Remains in wall ID'd as NY woman missing since '85

Published: Tuesday, July 2, 2013 1:00 p.m. CDT

POUGHKEEPSIE, N.Y. (AP) — A skeleton found walled-up in a dead man's junk-filled basement has been identified as the man's wife, a first-grade teacher whom he reported missing more than 27 years ago.

James Nichols died of natural causes in December at the age of 82. Police found his body after neighbors said they hadn't seen him for days. With no relatives coming forward to claim the body or deal with the estate, county officials buried the IBM retiree and hired a contractor to clean out the house, which was stuffed with hoarded items and trash.

On Friday, the contractor found the skeleton sealed in a plastic container behind a false wall.

The Dutchess County medical examiner's office identified the remains Monday as those of JoAnn Nichols, based on dental records. Dr. Kari Reiber says the 55-year-old woman died from a blow to the head.

Police say the cold case has now been reopened and new evidence is being examined in the lab.

"We did a complete investigation," Detectives Capt. Paul Lecomte said Tuesday. "We did have some unanswered questions regarding him."

According to Poughkeepsie Journal archives, JoAnn Nichols taught her last day of school on Dec. 20, 1985. She didn't show up for a hair appointment the next day, and that afternoon, a minister called police on James Nichols' behalf to report her missing.

Nichols told detectives he last saw his wife when he left for work at IBM that morning, and that he found a typed note when he got home. There was speculation that JoAnn Nichols was despondent over their only child's drowning death three years earlier, when he was 25.

A detective told the Journal a few months later that the note indicated a "degree of depression, but it's not what I'd consider a suicide letter." Even so, police searched nearby rivers but found no trace of the missing woman.

Nichols told police he found his wife's locked car on Dec. 22, 1985, at a nearby shopping center. Then-Detective Lt. Charles Mittelstaedt told the paper there was no evidence of foul play. He said four detectives were working the case full time.

Nichols later told a Journal reporter that his wife called him early on Christmas Eve morning to say she was OK and that he should say hello to their two golden retrievers for her. He said he asked where she was, and she hung up.

"There's no reason to assume she's dead or alive, joined a group or run off with some other man. There are a thousand possibilities. The pain is not knowing," the paper quoted Nichols as saying in an interview over tea.

Mittelstaedt told the Journal that Nichols described the phone call differently, saying his wife told him she'd found a new name, was at peace with God and not to look for her. Police couldn't confirm the call ever happened.

Jeannie Foster, 71, a longtime friend of the couple, told the Journal she never suspected James Nichols in his wife's disappearance. She described JoAnne as down-to-earth and a delight to be with. But she said James was odd and once showed guests the frozen carcass of a pet cat he kept in a basement freezer.

Police Chief Thomas Mauro said Monday that the case was reviewed annually by the department.

"Police will continue the investigation by further examination of the case and new forensic evidence," Mauro said in a statement.

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