By Lawrence Crook, (CNN) — The hidden skeleton of a woman who had been missing for 28 years came to light when a contractor cleaned out a vacant home in the Town of Poughkeepsie, New York.
The gruesome find was uncovered behind a ‘false wall’ in the basement of the home the woman had shared with her late husband, police said.
Joann Nichols’ remains were found inside a large plastic bin, inside a plastic bag and wrapped in a sheet, said Dr. Kari Reiber, the Dutchess County Medical Examiner.
“The body was skeletonized and the hands were tied with rope. … A large area of the right side of the skull was also missing,” Reiber said.
Sealing the body in the plastic bin behind a false wall might have been enough to mask the smell as the body decomposed, she said.
Members of the medical examiner’s office removed the body after it was found Friday and were able to identify Nichols through dental records. An autopsy showed the cause of death was blunt force trauma to the head, according to Reiber.
Nichols, a 55-year-old former first-grade teacher at Gayhead Elementary School in Hopewell Junction New York, was reported missing on December 21, 1985, by her husband, James Nichols.
Police said he called in the report after his wife didn’t show up for a hair appointment at a beauty parlor earlier that day. The next day the couple’s vehicle was discovered in the parking lot of a shopping center in the town.
Police Chief Thomas Mauro said an intensive investigation followed, but the woman was never located. The case had remained open since 1985 and was reviewed annually by police, he said.
James Nichols was found dead in the home on December 27 after concerned neighbors called police because they had not seen him in several days. He was 82 and died of natural causes, police said.
Officers said they found the house filled with personal items, debris and garbage.
No one in Nichols’ family came forward to claim his body or take control of his estate, so Dutchess County Commissioner of Finance Pamela Barrack was appointed as temporary administrator, according to Barrack’s attorney, Kelly Traver.
“We were only able to locate two family members of Mr. Nichols, but they were not able to claim his body,” Traver said.
Nichols was buried by the Dutchess County Department of Community and Family Services in an unknown location, Traver said.
The Town of Poughkeepsie Police Department said it has not closed the case and will continue to examine the new forensic evidence.
“It’s now safe to say James Nichols is a suspect in this case,” said police Capt. Paul LeComte.
The Town of Poughkeepsie surrounds the City of Poughkeepsie in southeastern New York State, about 70 miles north of New York City.