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Cold Cases, Officials Keeping Bodies for ‘Personal Collections’ Spurred Push For New Law

Pascagoula Police Lt. Darren Versiga told the Mississippi Free Press on March 27, 2024, that he wants the state to regulate how law-enforcement officers and county coroners investigate cases of missing and unidentified persons. Photo courtesy Darren Versiga

Pascagoula Police Lt. Darren Versiga had been working in law enforcement for over a decade when the Sun Herald called his office in 2010, inquiring about how many cold cases the department had open.

The lieutenant soon discovered that the department had 26 unsolved cases in Pascagoula at the time, which he found odd.

“I thought, Pascagoula is not that big. How do we have 26? And they ranged all the way back to 1975,” he told the Mississippi Free Press on March 27.

Versiga shifted his focus toward solving the cases, reviewing whatever police files he could find and reviewing microfilms of old news clippings about skeletal remains that had been found over the years. “This took years. I went day by day, week by week. There was no database,” he said.

Two years into connecting dots on the cold cases and simultaneously investigating cases he believed were connected to serial killer Sam Little, Versiga came across an article about Melinda LaPree, a 24-year-old Pascagoula resident whose dead body a landscaper had found near a Pascagoula cemetery in 1982.

Her death was unsolved, but Versiga suspected that Little had killed her.

That’s when he learned that the State had sent LaPree’s body to Oklahoma in 1983—before Mississippi had its own state medical examiner. Versiga called the Oklahoma crime lab to see if they had any additional evidence that could help him figure out her cause of death.

Black and white photo of a woman with medium length wavy hair, wearing a sweater and a half moon necklace
Serial Killer Samuel Little confessed in 2018 to murdering Melinda LaPree in Pascagoula, Miss., in 1982. Family photo

The lieutenant told the Mississippi Free Press that he was shocked when someone at the Oklahoma crime lab told him they had the remains of several people that should have been sent back to Mississippi decades ago.

“I thought, why would they have them for all these years?” Versiga said.

He said the 2012 discovery opened a “pandora’s box,” revealing a decades-old practice before the development of modern DNA testing where some county coroners, law-enforcement officials and “rouge anthropologists” across the country would keep the human remains of people who could not be positively identified. Some would even use them for educational purposes or for “their own personal collections,” he said. Versiga did not name anyone specifically but said he found instances like that both in Mississippi and elsewhere in the country; not all of the incidents were intentional, he said.

The remains of Clara Birdlong, who investigators had identified only as ‘Escatawpa Jane Doe’ before DNA testing revealed her identity in 2021, was one of Little’s suspected victims whose remains Versiga recovered from the Oklahoma crime lab, he said. (Before his death in 2020, Little admitted to killing LaPree, Birdlong and at least two other women in Mississippi.)

“There was nobody mandating a rule. There was no law put in place to stop this,” Versiga said. Even more, Versiga said there were a few instances over the years while he was investigating cold cases in which some officials refused to return the remains or told him that they had given them away to other people.

In 2022, more than a decade after he first began investigating Pascagoula’s cold cases, Versiga called Mississippi Sen. Brice Wiggins, a Pascagoula Republican, to discuss the problems he had discovered about the way officials handle human remains. “I thought, this is a bigger problem than anybody’s realized,” Versiga added. “We need a law that prevents this from ever happening again.”

‘Giving Jurisdiction Of Remains To The State’

This year, Sen. Brice Wiggins introduced Senate Bill 2268, which would require “a law enforcement agency to initiate certain procedures upon the receipt of a credible report of a missing or unidentified person.”

Those procedures include requiring law-enforcement officials and the county medical examiner to enter information about the missing or unidentified person into the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System (NAMUS), a federal database. It would also require the state medical examiner to test the DNA of unidentified human remains using forensic genetic genealogy testing.

Senate Judiciary A Committee Chairman Brice Wiggins, R-Pascagoula, responds to a question about legislation
Sen. Brice Wiggins, R-Pascagoula, told lawmakers on the Senate floor that “our goal (with H.B. 1020) is to get a safe Jackson.” AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis

At least 16 states already have laws that require officials investigating missing persons and unidentified remains to catalog the information into the federal NAMUS database. However, none of those states explicitly require officials to log information about identified but unclaimed persons into the database, NBC News reported on Dec. 19, 2023.

“There are human remains that get found (in Mississippi), and there’s no regulation of that,” Wiggins told the Mississippi Free Press on March 21.

“What this is doing is giving jurisdiction of (human) remains to the state medical examiner’s office,” he continued. “Then, law enforcement, or whoever is involved, has to report it to NAMUS, and that way the database is filled with that information so that when they are trying to solve these cold cases, they can go search the database and do that.”

Wiggins said he decided to introduce the bill after talking with Pascagoula Lt. Darren Versiga and State Forensic Anthropologist Anastasia Holobinko (who have worked together for years to ensure previously unidentified human remains were sent for modern DNA testing). That’s when he learned that there was no state statute proscribing how county coroners should handle unidentified human remains.

“In Mississippi, we have 82 coroners—82 coroners all doing their own thing,” Versiga told the Mississippi Free Press on March 27.

‘That Should’ve Never Happened In This Day And Age’

On Oct. 25, 2023, NBC News first reported on Hinds County officials’ accidental burial of Dexter Wade, a 37-year-old Jackson, Miss., resident whose mother had reported him missing on March 14 of last year. Wade died on March 5, 2023, when an off-duty Jackson Police officer driving in a police cruiser along Interstate 55 struck and killed him.

Officials made no connection between Dexter Wade’s death and the missing person’s report his mother, Bettersten Wade, filed with the Jackson Police Department on March 14, 2023. Neither the county coroner’s office nor Jackson Police notified Bettersten Wade that her son had been killed that same month, despite her repeated calls to JPD and posts to social media for word on what might have happened to her son.

On July 14, 2023, the county buried Dexter Wade at the Hinds County Penal Farm in Raymond, Miss., in a pauper’s graveyard. Pauper’s burials are typically used when a deceased person either has no loved ones to claim their bodies or when their loved ones cannot afford a burial.

After the family finally learned of his death and burial in August 2023 and had Dexter Wade’s body exhumed, a pathologist the family hired to conduct an independent autopsy “found a wallet with a state identification card that included the address of a home he shared with his mother,” the family’s lawyer told NBC News on Nov. 16, 2023.

Jackson Mayor Chokwe A. Lumumba said on Oct. 26, 2023, that “a lack of communication” among several agencies led to Wade being buried at the pauper’s cemetery. “Because of that, they were unable to find (Dexter Wade’s) family within an expeditious period of time and he was later buried once the coroner went to the Hind’s County Board of Supervisors in order to get permission to do so,” the mayor said.

Six other families have since come forward with allegations that Hinds County officials also buried their loved ones before the coroner or law enforcement contacted their next-of-kin to inform them of the deaths or give them the chance to claim the remains.

Gretchen Hankins, Mary Moore Glenn and Bettersten Wade (left to right) are pictured holding photos of their sons during a press conference at Stronger Hope Baptist Church in Jackson, Miss., on Dec. 20, 2023. Photo by Shaunicy Muhamad

“That should’ve never happened in this day and age,” Lt. Versiga told the Mississippi Free Press on March 27.

The Pascagoula officer said he believes that a statewide law requiring county coroners and law-enforcement officials to log human remains in the NAMUS system may have prevented the failures that led Hinds County officials to bury the seven men in the pauper’s field without first notifying their families.

In recent months, both the Jackson Police Department and the Hinds County Coroner’s Office announced new death-notification policies, which they neither had in place before. Sen. Wiggins’ bill would require training for police officers on how to use the NAMUS system when investigating missing and unidentified persons.

NBC News reported on Feb. 22, 2024, that the Hinds County Board of Supervisors “recently adopted a policy that will require the coroner’s office to check missing persons registries before requesting a burial.”

However, when asked for an update on the policy on April 3, 2024, District Two Supervisor Tony Smith said the board is still working out specifics of the policy and he did not yet want to comment on it.

“I would not want to misrepresent anything,” Smith told the Mississippi Free Press.

Versiga said he hopes Wiggins’ bill would also ensure no officials misplace bodies or improperly retain them in the future.

“I’m just hoping that we get this bill passed,” he said. “If not, we’ll do it again next year.”

The Senate passed the bill unanimously on March 12; it awaits a vote in the House.

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