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Almost 37 years ago, a Sacramento-area man taking a break to stretch his legs during a drive to the Mendocino Coast stumbled upon the skeletal remains of two teenagers in the woods near Highway 20 west of Willits, launching a decades-long investigation that remains largely unsolved to this day.

But Mendocino County officials now have a new tool in their arsenal that could unravel the mystery surrounding their deaths — the identifications of the two victims of suspected foul play.

Sheriff Tom Allman on Tuesday revealed the victims were two Forestville girls who vanished without a trace in mid-December 1978 — close friends Kerry Ann Graham, 15, and Francine Trimble, 14.

Their identities could help investigators figure out how the girls died and who dumped their bodies off the side of the road.

“We’re hoping somebody out there knows something,” Allman told the girls’ family members, law enforcement officers and media attending a press conference Tuesday to announce the findings, confirmed in November through new DNA tests.

Trimble’s parents are deceased, but several other relatives were in attendance. Graham’s parents, who live in Forestville, were not present but Graham’s brother flew in from Utah to be there.

Little is publicly known about the case, including the cause of the girls’ deaths. Their death certificates say they were murdered, but examinations of the bones did not determine a cause of death, Allman said. About 90 percent of their skeletal remains, along with an earring featuring a tiny, dangling bird carved out of shell, were found near the Highway 20 turnout 12 miles west of Willits, where the Sacramento man took a walk that fateful July day in 1979.

The exact dates the girls were reported missing is unclear.

Trimble was reported missing in mid-December 1978, right after she vanished, her family said. Graham was reported missing later that month, likely because she had a tendency to leave home without notifying her parents, her brother said.

Parallel investigations were launched by the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office after the girls went missing but details of the reports, including interviews and timelines, were not available Tuesday.

Their bones — found on private land near the Jackson State Demonstration Forest — revealed little about the victims, except their approximate ages. Early forensic examinations may have delayed identification of the victims because they erroneously concluded one of them was a boy. They also indicated the two victims were possibly related, which proved to be untrue.

Forensic odontologist Jim Wood, now a state assemblyman, was the first to question the familial relationship between the victims when he examined their teeth in 2000, following the first of two re-examinations of the remains, Allman said. Wood believed the jaws were too dissimilar to be related, he said.

The bones were re-exhumed, re-examined and their DNA tested again in 2011, when the BBC teamed with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children for a story on cold cases in the United States.

Following tips about the girls’ identities, the DNA samples — tested by the University of North Texas Center for Human Identification — were conclusively matched to their families late last year.

Solving the case is a tribute to the vast improvements made in DNA testing and other forensic technology as well as perseverance on the part of the many detectives and other people and organizations that kept the case alive, Allman said.

“I hope you never believed we’d forgotten this case,” Allman told the girls’ families.

At least two former sheriff’s officials who investigated the original case attended Tuesday’s conference.

“This is a case you remember,” said former Sheriff Jim Tuso, who was a patrol sergeant in 1979.

Allman is hoping there are people who remember seeing the girls around the time they vanished. It’s unclear exactly when that was and what the girls were doing before they disappeared. Graham’s brother recalled being told by his parents they believed the girls were headed to Coddingtown Mall in Santa Rosa to shop and never returned. He did not know how they would have traveled to get there.

Trimble’s aunt said her sister told her the girls simply vanished from her home while she was away. Makeup was set up on a dresser as though they were in the middle of applying the cosmetics, Madelon Johnson of Petaluma said after the presentation.

“They just disappeared into thin air,” she said. She said her sister, Mary Trimble, would have immediately reported her daughter missing.

Mary Trimble thought someone might have abducted the girls from the house, Johnson said. There were no signs of struggle, so, if that was the case, the girls either would have known their abductor or been taken at gunpoint, Johnson theorized.

The missing girl’s grandmother, Edith Walsh, made repeated calls to detectives and even consulted a psychic to try to find Francine Trimble and her friend.

The two girls, who met at Forestville Elementary School, were inseparable.

“They were always together,” said Graham’s brother, Ron Graham, 58, of Utah.

The families described the girls as bright, happy, sweet and innocent.

Family members said knowing the girls are dead brings them some closure, but it also revives the pain of their loss.

“It’s a shock,” said Graham.

It’s “as if it just happened,” said Trimble’s uncle, Will Walsh.

Detectives over the years have investigated a number of possible suspects in the case, including several serial killers and abductors who may have been in the area at the time. In Sonoma County, the bodies of seven girls and young women were found in rural areas near Santa Rosa from 1972 to mid-1979.

In 2000, there was a potential break in the case when a New Jersey prisoner confessed to the killings, but it turned out to be false. The man would have been 12 years old at the time and had never left New Jersey, Allman said. It was apparent his confession was based on news reports, he said.

Currently, there is no hard evidence pointing to any one suspect, Allman said.

Anyone with information about the case is asked to call the sheriff’s tip line at 234-2100.

You can reach Staff Writer Glenda Anderson at 462-6473 or glenda.anderson@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @MendoReporter