Misty LaBean spent her entire life wondering why her mother left the family when she was just one year old. Connie Christensen's disappearance 40 years ago from Wisconsin was no surprise to the rest of her relatives. She had left before when she was a teenager and even
"After my children were born, I asked myself how could he leave me?" LaBean told CNN. "I would never do that to my kids." All her life, LaBean heard only whispers about her mother. The rest of the family was hurt and reluctant to talk about Christensen, believing that she had chosen to leave alone at the age of 20.
All that time, though, there was something else LaBean didn't know: Strangers hundreds of miles away were searching for answers to the same mystery.
Their key to unlocking it, with her help, would be time, along with the inexorable progress of science. Eventually, those who seek the truth will connect. And a grown daughter would understand why her mother leaving "may not have been her choice".
HUNTERS IN THE FOREST AND IN THE LABORATORY
It was a sketch artist who first used a clay bust to recreate the face of the remains found in December 1982 in eastern Indiana, said Wayne County Medical Examiner Deputy Lauren Ogden. Hunters had found them near Martindale Creek in a rural area used primarily for hunting and farming, she said. But due to flooding, the remains were damaged beyond recognition and ended up at the University of Indianapolis for safekeeping.
But the coroner's office never stopped trying to discover their identities.
During those years, science was improving. Within two generations, investigators had gone from relying on drawings to try to identify the missing and the murdered to mining the evidence themselves for small, subtle threads that could pinpoint who someone was. The technology had become so advanced, in fact, that in 2021, the Wayne County Coroner's Office returned to evidence found near Martindale Creek to see if it could extract any DNA to figure out who the remains belonged to, Ogden told CNN. The first attempt failed; there wasn't enough genetic material to generate a usable DNA profile, she said. They tried a second DNA extraction and also another failure. Next, she explained, Ogden and her team tried extracting DNA from a leg bone.
THE CRITICAL CONNECTION
Around that time, someone in Christensen's family had become interested in genealogy and was encouraging her relatives to submit DNA data to public resources that help people build family trees, Ogden said. Hailed as a way to explore personal history and connect with previously unknown relatives, DNA matching has also been used to link victims to criminals such as the "happy face" killer, who killed at least eight women. He helped police track down the Golden State Killer, suspected of a dozen murders and more than 50 rapes.
Authorities in the Golden State case used the free genealogy and DNA database GEDmatch to match crime scene DNA to a pool of potential suspects created using DNA profiles or genealogy data from services public like Ancestry, which Christensen's relative had encouraged her family to use.
GEDmatch is also used by the DNA Doe Project, a nonprofit organization that uses investigative genetic genealogy to identify anonymous remains.
Working with that array and DNA from the leg bone, investigators tried to create a possible family tree for the person the hunters found in 1982, Ogden said. Within 24 hours, they had a solid lead, Lori Flowers of the DNA Doe Project told CNN.
The nonprofit had narrowed the GEDmatch pool of possible DNA links to the Martindale Creek remains to the Christensen siblings, she said. Then, sifting through family social media posts and relatives' obituaries, investigators noticed something: Connie Christensen had disappeared from her family's public records. But they still had to confirm it. Ogden reached out to the missing woman's child, LaBean.
Data comparison revealed that the skeletal remains were her mother's. Beyond Christensen's identity, the coroner's office also shared a discovery its team made about how LaBean's mother died, Ogden said: from a gunshot wound. The grim details left a trail of new questions: What was Christensen doing in Indiana? Who killed him? And why?
LaBean went to the spot near Martindale Creek where her mother's remains were found, and the question was how the killer had gotten Christensen so far from the nearest bus line.
"In some ways, it makes me feel a little better," LaBean said after learning the true story of her mother's absence. "But it also makes me angry because I could have had the opportunity to know him and someone took that opportunity away from me." Perhaps publicity about the case will help her family find more answers, LaBean said.
"The biggest thing is I've always loved animals," LaBean said. “And then I found out she really liked cats. That's something I got from her."
LaBean also reclaimed the ring her mother had been wearing when she died, a nod to her childhood. "It holds the ring that was found there 40 years ago, and it's amazing to think that your DNA is able to provide the truth," Ogden said. Meanwhile, Christensen's remains were buried in April among her relatives, including her parents.