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Missing son is a mother's mission

When her fun-loving, hippie son Jimmy left for Florida on Oct. 3, 1974, Esperanza Lopez Norris thought he was going for a week's vacation.

James Berkeley Norris II, 24, lived near the Haight-Ashbury section of San Francisco, taught English as a second language to adults, dodged the Vietnam draft after his best friend was killed in combat, wrote poems, sold a little pot and loved Volkswagen Beetles.

Before he left, Jimmy dropped off his beloved Afghan hound, Casaelya, at the family home in Fairfield, about 45 miles northeast of San Francisco.

On Oct. 4, he mailed a postcard from Inglis, a small town in Levy County, apologizing for not leaving food money for Casaelya. He signed off with "be home soon.''

When Jimmy didn't return as scheduled to pick up Casaelya, Mrs. Norris feared something horrible had happened. She was sure of it after learning the real reason for his trip and after he did not show up — as he always did — for Mother's Day.

• • •

Mother's Day 1974 at the Norris household had brought out the quintessential Jimmy.

He had been finding homes for a litter of kittens and had been pestering his mother to take the last one. She had been adamant. The family already had three dogs and a cat. No more pets.

That morning, Jimmy had opened the front door, plunked down the kitten and a Mother's Day card and screeched away in his car.

Jimmy's sister, Kathie Norris, recalls their mother being angry, for a while.

But then "we were all laughing hysterically and were so excited to have a new kitten.'' They named it Nikko.

Jimmy returned later with a cake.

• • •

A month or so after his disappearance, Jimmy's friends spilled the beans.

With $12,000 in cash, some his, some raised from the friends, he was off to score some high-quality Colombian Gold, considered better than the Mexican marijuana widely available in California. He had traveled under the name Richard Gunning, taking a Delta red-eye to Miami, where he was supposed to meet a friend of a friend who would help him make contact with drug dealers in Citrus County.

Mrs. Norris had been frantically calling law enforcement agencies in Florida for help in locating her son. They expressed little interest; Jimmy was an adult.

She kept searching, and Jimmy's father, James, hired a private investigator. Though they believed their son was dead, they wanted to find out what had happened to him and bring his body home.

"There were no systems in place to deal with missing persons,'' recalled Rosemary Norris Southward, a sister who was 13 when Jimmy disappeared. "Nothing panned out. … All we had was a postcard mailed from Inglis.''

As time passed, Mrs. Norris sank into a terrible depression, refusing to celebrate Thanksgiving.

One day about 18 months after Jimmy disappeared, Mrs. Norris walked into the kitchen and told the family, "Everything is okay.''

"She was a deeply spiritual person,'' Rosemary said. "She said, 'He came to me last night and said, "I'm okay, I'm at peace." ' From that day on she stopped fretting; it was like a switch was flipped.''

Casaelya, whose Polynesian name means "Hello my beautiful thing,'' lived with the family until she died of old age around 1979.

• • •

Mrs. Norris kept all of her notes, photos and the postcard from Inglis tucked in a shoebox. After getting a computer some time in the 1990s, Rosemary asked for the box and started going online to check databases for missing persons.

She discovered the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System (NamUs) and similar websites and created a MySpace page with details about Jimmy and his Florida trip along with a copy of the postcard.

The family found out about a missing persons DNA database maintained by the California Department of Justice.

On July 27, 2004, Mrs. Norris and her five remaining children, David, Michael, Theresa, Kathie and Rosemary, went to the Fairfield Police Department to give DNA samples.

"I distinctly recall feeling that we were at the forefront of something that would prove to be huge, not only for us but for other families as well. It was an exciting feeling,'' said Rosemary, a graphic artist who is the youngest of the six Norris children.

She spotted an intriguing notice about some remains found in Alabama on, a website that helps identify "John Does. ''

The DNA did not match.

On March 1, 2007, Esperanza Norris died of complications from Alzheimer's disease. She was 86 years old; her son had been missing for 33 years.

• • •

In 2009, a team at the Florida Department of Law Enforcement in Tallahassee started looking at cold cases to see if new technology might help solve old murders.

Remains of an unidentified person found in Dixie County on April 16, 1976, were sent to the University of North Texas, where scientists were extracting DNA in difficult cases. About a year later, officials there notified the FDLE that they had captured DNA.

Now investigators needed to find a match.

FDLE Agent Mike Kennedy started with NamUs. He knew he was looking for a male in his mid 20s, approximately 6 feet, who had been dead about two years when his body was discovered in 1976.

He discovered the information Rosemary had posted on her brother.

The website indicated that DNA samples were available in California. Kennedy arranged to have the samples sent to the lab in Texas for comparison.

In late 2010, Fairfield police Detective Tony DeTomasi asked to come over to Rosemary's house to discuss the case. She figured he just wanted to get out of the office.

Sitting at her kitchen table, DeTomasi told her that skeletal remains discovered in 1976 had been identified as her brother's.

"I was immediately stunned, but my overall reaction was disbelief — I wasn't convinced at all that the results were correct,'' Rosemary recalled. "I started crying and left him sitting in the kitchen by himself.''

Soon she was on a conference call with Kennedy, the FDLE agent, and other officials. They pledged to "try their level best to find out who murdered my brother.''

Jimmy's remains were sent to the University of Florida for an anthropological examination, which was completed last month.

Investigators will disclose only that Jimmy's death was a homicide. No one has been arrested in connection with his death.

• • •

His remains had been found by a heavy equipment operator working near U.S. 19 just a few miles away from Rocky Creek, a coastal inlet near Steinhatchee that had been the scene of the nation's largest marijuana bust on March 5, 1973, 19 months before Jimmy died.

That had made Dixie County the center of a national news story.

Until agents seized 9.5 tons of marijuana at Rocky Creek, law enforcement officials in Florida had no idea that anyone was capable of bringing so much ashore at one time, and no one knew that remote Dixie and neighboring Taylor County had become the center of the universe for drug dealers smuggling in marijuana from Jamaica and South America.

Six young men from St. Petersburg Beach and Floyd F. "Bubba" Capo, a commercial fisherman who had recently moved from Cortez near Bradenton to Dixie County, were arrested as they tried to run from the area. Dubbed the "Steinhatchee Seven,'' they were convicted and sentenced to federal prison in October 1973.

Ultimately, more than 250 people went to federal prison, including the chief deputies in Dixie and Taylor counties, the chairman of the Taylor County Commission and a former Dixie County School Board chairman.

• • •

On April 20, two of Jimmy's sisters, Rosemary Norris Southward and Kathie Norris, flew to Florida to take part in a news conference with Dixie County Sheriff Dewey Hatcher and FDLE officials. They asked for help in identifying whoever killed Jimmy.

When the sisters left for home the next day, they took Jimmy's remains with them.

"We wanted him in a grave site we could visit,'' Rosemary said.

Her husband and a brother-in-law had built a pine box coffin. The burial was April 22, the coffin covered with California poppies and other wildflowers. Inside, the sisters mingled Jimmy's bones with their mother's ashes in an Indian blanket.

So today , for the first time in 37 years, Esperanza Norris will be with her son for Mother's Day.

Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.

Websites used by the Norris family (National Missing and Unidentified Persons System) — a clearinghouse for families and law enforcement to search nationwide for missing persons or identify remains. Funded through a federal U.S. Justice Department grant. — a national network dedicated to identifying remains of missing persons once they have been reported missing to a law enforcement agency. — a place to find where people are buried. — a social networking site that allows users to post photos and biographical information as well as other details.

Missing son is a mother's mission 05/08/11 [Last modified: Monday, May 9, 2011 12:05pm]
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