Grave Concerns: La. family believes ‘Jane Doe’ buried at Hancock cemetery is their missing mother
By Dwayne Bremer
Aug 16, 2013, 20:14
Relatives of Nelda Hardwick, who went missing from Lake Charles, La., in 1998, have decorated the grave of an unidentified woman who was killed in Hancock County.
Friends and family of Nelda Louise Hardwick appeared in Hancock County Circuit Court on Friday to support a motion by Hancock County Coroner Jim Faulk to exhume the body of a woman killed on Interstate 10 in 1998.
Hardwick, of Lake Charles, went missing in October 1993. She was a 34-year-old mother of four.
On May 8, 1998, a woman's body was discovered near the two-mile marker on Interstate 10.
The woman had apparently been the victim of a hit-and-run, officials said. She was never identified and her remains were interred at the Rotten Bayou Cemetery. All of the DNA evidence collected during the autopsy was lost during Hurricane Katrina, Faulk said.
Police and family members of Hardwick said Friday that they believe the woman killed here could be Nelda.
Sgt. Jason Alexander, a detective at the Calcasieu Parish Sheriff's Office, testified that he believes there are a lot of similarities between the two women.
Alexander said both women had no teeth; neither had their ears pierced; were about the same age, and their hair color, eyes, and surgical marks matched.
Alexander said he also has compared photos of Hardwick to apparent autopsy photos found on an internet missing person's site.
"The photos are very similar," he said. "Miss Hardwick had a very distinct nose and so did the Jane Doe."
All of Hardwick's children testified Friday. They described Nelda as a good mother who was "caring and kind."
"It has been very rough on us," daughter Lori Fruge said. "I never had a mother growing up."
Fruge and family friend Richard Test both said they have seen the photos and they believe the Jane Doe is Nelda.
"If it is not her, then she has a twin," Test said.
Chris Hardwick, Nelda's oldest son, said the family wants closure.
"The truth is we have no idea what happened to her," he said. "As kids, we wanted to believe that she went to the store, bumped her head, and did not remember who she was. We always hoped she was somewhere and she was alright."
Nelda's son Terry Dobbs said exhuming the body is important to the family even if it is not his mother.
"It is worth a shot," he said. "We are always wondering if she is going to knock on the door. Now I have a little girl and she is starting to ask why she does not have a grandmother. If it is someone else's mother, than I'm sure something good will come out of this," he said.
Dodson accepted all of the testimony Friday, but said she needed to have some of the evidence authenticated before she could render a decision.
Dodson asked Faulk how the autopsy photos ended up on the internet and if he could prove who took them.
"We have to have sufficient proof," Dodson said. "We need admissible evidence, not hearsay."
Faulk said the autopsy photos could be verified by the original case detective at the Hancock County Sheriff's Office, but the detective was not available to testify on Friday.
Faulk was not represented by an attorney at Friday's hearing.
Shortly before the end of the hearing, Biloxi attorney Nick Wiser offered to assist Faulk in authenticating some of the evidence and testimony in the case.
Dodson agreed to allow Wiser to come aboard and suspended the hearing, setting it to reconvene on Oct. 18.
Faulk said if Dodson does allow the body to be exhumed, he has commitments from several agencies to assist with the exhumation and DNA testing at no cost.
Mississippi State Medical Examiner Dr. Mark LeVaughn said once the body is exhumed, his office will perform a complete forensic evaluation and then the DNA will be extracted.
Hardwick's family members of Hardwick said they are hoping they can finally learn her fate.
The family on Friday also apparently visited the grave of the Jane Doe killed in 1998.
The name "Jane Doe" had been crossed out with a Sharpie and Nelda Hardwick's name and birthday were written on the headstone.
Two bouquets of flowers were also laid by the grave with an emotional message: "Nelda, we love you and we will be bringing you home soon."