HARRISON COUNTY, MS (WLOX) - After more than 40 years, a family finally knows what happened to their teenage son who went missing in 1973.
Remains in Texas have now been positively identified as Joseph "Joey" Spears, who was last seen just before he escaped from the Harrison County Youth Detention Center at the age of 17.
In 2013, almost four decades after his disappearance, Joey's sister contacted the Harrison County Sheriff's Department. His case file was located, and they added his name to the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System, also known as NAMUS.
"NAMUS helped us also by getting with the family out in California and we were able to recover the mother and the brother's DNA," Investigator Bill Scarbrough told WLOX News Now back in February.
Fast forward to December 2015, a curious employee working at a Galveston, Texas cemetery starts looking into identifying a John Doe who was buried there in August of 1973. That would have been about a month after Joey disappeared from Gulfport.
"She went to the website and typed in the different physical characteristics of that person in that cemetery and Joey's name matched," said Scarbrough.
The cemetery worker contacted the Harrison County's Sheriff's Department. They began working together to connect the dots. There was enough evidence to obtain a court order to exhume the body for DNA testing.
"The condition of the body that was exhumed was astonishing to our perspective, plenty of samples to recover," said Scarbrough.
Those samples were a dead end, and officials were unable to get a DNA match. But photos from the original autopsy were still available, and Joey's mother was able to positively identify him from those pictures.
The body was cremated on Friday and Joey's remains will be buried in California where his mother now lives.