For 3 1/2 years, James Harris has carried an electronic image of Theresa Parker’s teeth on his keychain.
“Theresa is always with me,” said Harris, a Georgia Bureau of Investigation special agent.
Since Parker, a Walker County 911 dispatcher, went missing in March 2007, Harris has helped lead the search to find her. He carried her dental records on a USB flash drive, just in case.
“Anytime [investigators] found a body, they’d call me,” he said. “Everybody in North Georgia and Chattanooga would say, ‘Hey, do you want to check them?’
“Theresa’s become everybody’s sister and daughter. Everybody in the area wanted to find her.”
Harris was looking for Theresa Parker in a pond in Walker County when he received the call Tuesday about a jawbone and some skeletal remains found scattered about 100 feet away from the Chattooga River in neighboring Chattooga County.
When he saw the bones, Harris said he and an FBI agent thought the remains matched Theresa Parker’s records, but neither man dared hope until the lab results were in.
“We were like expectant fathers, waiting for the baby to be born,” he said.
Once the match came back positive, Harris said the two men “just stared at each other and didn’t say anything.”
While identification in such cases can sometimes take weeks, Theresa Parker was quickly identified because investigators on the case already had her dental records handy.
From Tuesday through Thursday morning, investigators combed the site where her remains were found off Holland Chattoogaville Road a few miles from Lyerly, Ga., next to the Alabama state line. It appears she was buried at the site, said Detective Walter Hensley, who led the investigation for the Walker County Sheriff’s Office.
“It doesn’t appear she was ever placed in a river,” Hensley said. “I believe she was placed there on the property.”
While investigators had checked parts of the Chattooga River in the search for Theresa Parker, no one had ever been that far south in Chattooga County, he said.
“With divine intervention and a whole lot of luck, very shortly we will be able to return Theresa to her mom and to her sisters,” Hensley said. “And at the same time we’ve returned her to ourselves.”
Sam Parker was charged with his wife’s murder in February 2008. He was and convicted and sentenced to life in prison last year.
But Hensley said there’s still a final step to solving the mystery: How did Sam Parker kill his wife?
No one knows how long it will take for forensic anthropologists in GBI’s crime lab to make that determination or if it’s even possible.
Several investigators on the case say more time and energy were poured into finding Theresa Parker than any other case in their careers.
“It started off personal and it’s still personal,” Hensley said.
The case became even more personal when it seemed apparent that Sam Parker had killed his wife — a woman every public safety officer in Walker County had worked with, Hensley said.
Sam Parker’s guilt also tainted the image of all police officers, leading to even more intensity in the search, Hensley said.
A large number of tips about possible locations of the body also determined the amount of attention paid to the case, said Jerry Scott, GBI special agent in charge.
“Other missing person cases, we don’t have that information,” he said.
While looking for a body often is a needle-in-a-haystack situation, “we don’t even know where the haystack is in some missing cases,” Scott said.
Joy Lukachick Smith is the city government reporter for the Chattanooga Times Free Press. Since 2009, she's covered crime and court systems in North Georgia and rural Tennessee, landed an exclusive in-prison interview with a former cop convicted of killing his wife, exposed impropriety in an FBI-led, child-sex online sting and exposed corruption in government agencies. Earlier this year, Smith won the Malcolm Law Memorial Award for Investigative Reporting. She also won first place in ...