Two detectives from upstate New York approached the elderly, white-haired woman suffering from dementia at the Lowell nursing facility where she has lived since 2001.
She is known to the staff as Flora Harris, a frail patient who has difficulty communicating and, as far as anyone knows, no living relatives.
But 42 years after a mysterious disappearance that was never solved, the detectives from Sullivan County, N.Y., believed she could help them.
They showed her a photo Tuesday, a blurry employee ID of a smiling woman who worked as a chambermaid and waitress at a Catskills resort in the mid-1970s. Harris looked closely, and her eyes lit up.
“Me!” she said.
In that moment, the loop suddenly closed on a case that had baffled authorities in Monticello, N.Y., since Aug. 3, 1975 — the day that Harris, then known as Flora Stevens, never returned from a doctor’s appointment.
The discovery was soon confirmed. Harris, 78, beamed at a photo of the Concord Hotel, a one-time jewel of the Borscht Belt circuit where she worked. She also identified the man who had dropped her at the doctor’s office all those years ago.
“Robert!” she exclaimed.
With that, Detectives Ed Clouse and Rich Morgan knew they had found their woman.
“We were all kind of shocked and excited,” said Nathan Norton, the administrator at the CareOne facility where Harris lives. “Everybody loves Flora.”
Now, they have a better idea who she is.
Eric Chaboty, undersheriff in Sullivan County, said authorities solved the cold case through a combination of old-fashioned detective work and improved digital technology.
The disappearance had “kind of faded from our radar over the years,” Chaboty acknowledged.
“Every so often, we would take out the file and see if we could find some leads,” he said.
Over the years, clues were scarce or nonexistent. Harris had vanished by the time her companion returned to pick her up. And no relatives could be found, Chaboty said. The undersheriff was also not sure where Harris had originally come from. Westchester County, maybe?
But in September, Sullivan County authorities reopened the file when New York State Police called to ask whether skeletal remains they had discovered might belong to the long-missing woman.
Investigators searched databases they had not accessed before and found a woman living in Lowell whose medical bills had been linked to Flora Stevens’s Social Security number.
The first name matched, as did the date of birth, so the detectives made the 250-mile drive to Lowell.
Norton, the CareOne administrator, watched the interaction between Harris and the police in an office at the facility. The excitement in her face, unusual in its intensity, showed that a connection had been made with the past, despite her fading memory.
Investigators also found medical records from the 1990s that place Harris at a nursing home in New Hampshire and Mount Sinai St. Luke’s-Roosevelt in New York City, according to the Sullivan County sheriff’s office.
However, nothing else has been found to mark the life and travels of Flora Harris since she disappeared in 1975. Her name, birth date, and physical description had been stored in police files and computers since she vanished. But in all that time, she was never stopped by authorities.
“She avoided any police contact in all those years,” Chaboty said. “We don’t know where she’s been until the medical records start getting detailed in the ’90s.”
Now they know.
“It’s a neat feeling,” Chaboty said. “The main thing is we know that Flora is safe.”Brian MacQuarrie can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.