They called her Piglet, on account of her upturned nose and her small frame and the little pig tattoo above her left breast. Her real name was Peggy Sue Houser, but she didn't mind the nickname. Besides, if she was feeling mean she could back a boy up, a 100-pound Irish and Cherokee whirlwind of knuckles. She did it to her brothers when they crossed her. She even earned a brown belt in karate.
This night, June 14, 1981, she wasn't looking to fight. When an argument broke out in a little bar on South MacDill called the B-52, Piglet, a few months shy of 19, decided to split, leaving behind her girlfriends. She didn't need more trouble. She walked across the parking lot and toward the two-lane and thumbed the dark.
She didn't come home that night or the next. Her disappearance didn't even make the papers. She missed Thanksgiving and Christmas. Months turned to years, years to decades. Her sister held out hope that Peggy Sue would show up one day with a husband and a bunch of babies. Her mother never changed the message on her machine.
"Peggy, no matter where you're at, leave a message, and I will come right away."
But she never called, and her mother fell ill, and just before she died she relayed one final request: If you ever find Peggy Sue, bury her beside me.
Erin Kimmerle was working late one Friday night in May, touching up a website for the Tampa Bay Cold Case Project, which she helped launch. As a forensic anthropologist and assistant professor at the University of South Florida, she and her students work with law enforcement and medical examiners to identify remains and reanalyze cold cases.
Across Florida, more than 500 individuals who either died alone or were found in public places remain unidentified. In the Tampa Bay area, there are nearly 80 such cases.
Since 2006, Kimmerle and her colleagues and students have worked more than 90 cases. They've helped authorities find and identify remains, and determine cause of death. They've also helped with facial reconstructions in hopes of matching remains with missing persons.
One case caught Kimmerle's attention, a Jane Doe known as ME 82–00013. As she prioritized cases, Kimmerle felt she had a good shot at identifying this one.
The remains had been found on Jan. 3, 1982, on W Sligh Avenue, not far from Leto High School. They belonged to a young female, 14 to 20 years old. She'd been found naked, without any clue who she was. She appeared to have been killed and dumped in the woods.
Over the years, authorities had tried periodically to identify the unknown girl by comparing her teeth to the dental records of missing persons, but they'd never made a match.
Kimmerle had reanalyzed the remains and created a new biological profile of ME 82–00013 for the website. Kimmerle emailed the work-in-progress website to some colleagues for feedback. One of them, a woman familiar with the Doe Network, a database of missing persons, responded with a tip.
"Look at this one," came the reply.
• • •
The woman suggested there were several similarities between the ME 82–00013 remains and Peggy Sue Houser, who had disappeared from Tampa just seven months before the remains were found. Authorities compared the dental records of more than 20 missing women, including Peggy Sue Houser, to ME 82–00013, but none matched.
The approximate age was correct. The time line was consistent. And the remains were found about 10 miles from where Houser was last seen.
But several things didn't add up.
First, Peggy Sue Houser's mother had told police that she got a phone call from her daughter a few weeks after she was reported missing. Hattie Oglesbee, who lived in Piqua, Ohio, told police that Peggy Sue called and asked if she could come home. When Oglesbee said yes, the phone went dead. She believed it had been a local call, so she drove to a nearby gas station and showed the attendant a photo of her daughter. The attendant said he had seen Peggy Sue with a man on a motorcycle. Because of the new information, the case was transferred to authorities in Ohio. Police there exhausted their leads.
Second, Peggy Sue's dental records, provided by her mother, didn't match the Jane Doe records. It appeared on paper that the Jane Doe had more teeth than Peggy Sue.
But Kimmerle knew dental records were often unreliable. Peggy Sue's records were from age 12, and during adolescence permanent teeth continue to erupt. The map of one's mouth continues to change as teeth are lost or fixed.
Often, dental X-rays aren't available to compare to unidentified remains, so comparisons are made with dental coding, a series of numbers assigned to each tooth that comprises a kind of numerical sketch of one's teeth. But often, untrained personnel fill out forms and enter errors into databases.
Kimmerle needed more.
• • •
On that Sunday in May, she drove to the Hillsborough County Medical Examiner's office to review the file for ME 82–00013.
The following day, she told Amanda Whidden, the manager of investigations for the examiner's office, of her suspicions.
"I think the dentals are wrong," she said. "I don't think Peggy Houser should have been excluded."
Kimmerle and Whidden walked into a storage cooler at the examiner's office and pulled out a clear Rubbermaid bin containing the remains of ME 82–00013. They assembled the skeleton on a metal autopsy table and scanned it for trauma; Peggy Sue had broken her wrist when she was young. They couldn't see the fracture.
But then Kimmerle superimposed a transparent photograph of Peggy Sue on an image of the skull. The two seemed to match, especially the position of the eyes and the diastema, the gap between the two front teeth.
She had enough to ask for a DNA comparison. Whidden phoned Eric Houston, a cold-case detective with the Tampa Police Department. Houston tracked down Peggy Sue Houser's father, Steve, and sister, Sandra Prieser. He swabbed their mouths and sent the samples to the FBI for comparison to ME 82–00013. In August, the FBI wrote to Houston, saying the mitochondrial DNA showed Houser could not be excluded from being the murder victim. He then submitted the DNA again for nuclear testing.
On Nov. 14, he received confirmation that the DNA from the remains was a perfect match to the DNA of Peggy Sue Houser.
• • •
Sandra Prieser was at work at the Colonnade restaurant when she got a phone call. She held the phone down and looked at her manager.
"I think they found my sister," she said.
Thirty years is a long time to wonder. She and her siblings remember the wild little girl forever stuck in 1981. They remember how she loved to listen to Journey and REO Speedwagon, how they'd all go down to the old fairgrounds and lay out blankets to hear Joe Cocker. How Piglet would join in the kickball and basketball games on the street in the old neighborhood.
"Every once in a while, we'd bump into somebody and they'd ask about her," said her brother, Steve, 53, a carpenter. "I always knew something happened to her, but I never stopped wondering."
That's what keeps Kimmerle and Whidden going.
"There's a great need for this work," Kimmerle said. "And it works. All that effort pays off."
"It's important to the families," Whidden said. "I can't imagine not knowing where my child is."
Now that the remains have been named, the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office will investigate the homicide. Houston said police have received a few tips through the years, but no solid leads.
The disappearance hurt Peggy Sue's mother, Oglesbee, the most. It took three years of counseling before she could leave the house. She kept rejection letters from Unsolved Mysteries and America's Most Wanted. She looked for her youngest child until her death.
"Now that we've found her, we're going to bury her next to my mom," said Prieser. "That was her last request — for my sister to be with her."
After the holidays, they'll all fly to Ohio and put Peggy Sue Houser in the ground by her mother, where she belongs.
Ben Montgomery can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8650.