Every day for the past 37 years, Cathy Blevins Howe has wondered about the whereabouts of her 27-year-old sister, who vanished from her Charlotte, N.C., home in July 1975.
Howe had long accepted that her sister, Priscilla Ann Blevins, was likely dead, but was afraid she might go to her own grave without the opportunity to say goodbye. The reality of that fear deepened when her parents, Bob and Sadie Blevins, died in 2002 and 2001, respectively.
The waiting and the fear finally came to an end last month, when the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department contacted Howe and said her sister's remains had been found at the state medical examiner's office in Chapel Hill. The remains, initially identified as "Jane Doe," had been in storage at the facility for more than 20 years.
"It was just unbelievable and it still is," Howe told The Huffington Post. "It was equal parts of relief, surprise, sorrow and joy at the opportunity to finally bring my sister home."
Authorities had been trying to uncover Jane Doe's identity since 1985, when she was found off Interstate 40 in Haywood County near the Tennessee border. Unfortunately, there were no identifying characteristics and the technology at their disposal was limited.
"I wish I knew the circumstances," Howe said. "She simply disappeared."
The search for Blevins started immediately after her disappearance, but the case quickly went cold. Detectives had little evidence and few clues to follow.
"I got involved in 2000," said Howe, who was 23 and in college when her sister disappeared. "My parents had originally spearheaded the investigation, but as I got older and had a daughter myself, I felt the need to try again. I got associated with Detective Lee Tuttle of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department, and he was very receptive to and interested in pursuing what, for all intents and purposes, should have been considered an almost impossible case."
With the advent of DNA databases for missing and unidentified persons, Tuttle collected a mitochondrial DNA sample from Howe. The sample was entered into the national database and they waited for a potential match.
On Oct. 18, Tuttle was notified that remains recently entered into the database -- the Jane Doe found off Interstate 40 in 1985 -- were a match. They then confirmed the results with Blevins' dental records.
Howe said she has been told that an autopsy was performed on her sister, but she does not know the results. She also said she does not know whether authorities have listed her sister's death as foul play, but she said she would not be surprised if they did, given the circumstances.
"The missing person case has been solved -- she has been identified after having been missing for 37 years -- but there are plenty of questions that remain unanswered," Howe said. "But right now my focus is on bringing her home."
Detective Lee Tuttle, the lead investigator on the case, whom Howe refers to as her "hero," did not immediately return a call for comment from HuffPost.
Howe said she is planning a "memorial homecoming" for her sister on Nov. 17 in Wait Chapel at Wake Forest University. Blevins graduated from the university in 1971 and before her disappearance, taught English in South America.
"I just feel so honored that I get to welcome my sister home. What a blessing it is," Howe said.
Meanwhile, Howe said she has advice for other families of the missing.
"It is my hope that this tragedy for our family can somehow serve as a vehicle to let other folks know that miracles do happen and there is technology available," she said. "If your missing loved one is not in the DNA database, they need to get in there. It worked a miracle in my life and my family's life."
Howe added, "I hope all the folks whose lives are touched with an event like this will have the opportunity to bring their loved one home."
RELATED ON HUFFPOST:
Never miss a thing. Sign up for up-to-the-minute breaking news alerts delivered straight to your inbox. Learn more