LAFAYETTE — Three years and six months after she disappeared, the biggest part of the mystery of what happened to Theresa Parker has finally been solved.
Walker County Sheriff Steve Wilson, along with members of the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, the Sam Parker prosecution team and other Walker County officials, said Wednesday afternoon that remains found Monday near the banks of the Chattooga River had been positively identified as belonging to Theresa Parker.
“I would say that justice has prevailed,” said Wilson “The Almighty has looked down, and for whatever reason prayers have been answered and she has been found.”
Theresa Parker, a 911 dispatch operator in LaFayette, disappeared in the early morning hours of March 22, 2007. Her estranged husband, Sam Parker, a LaFayette police officer, was convicted of her murder in September 2009 and sentenced to life in prison. It was a rare case in that his murder conviction was attained without the presence of a body.
But it was precisely because no body had been found that Theresa Parker’s family never gave up hope that she would be found alive.
Even though that hope is now gone, officials are grateful that the long and painful search for her is now at an end.
According to Wilson and Chattooga County Sheriff John Everett, a farmer in Lyerly, a small community near the Alabama border in the far southern corner of Chattooga County, was walking through a wooded area on the eastern side of the Chattooga River Monday afternoon searching for usable driftwood and potential walking canes when he found a human jawbone and immediately called authorities.
Everett assembled a search team with the help of the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, and later that afternoon, more human remains were found in the same general area. As the light was falling, investigators halted the search for the night, and came back the next day with an larger entourage of GBI officials. More remains were found Tuesday, and all the evidence was surrendered to the GBI. Wednesday morning, forensic anthropologists announced that the remains were positively identified as those of Theresa Parker through a dental record match.
“This kind of ties up all the loose ends,” said Wilson. “Even though it's sad ... we can send her back home and let her family give her a proper burial and a proper memorial service that she so deserved. We've all felt the urgency and need to recover her remains and bring her back so that she can rest in peace.”
Officials were unable to comment or speculate on exactly how Theresa Parker’s body ended up in that spot, and whether that was the original place where her body was deposited. It is possible that her body was in or moved by the river at some point, but there is no definitive evidence to that fact as of this time.
The location where she was found is approximately 30 miles from her home in LaFayette, and just 12 or so miles from where Sam Parker was born and raised.
Throughout Sam Parker’s trial, witnesses maintained that he had frequently bragged that he knew the local woods well enough to ensure that he could successfully hide a body if need be.
The couple was in the midst of getting a divorce when Teresa Parker was last seen leaving her sister’s home on the night of March 21, 2007. Family members said the Parkers had a history of domestic problems.
Sam Parker’s attorney, public defender David Dunn, declined comment.
Sam Parker was fired from the LaFayette Police Department months after his wife’s disappearance for having explosives in his locker at work. He had been with the department about 25 years.
Prosecutors used circumstantial evidence at the trial, developing a timeline that showed how he could have committed the crime and disposed of the body. Defense attorneys said there was no direct evidence that Theresa Parker had been harmed or that her husband had anything to do with her disappearance.
Wilson and other investigators notified Theresa Parker’s family as soon as they received the positive identification on Wednesday.
“Now that (Theresa’s mother) can put to rest her mind, now that she knows Theresa has passed, she can enter an appropriate time for the grieving process without that doubt (that she may be alive),” Wilson said.
“Without that farmer is it fair to say that you would not have searched there?” one reporter asked Wilson. “I think that's fair to say,” Wilson replied.
In fact, on Tuesday, as more remains were being found, the GBI was conducting another search for Theresa Parker in a completely different location, just in case. “We never gave up looking for her,” said GBI special agent Jerry Scott. “We were still actively searching for Theresa Parker as of yesterday (Tuesday).”
“This is a long time coming,” said Floyd County district attorney Leigh Patterson, who prosecuted the case. “We have been able to give the family answers. I want everyone to know how hard this team …. worked and the hours they put in.”
David Ashburn, director of the 911 center where Theresa Parker worked, said friends and co-workers were notified. “It’s great we have an answer but it’s terrible it’s not the answer we wanted,” Ashburn said.
The next step will be a more thorough investigation by forensic anthropologists. At this time, it is unknown if Theresa Parker’s remains will reveal any signs of struggle or trauma, and authorities are unable to speculate on the matter. Once the investigation is finalized, the remains will be turned over to Theresa Parker’s family for burial.
As of Wednesday evening, Sam Parker had not yet been notified of the findings. He does have an appeal in the works, but at this point, hinted investigators, his main defense that Theresa Parker had simply run away is completely moot.
The Associated Press contributed to this report
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