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UNIDENTIFIED

Dead-end leads leave unknown skeleton case open

Posted on June 28, 2021

Local newsThe Kay Files
Dental information for an unidentified woman whose skeleton was found in Onslow County in 1991 includes little wear on the teeth and minimum gum disease. An upper molar had been extracted with a healed socket and a chipped tooth had been restored. Her lower jaw wasn't recovered.

Contributed photo

Dental information for an unidentified woman whose skeleton was found in Onslow County in 1991 includes little wear on the teeth and minimum gum disease. An upper molar had been extracted with a healed socket and a chipped tooth had been restored. Her lower jaw wasn't recovered.

This reconstruction bust of the Bear Creek Skeleton, the remains of an unknown woman found in Onslow County in 1991, depicts what forensic anthropologist Emily Craig believes the woman to have looked like. The woman's jawbone wasn't recovered, so the jawline is an estimation.

Contributed photo

This reconstruction bust of the Bear Creek Skeleton, the remains of an unknown woman found in Onslow County in 1991, depicts what forensic anthropologist Emily Craig believes the woman to have looked like. The woman's jawbone wasn't recovered, so the jawline is an estimation.

Dental information for an unidentified woman whose skeleton was found in Onslow County in 1991 includes little wear on the teeth and minimum gum disease. An upper molar had been extracted with a healed socket and a chipped tooth had been restored. Her lower jaw wasn't recovered.

Contributed photo

Dental information for an unidentified woman whose skeleton was found in Onslow County in 1991 includes little wear on the teeth and minimum gum disease. An upper molar had been extracted with a healed socket and a chipped tooth had been restored. Her lower jaw wasn't recovered.

This reconstruction bust of the Bear Creek Skeleton, the remains of an unknown woman found in Onslow County in 1991, depicts what forensic anthropologist Emily Craig believes the woman to have looked like. The woman's jawbone wasn't recovered, so the jawline is an estimation.

Contributed photo

This reconstruction bust of the Bear Creek Skeleton, the remains of an unknown woman found in Onslow County in 1991, depicts what forensic anthropologist Emily Craig believes the woman to have looked like. The woman's jawbone wasn't recovered, so the jawline is an estimation.

This reconstruction bust of the Bear Creek Skeleton, the remains of an unknown woman found in Onslow County in 1991, depicts what forensic anthropologist Emily Craig believes the woman to have looked like. The woman's jawbone wasn't recovered, so the jawline is an estimation.
Dental information for an unidentified woman whose skeleton was found in Onslow County in 1991 includes little wear on the teeth and minimum gum disease. An upper molar had been extracted with a healed socket and a chipped tooth had been restored. Her lower jaw wasn't recovered.

Unidentified is a weekly series examining the more than 120 cases of unidentified human remains discovered in North Carolina. Reporter Lindell J. Kay produces each installment for The Enterprise of Spring Hope and other Restoration NewsMedia newspapers.

Click the hyperlinked text below to read previous installments:

 Dozens of bodies found across NC remain mysteries

 'Baby John Nash' killing remains unsolved

 Drowning victim remains unknown

 Man who stepped in front of train still unknown 

 Body dumped on interstate remains mystery 

 Few clues found in skeleton case 

 Tattoo may hold key clue in unsolved homicide 

 Unknown woman stabbed to death 

 Few clues in unknown homeless man's death 

 A decade after bones found, woman's identity remains mystery 

 Skeleton with shotgun wounds all but forgotten 

Crash victim has been 'John Doe' since 2002 

lkay@springhopeenterprise.com | 252-265-8117

Worrell

Worrell

JACKSONVILLE — Raccoon hunters stumbled across a human skull in the Onslow County woods on a cold, dark night in 1991.

Three decades later, investigators hope emerging technology will help identify the woman, who has become locally known as the Bear Creek Skeleton.

The hunters led deputies with the Onslow County Sheriff’s Office to the site the following morning, Dec. 2, 1991.

The remains belonged to a 20- to 30-year old white woman who died two or three years prior to discovery, judging by the amount of foliage that had grown up around her skeleton, according to an autopsy by the late Buddy Garrett, a Southeast regional medical examiner in 1991.

A cause of death couldn’t be determined because no detectable injuries were found, but homicide seems the likely manner of death due to the the Bear Creek Skeleton’s isolated location, Garrett determined in his report.

DONNIE WORRELL

A young crime scene investigator on his skeleton recovery case in 1991, Donnie Worrell spent two days in those woods, painstakingly gathering dozens of bones scattered by animals. He recovered most of the remains except for the jawbone.

As Worrell rose through the ranks, he kept the Bear Creek Skeleton case close at hand, searching through missing person databases, submitting reconstruction photographs to online missing person networks and running down dead-end leads in Pennsylvania, Virginia and Texas.

“Every cop has that one case that bothers them. For me, this is it,” Worrell told this reporter in a 2008 interview.

After 35 years on the job, Worrell retired as chief deputy at the end of 2018 in a standing-room-only ceremony. He kept his duty weapon, a Smith & Wesson handgun, and remains a reserve deputy. He became chairman of Onslow County Crime Stoppers in May.

Worrell attended a February 2020 press conference where Onslow authorities showed a new wax bust and photographs of what the Bear Creek Skeleton likely looked like based on a forensic reconstruction of her skull done with the assistance of Naval Criminal Investigative Service agents and anthropologists at Tulane University in New Orleans.

“This is the one case since 1991 that I had hoped that we were going to be able to solve, or at least find out who she was,” Worrell said. “We find out who she was, where she came from, that might help lead us to the people who we think murdered her.”

JOHN D. SMALLWOOD

The still-unsolved shooting death of a motorcycle gang member in February 2010 allowed Worrell to take another look at the Bear Creek Skeleton case.

A patched Pagan, John D. Smallwood was shot between the eyes while sitting on his couch eating a cup of pudding. Authorities immediately named his roommate as a person of interest in Smallwood’s death.

The roommate vanished immediately after questioning by detectives and hasn’t resurfaced. Local folks speculate the roommate fell to the vigilante justice of Smallwood’s close-knit family and his body is submerged in the Carteret County marshes.

Despite a tip that Smallwood had been involved in the Bear Creek Skeleton’s death, no evidence ever came to light, according to detectives.

ALAN ROBERT DAVIS

Around a decade ago, detectives received a tip that a motorcycle gang member nicknamed Smiley killed the Bear Creek Skeleton. Investigators located an inmate in Florida named Alan Robert Davis with that alias.

Davis strangled two young University of Florida coeds in their apartment in the summer of 1991.

A captain and the lead cold case detective at the time, Worrell traveled to interview Davis at Tomoka Correctional Institute outside Daytona Beach.

Worrell said Davis spoke freely with him and provided useful information. After interviewing other people in Florida, Worrell ruled out Davis as a suspect in the Bear Creek Skeleton case.

TIFFANY SESSIONS

Detectives also believed at one point that the Bear Creek Skeleton belonged to Tiffany Sessions, the most publicized missing person in Florida history.

Sessions left her Gainesville apartment for a power walk one afternoon in 1989 and vanished. Her wealthy father spent millions of dollars trying to find her.

The Bear Creek Skeleton’s time of death and physical description were similar to those of Sessions, but DNA comparisons made at the University of North Texas in Denton didn’t match, so detectives excluded Sessions in the case.

Authorities now believe the late convicted serial killer Paul Eugene Rowles killed Sessions. He kept a coded journal in which he wrote “#2 2/9/89,” which is the date Sessions disappeared. While authorities believe they know who killed Sessions, her body has never been recovered.

MATTHEW ALDER

In 2012, detectives looked into a connection between convicted serial killer Matthew Alder and the Bear Creek Skeleton. Suspicion fell on Alder because the former Marine was stationed in the area in the early 1990s at the time of several young women’s unsolved deaths.

He is serving a life sentence in prison in Michigan for the murder of two women there linked to him via DNA.

Alder remains a suspect in the Bear Creek Skeleton case.

FEW CLUES

The Bear Creek Skeleton’s height is about 5 feet, 1 inch. Her weight couldn’t be estimated, but she had a slight build. Her actual eye and hair color are unknown. She also had a possible back or neck problem in the form of a fusion of the C2/3 vertebrae as well as slight arch in C1, and may have had degenerative bone disease in her neck, according to her autopsy.

Detectives believe that based on her clothes, she died in the fall or wintertime. She wore a gray or brown crew knit sweater with gold thread, dark blue or black stretch pants and pantyhose. A pair of white slip-on shoes was found nearby.

Found with clothing remnants was a label for Necessary Objects Limited, a Long Island, New York, clothing company that began in 1981 and is now out of business.

CONTACT INFORMATION

Whether washed ashore, unearthed in shallow graves, stumbled upon in the woods, discovered in abandoned houses, killed on busy roads or located in rivers, ponds and along railroad tracks, more than 120 bodies remain unidentified in North Carolina. This is one of their stories.

The Bear Creek Skeleton’s assigned case number in the National Missing and Unidentified System is 5966. The Onslow County Sheriff’s Office updated case number is 2020000561.

Anyone with information can contact the Onslow County Sheriff’s Office at 910-455-3113, Onslow Crime Stoppers at 910-938-3273 or Team Cold Case at 252-406-6736. Authorities say callers don’t have to reveal their identities and a monetary reward is possible.

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