New Castle News

November 20, 2010

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

Debbie Wachter Morris
New Castle News

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 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.


Katrina Young of Marathon, Fla., shares Dirkmaat’s frustration in the search for Laura’s bones. The cold case was the first dig the Mercyhurst graduate student had joined where there is no map or clearly defined area.

Typically, they would carefully document the precise locations, but in Laura’s case, it’s all guesswork.

“Basically we were looking for any human remains that might turn up,” Dirkmaat said.

Previous searches by Dirkmaat and his students included the somber combing of land in Shanksville, Somerset County, looking for body parts after United Airlines Flight 93 was downed during a terrorist attack on Sept. 11, 2001.

The search for Laura proved more difficult after 17 years.

“It’s very unlikely anything would be left, other than bone,” Dirkmaat said.

The keen noses of cadaver dogs are useful, but they too, were unsuccessful. Even a Belgian malanois trained exclusively to detect the scent of decomposition came up empty. In some spots, the dog would stop and bark, but Dirkmaat’s team tested those and found nothing.


Dirkmaat has been training students at Mercyhurst since 1991. An aspect of their study involves feeling bone fragments and tiny bones of hands in paper bags to learn their size, shape and texture.

His doctorate in anthropology from the University of Pittsburgh led him to a position in the Allegheny County Coroner’s office in the late 1980s, working alongside Coroner Joshua Perper, who preceded Dr. Cyril Wecht.

Dirkmaat boasts being the 50th person in the country to be certified by the American Board of Forensic Anthropology, an achievement that requires a few years of casework.

Mercyhurst’s forensic program is competitive.

“We like to think it’s the best one in the country,” he noted.

The school selects only five to eight students each year out of 80 applicants because “we don’t want to flood the market.”

Young, designated as the scene photographer, enrolled in the graduate school because of the hands-on experience she would gain, plus the certain satisfaction from completing a quest.

“It’s nice be able to recover the remains and provide closure to families who have been waiting a long time to learn the whereabouts of a loved one,” she said.

The team will resume its dig in the spring.

That, Dirkmaat said, is when new plant life perforates the soil and could transport the scent of human remains above ground.

But he’s not optimistic.

“I don’t think we’re going to find anything there,” he said.

“It’s a longshot, but often when looking for buried bodies, spring is the best time.”