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Field day helps solve crime mystery
College classmates play role in finding womanís remains.

Most people with college degrees in fashion illustration advertising probably donít spend their time digging through mud, looking for bone fragments.

Mike Himmel courtesy photo
Columbia College students, from left, Cori Nichols, Anna Cannon, Christina Rauhauser and Tina Hertel wash soil through a sieve in search of bone fragments from a crime scene last summer in the Mark Twain National Forest in Pulaski County. Their efforts for a class yielded hard evidence in a murder case.

Anna Cannon does.

The 35-year-old graduated from Columbia College in 1993 and took a job at a childrenís clothing company but found it unfulfilling. After various stops around the country, sheís a Columbia College senior again, pursuing a bachelorís degree in forensic science.

"I like to solve problems," Cannon said. "You just donít come across the opportunity to experience what we did."

What Cannon and more than 15 other students from Columbia College and the University of Missouri-Columbia experienced was helping end a 20-year-old Missouri mystery.

In August 1985, Bolivar native Mary Nobles disappeared, and for 20 years the case hibernated until family members stepped forward with new information last year that implicated John David Brown, a 52-year-old inmate in the Jefferson City Correctional Center.

Last summer, Pulaski County Sheriff J.B. King and other law enforcement officials questioned Brown, who already was serving a life sentence for murdering a church custodian.

King said Brown told his visitors Nobles visited him as he hid from authorities in the Mark Twain National Forest after escaping in 1984 from the Ozark Correctional Center in Fordland.

Brown allegedly told King he shot the 26-year-old woman in the back of the head, broke up her skull and threw the remains into a pond in a wooded area off Route E in south Pulaski County.

King organized a search team, focusing on brush and timber in an effort to find evidence of a crime scene. Later, it became apparent they would need to search a nearby acre-sized pond.

"Seeing where the trail was 20 years ago is not quite easy to do," King said. "We didnít really want to" search the pond, "but we were basically down to our last option."

After deciding to drain the pond, one of Kingís deputies pointed the department to Mike Himmel, a retired Columbia police officer who now teaches criminal justice and forensic science at Columbia College. King also turned to Dan Wescott, an anthropology professor at MU.

"It was kind of a marriage of convenience if you will," King said. "They were a godsend."

For Wescott, whose desk in MUís Swallow Hall is adorned with a skeleton pencil holder and skull eraser, the opportunity was one he couldnít pass up. In his career, heís participated in about 75 similar missions, though most havenít been in this state.

"We donít have a lot of cases in Missouri," Wescott said. "Most of what I do is identification - tell the people what they have is not human."

For Himmel, the case was something right out of his cold-case class lectures that focus on seemingly dead-end incidents.

"For the students, itís a great experience because a dig or recovery like this are few and far between," Himmel said. "Itís a phenomenal experience."

Excited, educated and energetic, the teachers gathered their students and began their mission on May 22. They got more than they expected.

"Extremely nasty, smelly, despicable mud," King said of the drained pond.

A rainstorm the night before they arrived had mixed with the bed of the pond, leaving a knee-deep pit of muck. Rather than send students into the mud, Wescott said, the team leaders had a backhoe scoop the bed onto dry ground where the students could get hold of the muck and wash it through a sieve.

It didnít take long for Brownís confession to be validated.

"We hadnít been there 15 minutes and my" crime scene investigator "comes running out of the brush with his thumb in the air," King said after the first bone fragment was discovered. "That put a charge in everybody right off the bat."

In two days of digging, screening and being filthy, King said, the students found 10 pieces comprising the skull and the intact lower jawbone and teeth.

"Thatís like you just found the million-dollar treasure buried under the sand and pulled out a chest of gold," King said. "It was jackpot time."

Authorities matched the jawbone to Noblesí dental records, King said, and were able to get their arrest warrant.

For Cannon, a single mother, putting together the final pieces of Noblesí disappearance was about more than just seeing justice served.

"You wanted to find whatever you could to come to a conclusion and kind of put the past to rest," Cannon said. "This was excitement that we could help get the closure" for Noblesí family.

Though Noblesí disappearance has been solved, Brown had not been arrested in connection with the case by Thursday.

"This is one of those cases where we donít have to hustle," King said. "We know exactly where to find him."

The Associated Press contributed to this article.


Reach Greg Miller at (573) 815-1723 or gmiller@tribmail.com.

 

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