Remains found near Poplar Bluff likely those of missing elderly woman

Friday, April 17, 2009 ~ Updated 1:30 PM

POPLAR BLUFF, Mo. -- Clothing and personal items found with the human remains in an area east of Poplar Bluff have led authorities to believe with "great certainty" they belong to an elderly woman who has been missing for more than five years.

"At approximately 2:30 (p.m.) Wednesday, we were alerted by a citizen who had been riding an (all-terrain vehicle) that he had found possible human remains in a heavily wooded, brushy area in the 1700 block of B Highway," Butler County Sheriff Mark Dobbs explained.

On Thursday, local and federal authorities excavated the site and found "certain personal items, as well as clothing, to indicate to us, with great certainty, this was Mary (Lee) Grobe's remains," Dobbs said.

Butler County Coroner Jim Akers agreed. Female clothing found with the remains, as well as personal items belonging to Grobe, make it "highly likely this is her, but we will not make a positive identification until the DNA" testing is completed.

Akers said the remains are being sent to the FBI's "state-of-the art, premier" laboratory at Quantico, Va., for DNA analysis.

"The family has already submitted DNA for comparison," Akers said. "In speaking with the forensic anthropologist, we were advised bone could be used to get mitochondrial DNA."

Akers said it will take several months to get DNA results back from the FBI's lab.

"At this time, it is still undetermined (what) the manner and cause" of death are, Akers said. "We're waiting on the results of this to move forward."

Dobbs said officers hope FBI officials will be able to determine a cause of death and whether there was any trauma to the body, "anything an autopsy would tell us."

The vast majority of the remains were recovered, Dobbs said.

With the condition of the remains and items located, it is "consistent with multiple years of degradation," Akers said.

Grobe, 74, was last seen at about 6 p.m. Sept. 27, 2003, at her residence at 1557 Route B by her granddaughter, Amy Bridgewater.

Two days later, concerned family members entered Grobe's residence and found her and her dog, "B-B," missing. Her purse and medication were still inside; however, an overnight bag and some winter clothing also were missing.

Since her disappearance, Grobe's dog returned home in good condition a few days later and authorities have conducted extensive searches and followed up on numerous leads with no success.

The remains, Dobbs said, were found on another individual's property, where the ATV operator was "apparently blazing new trails."

The terrain, according to Dobbs, wasn't even fit for walking.

"Our office was contacted shortly after (the remains were found)," Dobbs said. "Myself and Investigator Charles Phelps went to the location where (the citizen) had thought he found the remains."

Dobbs said he and Phelps did a "quick grid search of the immediate area.

"That search resulted in the finding of just a few bones under the leaves and vegetation," Dobbs said. "There was nothing readily apparent.

"I feel confident if we wouldn't have been taken to that area and had it pinpointed to us, it would have been highly unlikely for us to find."

At that point, Dobbs said, the scene was secured and assistance was requested from the Missouri State Highway Patrol and its local Division of Drug and Crime Control and the Poplar Bluff Police Department

"Upon their arrival, we did another small grid search and flagged several items we believed to be human remains," Dobbs said.

The scene again was secured and assistance was requested from the FBI and its evidence response team, Dobbs said.

"(The site) was secured overnight, and we began excavation of the scene on Thursday morning," Dobbs said.

Agents from the FBI's Cape Girardeau office and its eight-man response team from St. Louis joined local and state investigators in the search Thursday.

"The first task was to get all the vegetation pulled back and out of the way," Dobbs said. A lot of limbs had fallen in the area "where we needed to be," he said. "I don't know how long the brush had been there," but he suspected a lot of it had fallen during the ice storm.

After slowly and carefully removing the brush, officers flagged all relevant artifacts and remains before beginning the excavation, said Dobbs, who described the change to the area as going from looking like a jungle to farmland.

The site was "about a circumference of 25 yards," Dobbs said. "Most of the remains were contained in one, smaller area of about 8 feet in radius."

Dobbs said there were obvious signs that animals had been scavenging in the area where the remains were found and had been digging in numerous places.

Dobbs said it is possible this discovery would not have been made had animals not been foraging and moving the remains.

Officers, Dobbs said, conducted a grid search a "few inches at a time. It was plotted to where it can be recreated with computer-aided software."

Dobbs said the site was about "50 yards to the east of the (out-of-use sewage) lagoon that was drained" in May 2005.

"Relative walking distance is approximately 400 feet from (Grobe's) house" to the scene, Dobbs said.

While authorities completed excavating the property Thursday, Dobbs said, he and Akers are not done completely with the scene.

"We're done with the search for remains out there, (but) there are some questions we want to get answered at the scene," Dobbs said.

At this point, "our work as far as determining what happened and how it happened has just began," Dobbs explained. "There are still a lot of questions we have to get answered."

The remains, according to Dobbs, were at least "partially submerged in the soil; however it is a very low-lying area that is prone to flooding. One of the things we need to get answered is what impact last year's record flooding had on the scene."

Dobbs believes the area where the remains were found may have been searched before.

"I do not know if (officers) walked over the specific area, but (they have) been in that general area," Dobbs said.

Dobbs said he can't necessarily account for what reason or circumstances kept the body from previously being found.

The remains, Dobbs said, weren't found on Grobe's property, but on the second property, east of her home, "which might account for why (officers) didn't find her."

"It was one of the investigations I inherited when I took over as sheriff, and I did not take part in the grid search when she initially was reported missing," Dobbs said. "Therefore, I can't and don't feel comfortable speculating on why or why not she wasn't found at that time.

"I can only say that the investigation from its onset was not done the way we would do things under our present administration."

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