CLEVELAND: Before the body of a young woman buried in a pauper’s grave in Cleveland was exhumed, a forensic dentist compared information about the remains with the dental records of a missing Akron teen.

Kent Caserta concluded it could be a match.

Based on this, a team of anthropology students from the University of Akron began the task of finding the girl’s grave among dozens of unmarked pauper graves in Cleveland.

The wrong body was exhumed, but this helped investigators find the right one. The remains were dug up and a DNA sample taken.

The results confirmed Caserta’s hunch: This was Linda Pagano, a 17-year-old Akron girl missing since 1974.

These were among the details shared Thursday morning at a news conference at the Cuyahoga County Medical Examiner’s Office to officially announce the DNA match, ending a 44-year mystery of what happened to the Akron teen.

“We never stop trying to identify those people who pass through this office without a name,” Cuyahoga County Medical Examiner Dr. Thomas Gilson said.

Gilson was among several people at the news conference, including Akron police officers and UA professor Timothy Matney, who detailed the process used to identify Pagano’s remains.

Linda disappears

Linda Pagano disappeared in September 1974 after coming home late from a concert and getting into an argument with her stepfather, Byron Chaflin, who told police he kicked her out of their Kenmore home. Chaflin filed a missing person report with the Akron Police Department.

About six months later, in February 1975, three teenage boys found a partial skeleton on the banks of the Rocky River while they were strolling through Cleveland Metro­parks land in Strongsville now known as Mill Stream Reservation. The Cuyahoga County medical examiner determined the remains belonged to a white woman in her late teens or early 20s. The woman had been shot in the head, and her death was ruled a homicide.

The Cleveland Metro­parks Rangers sent a description of the remains to law enforcement agencies across the country, but were unsuccessful in identifying them.

“All investigative leads were exhausted,” Gilson said.

The remains were buried in a pauper’s grave on May 15, 1975, in a Cleveland cemetery.

Break in case

The advent of new technology and the curiosity of a couple of internet sleuths and an Akron detective broke the long-dormant case wide open.

The two sleuths posted information about the remains online, and one of them asked the Cuyahoga County Medical Examiner’s Office about the case. The medical examiner realized that — because of a spelling error — the case hadn’t been entered into NamUs, a national database for missing persons. The case was added to the database in June 2016.

Akron Sgt. Jeff Smith was entering information on cold missing persons cases into NamUs in December 2016 when he got a hit on Pagano’s case with the remains buried in Cleveland.

Caserta, who works for the Cuyahoga medical examiner’s office, compared Pagano’s dental records with the dental photos and information on the remains. He couldn’t say for sure, but thought they could be a match, based on fillings in several of the teeth.

“I decided there was a good possibility,” he said. “We couldn’t eliminate it not being Linda.”

Matney and his UA anthropology students joined the quest in October 2017, helping to locate the remains in a field of unmarked graves. They used a combination of old and new technology, including comparing maps of the cemetery from the 1950s with landmarks like trees and running a current through the ground to measure differences in density.

Several of the students said they enjoyed the chance to help and, at the same time, get real-world experience.

“It’s always great to put our skills to use,” Maeve Marino said.

Bone samples from the remains, along with DNA samples of Pagano’s brother and sister, were sent to the University of North Texas for testing in December 2017. Investigators learned there was a match on June 29.

Homicide investigation

With the remains identified, the focus now turns to who was responsible for Pagano’s death. Smith met with detectives from the Cleveland Metroparks Rangers on Wednesday to share what police know about Pagano’s disappearance.

“We’re committed to pursuing any leads,” said Lt. Don Sylvis of the rangers, which will head the investigation.

Sylvis said Chaflin, Pagano’s stepfather, was considered a person of interest in her disappearance. Chaflin, however, died in 1990.

Sylvis said his department will begin its investigation by reinterviewing Pagano’s friends and loved ones who are still alive.

Akron Deputy Chief Jesse Leeser said his department will assist the rangers with anything they need.

“We’re a team,” he said.

All of the agencies involved offered their condolences to Mike and Cheryl Pagano, Linda’s siblings, who attended the news conference. The Paganos, in turn, expressed their appreciation to those who helped identify their sister’s remains.

“I thought this day would never come,” Mike Pagano said. “I figured I’d die wondering.”

Among the people the Paganos thanked was Christina Scates, the internet sleuth who first posted information online about the remains. Scates attended the news conference, though she wasn’t invited to speak.

Scates said after the event that she’s relieved and ecstatic that the DNA test confirmed the remains were Linda Pagano. She said the positive outcome makes her want to do more. She now plans to turn her attention to trying to attach names to the other people buried in the Cleveland cemetery whose identities, like Pagano’s, remain a mystery.

Pagano’s siblings hope the same effort put into identifying Pagano now goes toward finding her killer.

“They found out this much,” said Cheryl Pagano. “I have faith that they’ll find something.”

Stephanie Warsmith can be reached at 330-996-3705, swarsmith@thebeaconjournal.com and on Twitter: @swarsmithabj.