CHOCTAW COUNTY, AL (WLOX) - It is not a story you hear every day: A woman goes missing and more than four decades later police are able to provide a family with answers. Several things fell into place allowing police to identify Delores Diane Kelly Gonzales 41 years after her body was found, more than 150 miles away from where she went missing in Gulfport.
Choctaw County, Alabama Sheriff Scott Lolley remembers the day she was found in 1974. He was just five years old when his dad, who was a police chief, rushed out to the gruesome discovery.
"When he came back home I said, 'Well, what happened?' And he said, 'Well, they found the remains of a person in a dirt pit,'" Lolley said. "That just stuck out in my mind. It was the first time as a kid I ever remember any image of murder."
With no leads, the case was closed in 1978.
In 2012, Alabama Crime Lab employees found a cardboard box with the skeletal remains and gave it to the Choctaw County coroner. Lolley was an investigator at the time and the coroner asked him about the remains.
"We walked in the back and he set up a cardboard box and in big parenthesis it said 1974. And I said, 'Did that come from the Red Springs Road?' He said, 'I don't know,'" Lolley recalled. "We opened the seal and raised the lid and I looked down and saw a skull with a bullet hole in it and I said, 'Okay, just let's close that up. That's still an open murder.'"
That's when Lolley re-opened the case.
"My goal was simple: You have human remains in a box and that person has a family and she deserves to be buried," Lolley said. "Her family needs to know where she's at."
Choctaw County District Attorney Spencer Walker also began working the case.
"Started knocking on doors and talking to people trying to find out if anyone remembered anything," Walker said.
DNA was taken, but no matches were found online. Walker continued to search.
"In July of last year, I traveled to Quantico, Virginia with the remains and delivered them to the FBI lab there," Walker said. "I also took two bullets that were found in the skull at the time and sent them with me, and they are still at Quantico still conducting testing on those."
Around the same time frame and without any knowledge of the developments in Alabama, family members of a missing Gulfport woman, Delores Diane Kelly Gonzales, got the attention of local law enforcement. Gulfport police detective Frank Mazzola re-opened the 1973 missing persons case.
"I set up a NAMUS profile then got DNA from Delores' brother and daughter," Mazzola said.
Walker just happened to look again at NAMUS after Gonzales's profile was added and saw a lot of similarities. He contacted the Gulfport Police Department and in March DNA confirmed the body was Gonzales.
"It was almost like the Lord above was getting this all together. It was a great sense of accomplishment, probably more so than anything I've done in my career, to be able to finally have some answers for a family after four decades," Walker said.
"I read the statement of the man who found her, and his statement was when he backed the truck up to unload his statement was, 'I guess it was just meant to be for me to find her,'" Lolley said. "And with forensics mailing the bones back here, I believe it was just meant to be for us to solve this."
Gulfport police have since interviewed dozens of people and believe Gonzales's husband who died in 2007 killed her.