Skeletal remains found 16 years ago identified by Cold Case Coalition
In 2005 young boys playing near an abandoned house in Harnett County, North Carolina found skeletal remains. More than fifteen years later those remains are identified thanks to the work of The Carolina Cold Case Coalition. In this bonus episode, the coalition solves its first case, bringing closure to a family and a name to the unidentified. Learn how forensic science – in particular forensic genealogy – helped solve the case.
DISCLAIMER: This podcast contains frank descriptions of human remains and physical violence. Listener discretion is advised.
Leslie: Hi, Amanda.
Amanda: Hey there. How are you?
Leslie: I'm doing well. Thank you. I am well.
Amanda: Leslie Kaufman and I have been talking on and off for several years. She’s the forensic genealogist working to uncover the identity of unidentified remains in North Carolina. We followed her working on this project in the last episode.
Leslie: Well, um, as you've heard, we have identified our first and our, for our project, which is in Harnett County
Detective John Hawley: On January 1, 2021, I got a text from Leslie and it was good news. We have a match.
Amanda: For 15 years the unidentified remains were stored by the state of North Carolina. He was classified as a John Doe.
Leslie: This poor guy has laid unknown for 15 years and nobody knew what happened to him. Nobody knew where he went. If he was dead or alive, was he hurt, you know, no information, he kind of ceased to exist.
Amanda: That was, until the North Carolina Cold Case Initiative chose this John Doe to be one of 13 cases of unidentified remains they're trying to put names to. Michael Baker’s case is the first one they’ve solved where investigators wanted to share news with the public.
From WRAL Studios, this is What Remains: stories of connecting unidentified human remains to the missing and the murdered. I’m Amanda Lamb.
In Part 2 of this story, how this team cracked one of these cold cases, and what it means for the rest of the people they’re trying to identify.
Amanda: It was Veteran’s Day, Friday, November 11, 2005. Four local boys had the day off from school and were skateboarding in a small community called Cameron in rural eastern North Carolina. James Leighton’s dog ran off. James jumped off his skateboard and went to look for his pet. That’s when he saw something strange peeking out between the boards in the second story of an old abandoned house.
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James Leighton: Oh my God. There’s a skeleton right there.
Amanda: James ran to tell his friends what he had found and urged them to come look for themselves..
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Ian Campbell: He was like, dude, I found a skeleton.
Jacob Campbell: Kind of freaked me out, how often is it that you find a dead person around your house?
I thought it was like a fake skeleton that someone just threw up there, but then I got to looking at it and saw that it was actually a real skeleton and we went and got my mom.
Amanda: Sheila Campbell, the mother of two of the boys out that day, Jacob and Ian, came right away when they told her what they had discovered.
Sheila Campbell: It looked very real. I did not think it was a prank.
Amanda: Campbell climbed a tree to get a better look at the skeletal remains. Convinced it was the real deal, she called 911.
Sheila: We don’t know of anyone that’s missing but I’m sure someone is looking for them. I mean, that’s a person.
Amanda: Detective John Hawley says a team of investigators from the Harnett County Sheriff’s Office descended upon the property and methodically processed the scene.
Hawley: Deputies responded. Fire department responded and investigators responded. They did a crime scene search. They were able to recover the remains.
Amanda: The house had been abandoned for years. In 2003, it caught on fire.
Hawley: Information in the neighborhood from their witnesses, the building had been abandoned for a minimum five years. No reason to believe anybody was inside. Because of the structural danger, they made a decision not to move up to the second floor along with the fact that part of it was collapsing. The second floor was collapsing at that time.
Amanda: So, by the time Harnett County sheriff’s investigators got the unidentified remains case in 2005, it was already well on its way to being a cold case.
Hawley: There were no missing person reports taken in that area. Nobody had seen anyone lingering around the house in that area. So it kind of, the case itself kind of started going cold when we were unable to get an identification from the remains.
Amanda: John Hawley has been working with the Harnett County Sheriff's office for more than 40 years.
Hawley: I'm retired. And so I now work cold cases and it's more or less on a, a part-time status.
Amanda: Hawley might as well have air quotes around the word “retired.” He has retired from law enforcement and come back so many times since he first became an officer in 1977, I’m pretty sure he will never truly put down his badge.
And at this point in his career, it’s the pull of the county’s cold cases that keeps him on the job.
Hawley: It's a challenge. And you go back. And so many things have changed with the way investigations are conducted now, compared to, to the way they were just maybe even five years ago. But when we talk about 10, 15, 20, 25 years ago, or even longer, then it's pretty much like day and night sometimes.
Amanda: A few big changes, including better science, better DNA testing, and the advent of forensic genealogy…
It was the fall of 2020, and the sheriff’s office had just assigned Hawley to the case dubbed “Cameron Doe,” named for the community, Cameron, where the John Doe was found in November of 2005. He was told that the case was already being worked on by a forensic anthropologist named Ann Ross and a forensic genealogist, Leslie Kaufman.
Hawley: When I first got this case, I actually knew nothing about it. I got it. And I read part of it. And shortly thereafter, I had a conversation with Leslie Kaufman. She called me.
Amanda: Leslie Kaufman told Hawley she was just starting to build Cameron Doe’s family tree from the DNA results the lab had returned to her. He didn’t know her from Adam, but right away he got a little spark of hope, a feeling that this may just end up being a cold case he could solve.
Hawley: You still have, you know, victims’ families that just don't really know what happened. And I thought it would just be awesome if you could give them some kind of closure, if you could maybe bring justice forward.
Amanda: Unidentified remains’ cases aren’t your typical cold cases. Not only are you trying to figure out how someone died – was it an accident, were they murdered – but you’re trying to discover who the person is. Without that key piece of information it’s pretty hard to piece together the story of what exactly happened to them.
At first, Kaufman didn’t have much information to offer Hawley. She told him straight up this is what she had, but she was confident she would soon learn more.
Leslie: So I had another match, which was a third cousin.
Hawley: And I said, a third cousin. She said, yeah. Anything else? She said, no, that's really all I have right now. And I said, okay. I said, at this time, there's not going to be a lot we actually can do with that. She said absolutely, she said, I just want you to know that I'm involved in it, that I'm following up on it and I'll be in touch.
Amanda: Hawley is a natural born skeptic. As a seasoned investigator, he’s hit a lot of dead ends investigating cold cases. And while he definitely believed Leslie Kaufman might be onto something. He didn’t want to put all of his eggs in the forensic genealogy basket.
Hawley: I didn't want to be overzealous. I wanted, I was listening to everything she said, but I was always saying, move slow.
Leslie: They never want to be wrong. We don't want to send anybody down a rabbit hole. That's why I have to do so much research to verify what I'm telling them, because basically I'm giving them a lead.
Amanda: In late summer of 2020, Kaufman started getting back the results of the DNA testing on the cases she’s working on for the North Carolina Cold Case Initiative. Right away, she saw something unusual as she started to build Cameron Doe’s family tree.
Leslie: When I started building the matches tree, um, I noticed that two sisters married two brothers about two generations back. And this would be in the late 1800’s.
Amanda: This meant that Cameron Doe’s family history was even more complicated than Kaufman had imagined.
Leslie: It creates a false sense of where the people fit in the tree, because what that does is it doubles the amount of DNA you share with those people.
Amanda: But she was undaunted by the curve ball. During her research she came across a woman in Texas in her sixties who shared a decent amount of DNA with the remains.
Amanda: What would her familial relationship have been to Michael?
Leslie: She was, I can tell you exactly what she was to him. Second, double second cousin, once removed.
Amanda: Wow. That's a mouthful.
Leslie: Yeah, it is. And that's because two brothers married two sisters, which makes them double aunts, double uncles, it is complicated. Yes.
Amanda: From this connection, Kaufman built a family tree that led straight to Cameron Doe’s father. He was still alive and living in the same community where the remains were found. Kaufman thought this could not be a coincidence.
Leslie: When I saw that the father lived in Cameron, North Carolina. Um, I started researching all his children.
Amanda: This discovery led her to Cameron Doe’s sister, Linda who was also still alive and living in Sanford, North Carolina, a town about twelve miles from Cameron. It was now November of 2020 and she decided it was time to bring Detective Hawley into the loop.
Leslie: I called John and I actually gave him Michael J. Wesley Baker's name. And I explained to him that he had a sister still living in the area.
Amanda: So basically Leslie said, I think it might be Michael Baker based on what I've learned.
Hawley: I think it's a possibility that this is, this is a really good possibility, so we need to eliminate it or prove it.
Amanda: With a name in hand, Hawley discovered that Linda Baker Bauer had reported her brother missing to Sanford Police in 2007. Michael had been a drifter. Linda hadn’t seen her brother for years at the time she reported him missing. But she was worried something had happened to him. Like so many family members of missing people, she just wanted answers and thought getting the police involved might be a good place to start.
Hawley: So we find Ms. Bauer, we go out a couple of times, it's hard to locate her, but she calls us back and we come out and speak with her. She's very cooperative. She gave us the information. Uh, yes, she filed a report. She hadn't seen Michael since sometime in 2003, she recalled but she thought it might have been a later date in 2003.
Amanda: Linda told Hawley that Michael was her only biological brother. She identified a photograph of him that came from the DMV. Suddenly, everything seemed to be adding up, but they needed one more thing to confirm his identity.
Hawley: Leslie came up and said, what do you think about asking her to submit to a DNA, to an ancestry type test. I think she will. She's very cooperative. She told us whatever you need, you let me know and I'll try and help you.
Amanda: Linda did submit to a DNA test. That test was then sent off to be compared against Cameron Doe’s DNA. It took several weeks to process. Hawley waited patiently for the results.
Hawley: Ultimately on January 1, 2021, I got a text from Leslie and it was good news. We have a match.
Amanda: When he got that text, Hawley immediately picked up the phone and called Kaufman.
Hawley: I said what do you think the chances are? That this could be wrong. She said zero.
Amanda: Right? So basically in layman's terms, the DNA of the sister matched the DNA of the skeleton found in the home in such a way that you knew that this was Michael Baker.
Hawley: It matched it in such a way that they said this: The skeleton is a full brother to the known sample, which was Linda Bauer. And since Linda Bauer only had one full brother. It had to be Michael Baker whom she had reported missing.
Amanda: Even with Kaufman’s assurances that the remains were definitely Michael Baker, Hawley was still a little skeptical and cautious...
Hawley: I was really excited, but on the same time, you know, I've been working cold cases for about a year and so I had been excited several times and it then turned around and I was disappointed. So I was cautiously excited and I was like, I think we got him. I think we got him.
You know, I don't want to go out and tell somebody, Hey, we've identified your brother and then have to turn around and say, we made a mistake.
Amanda: But once the state medical examiner and Ross signed off on the final report, declaring that the remains belonged to Michael Baker, Hawley was finally convinced that everything Kaufman had told him was accurate.
He knew he had to pay another visit to Linda.
More after the break...
Hawley: Just understand, there's only so many ways that I can say this to you, but we, we found Michael and you can see some tears rolling down her face. And she said, is he alive? And I said, I'm sorry, he's not.
And she was emotional, but she recovered quickly. And she said, do you think it was a homicide? And I said, everything that I know, I do not believe it was a homicide. And she said, well, that makes me feel better. And I said this is not what I hoped that I'd be able to tell you. I said, but hopefully it'll give you some kind of closure and some kind of comfort. And she said, yeah. And she recovered quickly. And, and she said immediately, I want to tell everybody how much I appreciate it.
Sheriff Wayne Coats, Harnett County, NC: This is a very special day, not just for the Harnett County Sheriff’s Office but for a family that was very much involved in this situation.
Amanda: On January 25, 2021, longtime Harnett County Sheriff Wayne Coats held a press conference to announce that his investigators in partnership with the North Carolina Cold Case Initiative had cracked this 16-year-old case.
Sheriff Coats: Today was not the ending we wanted, but in the end it brings closure to a family.
Amanda: Detective John Hawley then walked up to the podium to explain what he thought might have happened to Michael Baker.
Hawley: He was found in a 2-story vacant building. It was cold on the night the fire started. So perhaps he started the fire. We’re unsure.
Amanda: Investigators didn’t know if the 24-year-old was homeless at the time and maybe that’s why he was there. All they knew for sure was that he was born in Texas and had moved to North Carolina with his family shortly before his death.
Here’s NC-State forensic anthropologist Ann Ross:
Ann Ross: I just wanted to say we are so gratified that we were able to bring, uh, provide Mr. Baker back a personal identification.
Amanda: For Ross it wasn’t just any case, it was the FIRST case solved they were going public with as a part of their project to identify all of the unidentified remains in North Carolina.
Ann: One of the things that we don’t really talk about all the time is that a personal identity is a basic human right.
Amanda: Leslie Kaufman was by Ross’ side at the press conference. She explained that when someone is missing, families always hold out hope that their loved one might be found alive.
Leslie: Hope is a great thing to have, but answers is what we’re actually looking for so we can hopefully bring these people back to their families. We want them to give them back their identities and their lives. And we want to be able to hopefully give them peace.
Amanda: Investigator Hawley is still in awe of the fact that science and technology have advanced to this point.
Hawley: To be able to solve a case like this, you know from possibly, probably from 2003, but at least from 2005, with nothing but skeletal remains and not even a complete skeleton, then I thought it was pretty remarkable.
Amanda: Detective Hawley says solving these cases gives him hope that more cold cases will now be solved in the future with the help of high-level DNA testing and forensic genealogy.
Hawley: Oh, we've got several cases we're working on and we're trying to do an evaluation on him to see if, if we can tie this in somehow to hopefully bring some closure to those cases.
Amanda: Ross and Kaufman have gone on to solve five more cases since this one. Their total solved cases now include 3 homicides, 2 suicides, and 2 cases where the manner of death is undetermined.
Ross: Our goal was to chisel away at our unidentifieds here in North Carolina and you know we’re seven in.
Amanda: This includes two cold cases that were more than forty years old in Chatham County, North Carolina. They were both murders. Alexander Brown of Baltimore, Maryland was reported missing by his family in 1978. His remains were discovered in a rural part of Chatham County in 1981. Thanks to the North Carolina Unidentified Project, the sheriff’s office was able to confirm Brown’s identity. They released that information to the community in April of 2022. Kaufman says a solid DNA match helped her create a family tree that led to one of Brown’s nieces.
Kaufman: I sent her an email and said to her I believe that i have an unidentified male here in North Carolina that i is your mother’s brother is what i believe it is. And she emailed me back and this was like 8:30, 9:00 at night, she emailed me back and said I sure hope you’re right, we’ve been looking for my uncle for 43 years.
Amanda: When you get a call from Leslie who says i think we found him. how does that make you feel?
Ross: Oh elated and excited. Leslie doesn’t like to talk too early in the morning, but on those days I’ll get a call before 7am.
Amanda: Another man was discovered in the Cape Fear River in 1976 in Moncure, North Carolina. Kaufman says the killer removed his head and his hands to keep him from being identified. But thanks to Ross and Kaufman’s efforts and the help of a laboratory in Texas that was able to assess degraded DNA...they took another stab at this one. Ultimately, they got a match.
In May of 2022, the Chatham County Sheriff’s Office announced the remains belonged to 26-year-old Jimmy Mack Brooks, an army veteran. Kaufman and the detective, Ricky Culberson, delivered Brooks’ ashes to his family in early June 2022.
Amanda: What was that like?
Kaufman: It was incredible. I was kind of nervous a little bit because I didn’t know how, I just had not done that and I was emotional because I’m going with him to deliver this gentleman’s remains. I didn’t know what to expect. But they are so lovely. They had prepared lunch and she had made chocolate pie and we just sat there and we talked and reminisced about Jimmy.
And it was just a really wonderful experience and they are so, so grateful.
and I can tell you, I was thinking about that last night. And I said, you know, when you know, people ask me why I do it and it's a whole lot of reasons that I do it, but when you can actually talk to a family member and they are telling you that this is something that they have waited so long for and how grateful they are and that they love you for doing this.
I mean, to be able to bring Jimmy home and give him his resting place and put him where he needs, they know where he is. right. it's, it's, uh, pretty phenomenal to be honest with you.
Amanda: But even with these touching moments, and these great accomplishments, the road to identifying more remains for Ross and Kaufman is rocky. This is an expensive process. Their grant money has run out. But Ross and Kaufman are starting a nonprofit to raise money to continue their work.
Ross: There’s funding or some federal funding and state level funding but only for homicides. But individuals that are undetermined or unknown cause and manner of death, or suicides or anything like that, they won’t fund them. They won’t give them a name.
Amanda: On the next episode of What Remains… where art meets dead people.
Amanda: It seems like it's a little bit dark doing this kind of work. I mean, how do you, how do you…? I mean, somebody is giving you a skull...
Gina Barry: I think the first time I did it, I was probably a little freaked out, you know, you're actually holding a human head in your hand.
Amanda: This episode of What Remains was written by me, Amanda Lamb, and produced by Anita Normanly. Our executive producer was Wilson Sayre who also edited the episode with mixing from Marc Maximov. What Remains was directed by Shelly Leslie. Please subscribe to our podcast on whatever app you use. That makes it easier for us to get you the latest episode. Thanks so much for listening.