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November 20, 2010

Digging Deep: Forensic team using every tool to locate missing teen

NEW CASTLE — Dennis C. Dirkmaat is able to detect the tiniest shard of bone by touch alone.

He’s been sifting dirt through his fingers for so long he knows the feel of it without looking.

But that sensation eluded him this time as his fingers dug into fallen October leaves and soil. His trained students weren’t feeling it either.

One tiny piece of skeleton might finally have revealed the whereabouts of a red-headed 15-year-old girl, who went out with male friends to play cards late one night. She never returned home.

New clues have pointed police, dogs and Dirkmaat’s forensic team toward an uneven tract of partially wooded land in Hickory Township, where skeletal remains of Laura Lynn Thompson are thought to have been strewn 17 years ago.

At times, the clods were cold and damp, sometimes they were almost dust. At other times, after a hard rain, the soil was downright mud.

Dirkmaat and his students worked the area as a grid, trying to sense just one sharp point, one small hard object, that could provide DNA to match Laura’s and help sew up this rape/murder case for court.

Backhoes dug test pits, some 20 feet deep, in areas over a 30-square-yard expanse and stacked dirt in piles. On four occasions, the Erie, Pa.-based team went home with eyestrain and weary spines, knees and fingers from the tedious work.

“We did a very careful search of that area on our hands and knees,” said Dirkmaat, professor and director of forensic anthropology at Mercyhurst Anthropology Institute. “Even if there was a tiny bone of the hand, we would have found it.”

LAURA’S LIFE

Laura grew up on New Castle’s South Side and had lived a life of frivolity. Pictures in an album Nancy Thompson shared show her daughter hoisting a beer with friends.

Laura had a baby at age 14. Her son, now 18, was 9 months old when she vanished that January night in 1993. He was raised in a foster home after Laura’s mother became too sick and distraught to care for him.

A New Castle man 27 years older than Laura was among her close friends. He showered her with gifts of jewelry and perfume. Her mother talked as though Laura had her blessing to be socializing with Paul, but not with other rowdy guys who often would drop by their house.

Paul declined the invitation to play cards the night Laura vanished because he was ill. Otherwise, authorities say, she might still be alive.

Nancy Thompson reported Laura missing on Jan. 9, 1993, realizing the teen was gone longer than was typical.

The New Castle police now think they know what happened to the teen.

A woman who had no acquaintance with her or her mother went to the police and said that Laura had gone out that night with Joseph N. Marshall Jr. of Pulaski and Sean M. McDonough of Shenango.

She said during that night, Laura had been raped, stabbed to death and buried on a property in Shenango Township.

The woman, who is Marshall’s estranged wife, had carried that dark secret with her for many years. An impending divorce has prompted her to tell the police of the involvement of her husband, 39, and McDonough, 38.

Both men are now in jail, charged in Laura’s death. McDonough had moved to Thibodeaux, La., and was returned to New Castle to face charges. The two are said to have dug up Laura’s remains later and strewn them in the ravine on the Hickory property.

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