfort that we no longer have to refer to this person by a location, but instead his name: Teddy Long," Fayette County Sheriff Vernon Stanforth said. "Our condolences go out to the family who has been looking for 41 years to identify their loved one. We have an appreciation for the Youngstown Police Department and BCI for their assistance. Now our work begins to solve a homicide."
Meanwhile, detectives in Youngstown continued working on their case and partnered with Porchlight Project, a nonprofit organization that offers support to families of missing and murdered persons. Using DNA, the authorities were able to determine the Mahoning County John Doe was Sanders, but they do not know exactly how he died. Exactly 7,000 days had passed since Sanders' family had first reported him missing, Simon said.
There are currently 150 cold cases being investigated in Ohio, according to the Bureau of Criminal Investigation.
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