For five years, the identity of a woman whose remains were found stuffed in a plastic container inside a storage unit in North Carolina has remained a mystery.
But on Wednesday, Durham, N.C. authorities said they’ve finally cracked the case thanks to DNA technology, identifying the skeletal remains as those of Melissa “Missy” Ann Poitra, a North Dakota woman who vanished without a trace in 2005 in North Carolina.
“In 2005, Melissa would have been 28 years old. She was a Native American woman from Turtle Mountain Chippewa located in North Dakota,” Durham Police Sgt. Quincy Tate said during a Wednesday press conference. “She had straight black hair, brown eyes, and a tattoo of a rose...on her arms. She was also a mother.”
While authorities have not yet identified the cause of Poitra’s death, Tate said it is being treated as a homicide and remains a priority for the department. No suspects have been identified in the case, she added.
The Durham Police Department said Poitra, a Belcourt, North Dakota, native, was last seen in Durham in late 2005. According to Native News Online, she had been living with her boyfriend in North Carolina at the time of her disappearance.
Tate stated that about a decade later, on Oct. 2, 2016, officers checked out a “self-storage” facility on Carpenter Fletcher Road after a caller said “they found a plastic container with bones sticking out.”
“It was being cleaned out after the death of the person who was renting the unit,” Tate said, adding that the remains were sent to the North Carolina Office of the Chief Medical Examiner for an autopsy. While authorities were able to get a DNA sample from the remains, the case went cold.
Jessica Poitra, Melissa’s sister, told Native News Online that after she heard the remains were found in 2016 she instantly suspected they belonged to her sibling. “The woman had the same gap in her teeth as my sister did, and we knew it was my sister,” she told the outlet earlier this month. “But the police wouldn’t believe us.”
In 2019, the department released sketches from the FBI of what the woman might look like but never received any viable leads.
“The case is being investigated as a suspicious death and the remains may have been there for up to 10 years,” police said in a 2019 news release alongside the sketches.
Last November, police finally issued a missing person alert for Poitra, stating that while “looking into an unrelated case, they learned that Poitra has not been in contact with her family for many years and they are trying to locate her.”
According to a GoFundMe established by Jessica Poitra, police learned the remains were of Native American descent around the same time and contacted their father to test his DNA against the remains. Tate said that with the help of Othram Labs, they used advanced DNA testing and forensic geology to finally identify the remains in late April. Police said Wednesday they are now working to trace Poitra’s last steps.
Poitra’s family is now desperate to bring her body home after years of unanswered questions.
“I was 18 the last time I seen her,” Jessica wrote in a Facebook post on May 1. “No matter where she went or how long she was gone she would call and tell me about her new adventures. Then one day the calls stopped and now I know why. I love you sister. You will soon be home and I will visit you all the time. You won’t be alone anymore.”
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