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Akron girl who went missing at age 17 identified over 40 years later

Posted at 11:04 AM, Jul 12, 2018
and last updated 2018-07-12 17:23:07-04

More than four decades after a 17-year-old Akron girl went missing without a trace, family and friends of the missing teen now have closure after investigators identified her through DNA evidence.

Linda Pagano's missing persons case received new life in 2016 after a user of the popular website Reddit announced a perplexing discovery after combing through decades-old cemetery records.

RELATED: Reddit user helps family of missing Akron teen find possible break in 43-year-old case

The Cuyahoga County Medical Examiner's Office confirmed remains buried in Potter's Field belonged to Linda Pagano, a Springfield High School student who was last seen when she left her stepfather's apartment on Carnegie Avenue on Sept. 1, 1974. Pagano reportedly left her stepfather’s home after getting into a fight with him.

Michael Pagano, Linda’s brother, said his memory of his sister never faded. But his hope of finding out what happened to her did.

"I thought I was in a dream. I thought I would never see this," Michael Pagano said when he heard the news about his sister. "I thought this day would never come. I thought I would die wondering. I am amazed how this came to light like it did."

Current Akron Deputy Police Chief Jesse Leeser said investigators exhausted all possible leads in the days following Pagano’s disappearance.

On February 5, 1975, three boys found skeletal remains along the bank of the Rocky River in Strongsville, which currently is known as Mill Stream Run Reservation. There was no physical evidence at the scene. An autopsy later revealed the remains were that of a white female in her late teens or early 20s. The unknown woman died from a gunshot wound to the head. The case was classified as a homicide.

Then both cases went cold. Weeks turned to months. Months turned to years. Years turned to decades.The woman’s remains went unclaimed and were later interred at Potter’s Field at Memorial Gardens in Highland Hills.

The woman’s remains joined thousands of other people to be buried in a solemn strip of land, devoid of grave stones or markers. They are nameless people, often indigent and forever unknown. 

That was until 2016.

Amateur sleuth and genealogy researcher Christina Scates was pouring over decades-old cemetery records for an unrelated case when she came across internment number 82483. The records list the remains interred in the unmarked grave as the bones of a white female on February 5th, 1975. The woman was about 20 years old, according to the records, and was discovered in Strongsville. The cause of death was listed as heart failure from a gunshot wound to the head.  

Scates was able to get an autopsy report and case files, including the photo of the Strongsville Jane Doe's skull, which helped forensic artists create a facial reconstruction.

She also contacted the Cuyahoga County Medical Examiner’s Office about the case, which had not been entered into the agency’s list of unidentified cases. Days later, the case was entered into NamUs, a federal database for missing and unidentified persons.

In December 2016, the Akron Police Department contacted CCMEO regarding a possible match, and dental records were provided. Over the next several months, law enforcement, city officials and the CCMEO met to discuss the exhumation of the unidentified woman’s remains at the Potter’s Field. The exhumation occurred in October 2017 with the assistance of the University of Akron, which provided magnetic and electronic surveying equipment to help map out the unmarked graves. 

Bone samples from the exhumed remains, in addition to DNA samples from Linda Pagano’s family members, were sent to the University of North Texas for mitochondrial DNA testing.

It was official: the remains found at the Mill Stream Run Reservation were that of Linda Pagano.

“I thought this day would never come. I thought I would die wondering,” Michael Pagano said. “I thought I would go on living my life and die and never know. This is just amazing, the technology and everything. I had no idea all these people were involved in all this. I’m totally shocked.”

Linda Pagano’s case remains an open homicide investigation led by the Metoparks Rangers. Anyone with information is urged to give their detectives a call. Authorities said now that they have a positive identification of the victim, they will re-interview family members and potential witnesses. The only person to be named a person of interest in Linda Pagano’s disappearance was her stepfather, Byron Claflin. He died in 1990. No suspects have been publicly identified. 

Following Thursday’s announcement of the positive identification, Michael Pagano finally had the chance to meet Scates in person. The two had spoken to one another through one of Michael’s family members but had never met. 

They hugged. It was a long time coming.