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Remains of missing girl discovered after 15 years

When the FBI completed the facial approximation of the skull of Durham’s Jane Doe, the resulting image was that of a white woman with red hair. Police released the drawing to the public and received no credible leads on missing Melissa “Missy” Poitra.

BELCOURT, N. D. — Relatives held a funeral for a member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa here on May 24. They conducted rites for Melissa “Missy” Poitra after her daughter’s remains were discovered in a plastic tote container concealed in a storage unit half a continent away and more than 15 years from the date she went missing.

Poitra was a Jane Doe until April 30, when police submitted Poitra’s DNA for a medical examiner’s match, ending relatives’ five-year crusade to obtain proof of her identity. “When I found out Durham’s Jane Doe was my sister, I didn’t believe it,” Missy’s sister Jessica Poitra told the Native Sun News Today.

The relatives’ campaign began when they learned that people cleaning out a storage unit in Durham County, North Carolina reported to police that they discovered bones protruding out of a plastic container. They were cleaning the storage unit because the renter had recently died, the Durham Police said.

Missy’s daughter Brittani Hetland retrieved the cremated remains in Raleigh, North Carolina. The police record reflects that they had been decaying for at least 10 years when found on Oct. 22, 2016. Missy’s family became suspicious they were hers after reading an online article about the discovery. She  had been living with her boyfriend in the Durham area at the time of her disappearance in 2005.

The Durham Police Department hosted a news conference on May 12 in which Durham Police Sergeant Quincey Tait confirmed she “was last known to be seen in the Durham area in late 2005. Durham Police learned that Melissa Poitra had not been in contact with her family in many years after leaving North Dakota,” Quincey said.

Police said officials  sent the skeletal remains to the North Carolina Office of the Chief Medical Examiner (OCME) for an autopsy. The office was able to retrieve DNA and then sent it to the University of North Texas to develop a profile. The profile became part of the National DNA Index System (NDIS) and Combined DNA Index System in February 2017.

In 2018, the North Carolina OCME and the Durham Police Department sent Missy’s skull to the Federal Bureau of Investigation for facial reconstruction. When the FBI completed the facial approximation of Durham’s Jane Doe, the resulting image was that of a white woman with red hair. Police released the drawing to the public and received no credible leads.

However, sister Jessica said, “The woman had the same gap in her teeth as my sister did and we knew it was my sister, but the police wouldn’t believe us.”

Missy’s family didn’t give up, though. Daughter Brittani continued to call the Durham Police Department, demanding officials conduct a DNA swab to test for a possible match to Durham’s Jane Doe. Eventually, the Durham Police Department contracted with Othram Inc. out of The Woodlands, Texas to carry out further genetic tests. According to Othram’s website, the organization is the first and only forensic laboratory to vertically integrate a DNA test and human ID solution that can identify victims, find missing persons, and reveal perpetrators of crimes.

It was November 2020 when Durham Police received notification that the remains were of Native American descent. Police reached out to Missy’s father, Cary Poitra, to match his DNA sample with the remains.

“Police only requested a DNA sample from our family because Othram concluded that their Jane Doe was of Native American descent,” said Jessica. “We’ve been contacting them for years only to hear ‘no’.” Jessica is a kindergarten teacher at the Turtle Mountain Community Elementary School in Belcourt.

The police department also lost Missy’s father’s DNA sample in December 2020 and requested another in January 2021. DNA Solutions, an independent company, identified the remains through comparison with the father’s DNA on April 23. Father Cary received no notification of the DNA match until April 27. According to the family members, police claimed to have no leads on suspects, but that day officials announced they “have a couple of leads.”

“Our teachings of culture tell us to hold women on the highest pedestal. We continue to bring awareness to MMIW but start the process of working together to impact this cycle we find ourselves in,” Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Tribal Chair Jamie Azure told the Native Sun News Today. “A part of the Turtle Mountains has been taken away much too soon and we demand the accountability of actions. Missy was one person, and one person is too many. Missy will be remembered!” he vowed.

“It’s been a very hard and long few weeks,” said Missy’s daughter Brittani after the announcement.  Brittani has made numerous calls to the Durham Police Department during the years since the police took charge of the remains. “This past Mother’s Day was the hardest it has ever been. While everyone spent their days with their moms, mine was cremated because I would not have been able to see her,” she said.

Saint Anthony’s Catholic Church held the funeral and Brittani took the cremated remains to a private location.

Although the cause of Missy’s death hasn’t been determined, it is being investigated as a homicide. Anyone with information is encouraged to call Durham Police Lieutenant Vaughn or Sergeant Tait at 919-560-4440.

“I want answers,” said Hetland. “I’m tired of the vagueness.”

(Contact Darren Thompson

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