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Family hopes sketch, DNA lead to identity of body exhumed from Hempfield pauper's grave

Paul Peirce
| Wednesday, Dec. 9, 2015, 12:01 a.m.
Pennsylvania State Police released a composite image on Dec. 8, 2015, from National Center for Missing & Exploited Children of a teenage girl that was exhumed from a grave in a pauper's cemetery on land next to Westmoreland County jail.
Sean Stipp | Trib Total Media
Pennsylvania State Police released a composite image on Dec. 8, 2015, from National Center for Missing & Exploited Children of a teenage girl that was exhumed from a grave in a pauper's cemetery on land next to Westmoreland County jail.

Mary Thompson remains hopeful that a body exhumed from a pauper's cemetery in Westmoreland County will be identified as her sister, even though a composite sketch doesn't match her memory of the teen who disappeared in Homewood in 1967.

“I don't feel it's exactly what Teala looked like, but I know in my heart that it is my sister,” the Pitcairn woman said. “And I think when the DNA tests come back, it will verify that.”

State police in Greensburg on Tuesday released the sketch of a teenage black woman created by the nonprofit National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, headquartered in Alexandria, Va., which assists law enforcement in such cases.

Police said the sketch was created from information obtained from CT scans of the skull that were done at Children's Hospital in Pittsburgh and other forensic information obtained through the autopsy of the remains exhumed Oct. 30 from the potter's field in Hempfield.

“So far, we've only had one family come forward to say the remains may be that of their loved one, so we wanted to get this sketch out there to the public in case anyone else may recognize it or be able to come forward to us with information,” state police spokesman Trooper Stephen Limani said. “The family still believes it is their loved one ... that there are a lot of similarities.”

Limani said DNA samples from the body and Thompson's family have been forwarded to the state police laboratory for analysis, but results are weeks away.

Thompson was just 4 when Teala went missing from the family's home in the Homewood neighborhood of Pittsburgh nearly five decades ago.

Teala was 13 when she disappeared in September 1967. Police in Westmoreland County found a badly decomposed body of a teenage girl later that month on a road leading to a Salem landfill. Officials were unable to make an identification because of the condition of the body.

The teen's body and the remains of an unidentified newborn found suffocated and drowned about a month earlier in a Penn Township sewer grate were buried in the same grave, according to news accounts at the time.

Investigators opened both cases again in the fall and had the bodies unearthed to try and identify them and determine how they died. The exhumation sparked hope for the Thompson family.

“We definitely want closure,” Thompson said.

Although the facts surrounding Teala's disappearance are unexplained, Limani said investigators are treating it as an unsolved homicide.

Thompson's family contacted state police after details of the renewed investigation to learn the identities of two bodies were made public.

In 1967, police said the body found at the landfill belonged to a multi-racial teenage girl. Thompson said her sister fit that description and was the only child reported missing to Pittsburgh police at that time.

Family members said Teala went to school one morning and never came home.

State police Detective Brian Gross, who is leading the cold case investigation, has met with the Thompson family and is sifting through Teala's school records for information.

Limani said Tuesday that investigators learned through forensics the victim likely died from a blow to the head.

Investigators, along with students and staff from the forensic anthropology department at Mercyhurst University in Erie, spent more than eight hours in the pauper's cemetery on land next to the county jail in October, searching for and exhuming the remains.

The cemetery, which has not been used since 1972, has about 610 graves that are marked with small, marble stones with identifying numbers that have weathered.

“The (Thompson) family used to live at 7141 12 Forest Way in Homewood, so we're putting this sketch out there hoping it may jog someone's memory and that they will come forward with information,” Limani said. “There's no statute of limitations on homicide, but we are actually seeking any information on the case anyone may have.

“We want to determine what may have happened to this poor child,” he said.

Limani said forensic analysis on the infant's remains are still being completed.

Anyone with information can contact Trooper Gross at 724-832-3288.

Paul Peirce is a reporter for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at ppeirce@tribweb.com or 724-850-2860.

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