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.