Connie Christensen and her daughter Misty LaBean
CNN  — 

Misty LaBean spent her whole life wondering why her mother left her family when she was only a year old.

Connie Christensen’s disappearance 40 years ago from Wisconsin wasn’t out of the blue for the rest of her relatives: She had left before, running away when she was a teenager and even doing a stint at a carnival.

“After my own kids were born, I was like, how could she have left me like that?” LaBean told CNN. “I would never do that to my kids.”

Her whole life, LaBean only heard whispers about her mother. The rest of her family was hurt and reluctant even to talk about Christensen, believing she’d chosen to walk away at just 20 years old.

All that time, though, there was something else LaBean didn’t know: Strangers hundreds of miles away were hunting answers to the very same mystery.

Their key to unlocking it – with her help – would be time, along with the inexorable advance of science. Eventually, those seeking the truth would connect. And a grown daughter would understand why her mom’s leaving “may not have been her choice.”

Hunters in the woods – and in the lab

It was a sketch artist who first used a clay bust to try to recreate the face of the remains found in December 1982 in east-central Indiana, said the chief deputy coroner of Wayne County Coroner’s Office, Lauren Ogden.

Hunters had found them near Martindale Creek in a rural area mainly used for hunting and farming, she said. But due to flooding, the remains were damaged beyond recognition, and they ended up at the University of Indianapolis for storage.

But the coroner’s office never stopped trying to figure out their identity.

And over those years, science was improving. Within two generations, investigators had vaulted from relying on drawings to try to identify the missing and the slain to mining the evidence itself for tiny, delicate strands that could pinpoint exactly who somebody was.

The technology had gotten so good, in fact, that in 2021, the Wayne County Coroner’s Office went back to the evidence found near Martindale Creek to see if it could extract any DNA to figure out who the remains belonged to, Ogden told CNN.

The first attempt failed: There wasn’t enough genetic material to generate a usable DNA profile, she said.

They tried a second DNA extraction.

Another failure.

Then, she explained, Ogden and her team tried a DNA extraction from a bone in the foot.

Around that same time, someone in Christensen’s family had taken up an interest in genealogy and was encouraging her relatives to submit DNA records to public sources that help people build out family trees, Ogden said.

Lauded as a way to explore personal history and connect with previously unknown kin, DNA matching also has been used to link victims to criminals such as the Happy Face Killer, who murdered at least eight women. It helped lead police to the Golden State Killer, suspected of a dozen homicides and over 50 rapes.

Authorities in the Golden State case used the free genealogy and DNA database GEDmatch to link crime-scene DNA with a pool of possible suspects created using DNA profiles or genealogical data from public services like Ancestry – the kind Christensen’s relative had encouraged her family to use.

GEDmatch is also used by the DNA Doe Project, a non-profit that uses investigative genetic genealogy to identify anonymous remains.

Working with that group – and DNA from the foot bone of the Martindale Creek remains – the Wayne County Coroner’s Office tried to craft a potential family tree for the person the hunters found back in 1982, Ogden said.

Within 24 hours, they had a strong lead, the DNA Doe Project’s Lori Flowers told CNN.

The non-profit had narrowed GEDmatch’s pool of possible DNA links to the Martindale Creek remains to the Christensen siblings, she said. Then, combing through family social media posts and relatives’ obituaries, investigators noticed something: Connie Christensen had disappeared from her family’s public record.

But they still had to confirm it.

Ogden reached out to the missing woman’s child, LaBean.

Misty LaBean at memorial

“Being on the ground floor,” Ogden recalled, “I was the one that called her daughter and said, ‘I’m a complete stranger, can I come … swab your cheek?’”

Reclaiming her own mother’s identity

The match was her mother.

Beyond Christensen’s identity, the coroner’s office also shared a discovery its team had made about how LaBean’s mother had died, Ogden said: a gunshot wound.

The grim detail let loose a tangle of new questions: What was Christensen doing in Indiana? Who killed her? And why?

LaBean went to the spot near Martindale Creek where her mother’s remains had been found, she said, and wondered how the killer had gotten Christensen so far away from the nearest bus line.

“In some ways, it makes me feel a little bit better,” LaBean said of learning the real story of her mom’s absence. “But it also makes me angry because I could have had the chance to know her, and somebody took that chance away from me.”

Maybe publicity about the case will help her family find more answers, LaBean said.

Even without that, though, knowing what happened to Christensen released the throttle her family had held so tightly on her memory – a gift to the child who’d wondered for so long why she’d been abandoned.

“The biggest thing is I’ve always loved animals,” LaBean said. “And then I found out that she really liked cats. That’s kind of something I got from her.”

LaBean also reclaimed the opal ring her mother was wearing when she died, a nod to her own childhood, when some of the first jewelry pieces she held dear were opals, she said. The gold band with two diamonds and an opal hangs on a chain around the neck of the grown daughter – now a mother herself.

“It’s really come full circle,” Ogden said. “She’s wearing the ring that was found there 40 years ago, and it’s mind-blowing to think that your DNA is able to provide that closure.”

Meanwhile, Christensen’s remains were laid to rest in April among her relatives, including her parents, her obituary read. “We were able to get her family back to the site where her mom was found so they could leave flowers and have some quiet moments out there,” Ogden said.

Some yearnings will remain unrequited, like how LaBean wished her mom could have done her hair before her first middle school dance the way she was said to have done her own sisters’, she told CNN.

Still, the grown daughter – with her whole family – is now eager to bring the lost, young mother back into an embrace multiplied over decades as they finally grieve all they truly lost.

“If Connie would still be here with us, she would have been surrounded by all of her nieces, nephews, great nieces and nephews, aunts, uncles, and many cousins from both sides of the family,” her obituary read. “Connie would have been an amazing mother to her only daughter, Misty, and her husband, Dan LaBean. She never had the chance to be a great and loving grandmother.”

CNN’s Andy Rose contributed to this report.