Her mother disappeared when she was 1. More than 40 years later, strangers and science helped her figure out why



CNN

Misty LaBean has spent her entire life wondering why her mother left her family when she was just one year old.

Connie Christensen’s disappearance 40 years ago from Wisconsin was not unexpected to the rest of her relatives: she had left before, running away when she was a teenager and even participating in a carnival.

“After my own children were born, I was like, how could she leave me like that?” LaBean told CNN. “I would never do this to my children.”

Throughout his life, LaBean only heard whispers about his mother. The rest of her family was hurt and unwilling to even talk about Christensen, believing that she had chosen to leave at just 20 years old.

All the while, though, there was something else LaBean didn’t know: strangers hundreds of miles away were searching for answers to the same mystery.

Their key to unlocking it – with her help – will be time, along with the inexorable progress of science. Eventually, those who seek the truth will connect. And a grown daughter would understand why her mother leaving “may not have been her choice.”

Hunters in the forest – and in the laboratory

It was a sketch artist who first used a clay bust to try to recreate the face of the remains found in December 1982 in east-central Indiana, said Wayne County Coroner’s Chief Deputy Coroner Lauren Ogden.

Hunters found them near Martindale Creek in a rural area used mainly for hunting and farming, she said. But due to flooding, the remains were damaged beyond recognition and ended up at the University of Indianapolis for safekeeping.

But the coroner keeps trying to figure out their identities.

And during these years, science was improving. Within two generations, investigators went from relying on drawings to try to identify the missing and the murdered to mining the evidence itself for tiny, delicate threads that could pinpoint who someone was.

In fact, the technology had gotten so good that in 2021, the Wayne County Coroner’s Office went back to evidence found near Martindale Creek to see if it could extract DNA to figure out who the remains belonged to, Ogden told CNN.

The first attempt failed: There wasn’t enough genetic material to generate a usable DNA profile, she said.

They attempted a second DNA extraction.

Another failure.

Next, she explained, Ogden and her team tried extracting DNA from a leg bone.

Around the same time, someone in Christensen’s family became interested in genealogy and encouraged her relatives to submit DNA records to public sources that help people build family trees, Ogden said.

Hailed as a way to explore personal history and connect with previously unknown relatives, DNA matching has also been used to link victims to criminals such as the happy-faced killer who killed at least eight women. It helped police track down the Golden State Killer, suspected of a dozen murders and more than 50 rapes.

Authorities in the Golden State case used the free genealogy and DNA database GEDmatch to match DNA from the crime scene to a pool of possible suspects created using DNA profiles or genealogy data from public services like Ancestry — the kind Christensen’s relative had encouraged her family to use.

GEDmatch is also used by the DNA Doe Project, a nonprofit organization that uses research genetic genealogy to identify anonymous remains.

Working with that group — and DNA from the foot bone of the Martindale Creek remains — the Wayne County Medical Examiner’s Office tried to craft a potential family tree for the man hunters found in 1982, Ogden said.

Within 24 hours, they had a serious lead, Lori Flowers of the DNA Doe Project told CNN.

The nonprofit has narrowed the GEDmatch pool of possible DNA links to the Martindale Creek remains to the Christensen siblings, she said. Then, sifting through family social media posts and relatives’ obituaries, investigators noticed something: Connie Christensen had disappeared from her family’s public records.

But they still had to confirm it.

Ogden reached out to the missing woman’s child, LaBean.

Courtesy of Misty LaBean

Misty Labeen

“Being on the ground floor,” Ogden recalls, “I was the one who called her daughter and said, ‘I’m a total stranger, can I come … clean your cheek?’

Coincidentally, it was her mother.

In addition to Christensen’s identity, the medical examiner’s office also shared a discovery their team made about how LaBean’s mother died, Ogden said: a gunshot wound.

The grim detail raised a barrage of new questions: What was Christensen doing in Indiana? Who killed her? And why?

LaBean went to the spot near Martindale Creek where her mother’s remains were found, she said, and wondered how the killer had taken Christensen so far from the nearest bus line.

“In some ways, it makes me feel a little better,” LaBean said of learning the true story of his mother’s absence. “But it also makes me angry because I could have had the chance to know her, and someone took that chance away from me.”

Perhaps publicizing the case will help her family find more answers, LaBean said.

Even without that, however, knowing what had happened to Christensen released the gas her family had held so tightly to her memory—a gift to the child who had wondered for so long why she had been abandoned.

“The biggest thing is I’ve always loved animals,” LaBean said. “And then I realized she really likes cats. This is something I got from her.

LaBean also got back the opal ring her mother was wearing when she died, a nod to her own childhood when some of the first jewelry she cherished was opal, she said. The gold band with two diamonds and an opal hangs on a chain around the neck of the grown daughter – now a mother herself.

“It’s really come full circle,” Ogden said. “She’s wearing the ring that was found there 40 years ago, and it’s mind-blowing to think that your DNA is able to provide that closure.”

Meanwhile, Christensen’s remains were laid to rest in April among her relatives, including her parents, her obituary said. “We were able to bring her family back to where her mother was found so they could leave flowers and have a quiet moment there,” Ogden said.

Some longings will remain unshared, like how LaBean wished her mother could have done her hair before her first high school dance, like she was said to have done her own sisters,” she told CNN.

Still, the grown daughter—with her entire family—is now eager to bring the lost, young mother back into an embrace multiplied over decades until they finally mourn all they’ve truly lost.

“If Connie were still here with us, she would be surrounded by all her nieces, nephews, great nephews, aunts, uncles and many cousins ​​on both sides of the family,” her obituary read. “Connie would be an amazing mother to her only daughter, Misty, and her husband, Dan Labeen. She never had the chance to be a great and loving grandmother.

CNN’s Andy Rose contributed to this report.

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