More than four decades after hunters found skeletal remains in some woods in Grand Bay, investigators believe they now know who the victim was and who killed her.
The remains were found on November 28, 1976, off Old Pascagoula Road. The discovery left investigators with a few decent clues.
“The skeleton still had the clothing and it was mostly intact and there was also a partial dental plate the skull of the female indicated pre-existing injuries from traffic collisions,” said Det. J.T. Thornton, with the Mobile County Sheriff’s Office.
Eight months before the skeleton was found in Mobile County, 33-year-old Mary Ann Perez, a wife and mother of three, disappeared, her car found at a bar near her home in Chalmette, outside New Orleans.
But prior to the computer age, communication between law enforcement agencies was so poor, that no one in 1976 made a connection to the “Jane Doe” skeleton found in south Mobile County.
Unaware of the New Orleans disappearance, in 1977, Mobile County shipped the skeletal remains to a lab in Oklahoma that used the skull to construct images of what the woman might have looked like. Those images, however, produced no leads and the case quickly went cold.
Then in 1980, detectives got a break. A drifter named David Courtney was arrested in Kansas. He admitted that he and his wife, Donna, killed five women in several states, including Mary Ann Perez in New Orleans. But he couldn’t pinpoint where they had dumped Perez’ body.
“All the bodies he had presented in different locations, had been located,” Thornton said. “The last one he presented (Perez), they hadn’t found her. So that was questionable at that time.”
Without a body, Thornton said, some of Perez’ family held out hope that she was still alive.
More than 35 years after Courtney’s confession, Thornton was investigating another unidentified body found in Mobile County.
“I actually went to investigate another Jane Doe that was found in ‘76,” Thornton explained. “And behind her, I found Jane Doe X2. So I thought there might be some correlation so I started investigating and found there was no correlation.”
But through his investigative work, Thornton met a detective in Harrison County, Mississippi who remembered the Perez case. Thornton went to New Orleans and spoke to Perez’ husband and children.
“They advised me that she had been in a traffic accident, Mary Ann Perez had, that she had a partial dental plate, and they presented me with the demographics of her and I thought that’s almost a perfect match,” Thornton said,
DNA testing was the final piece of the puzzle, but there was one big problem. After 42 years, no one knew anymore where Perez’ remains were. And then, a little luck, blended in with the good detective work.
“It was actually a miracle,” said Thornton. “The state attorney general’s office sent an investigator down here, who also works cold cases. So when he comes in he’s like ‘do you know anything about this case?” And I said I do and I’ve been hunting for the remains. And he’s like ‘we’ve been looking for the case that goes with the remains.’”
The remains had been warehoused in Oklahoma. They’re now are at a lab in Texas for DNA testing which should once and for all close this case, 42-years after the crime. Final results should be back in the next few weeks.
“That goes to show that no matter the time length, these cases can be solved,” Thornton said.
David Courtney continues to serve his life sentence in Kansas. His wife, who served ten years for the crime, died more than two decades ago.