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Remains of Gastonia woman missing 23 years identified

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  • FBI, SBI joins in search for missing teen
  • Want to help?

    Anyone with information about the case of Madelyn Cox Thomas should call Gaston County Police at 704-866-3320 or the Spartanburg County Sheriff’s Office at 1-864-503-4500.



A person mowing grass one August afternoon 23 years ago found the skeletal remains of a woman dumped off a road in Spartanburg County, S.C.

Her head, a hand and feet were missing.

Authorities suspected the victim had been stabbed to death but had no clues. Over the years, they tried unsuccessfully to find out who she was. Recent advances in DNA comparison techniques finally helped them solve that part of the mystery.

At a Thursday news conference, Spartanburg County Coroner Rusty Clevenger announced his office had made a positive identification from a DNA sample entered on a national database.

He said the victim was Madelyn Cox Thomas, 32, missing from Gastonia since July 1990. Authorities in Spartanburg and Gaston counties are now teaming up in a homicide investigation.

Calling it an “unbelievably heinous crime,” Clevenger said Thomas’ mother and two children were “appreciative someone didn’t let up (on the investigation) and this has given them some closure.”

Sgt. Myron Shelor with the Gaston County Police said Thomas’ lifestyle included prostitution and drugs, and she was known to leave her Gastonia home for long periods of time.

On July 23, 1990, when she’d been away from home for five days, Thomas’ husband reported her missing, Shelor said. The following day, a Gaston County Police officer spotted Thomas possibly getting into a car at the intersection of U.S. 321 and Interstate 85 in Gastonia, Shelor said.

Authorities investigated the case “but found no leads,” he said. “The case went cold.”

In 2007, police got a DNA sample from Thomas’ mother to compare with unidentified remains found in California. But that effort “didn’t pan out,” Shelor said.

Meanwhile, Shelor said Gaston authorities kept in touch with Spartanburg County officers after the unidentified remains were found there. They considered such factors as the victim’s possible age and height. Thomas had no known ties to the Spartanburg County area and authorities couldn’t say the remains were hers without proof.

Clevenger said the attempt to identify the remains found Aug. 24, 1990, were “unbelievably intensive” over the years.

When he became coroner in 2009, he ordered a forensic review of the case and sought help from two forensic anthropologists. Also, Clevenger brought in an investigator to “do nothing but these unidentified persons investigations.”

A break in the 1990 case came in April when Clevenger’s office was able to extract a more complete DNA sample from the bones and upload it onto the national database.

“It didn’t stay there 30 days until he had a hit,” he said.

Allan Wood, senior cold case investigator with the Spartanburg County Sheriff’s Office, said identifying the victim “gives us a place to start.”

While dismemberment was an obvious attempt to prevent authorities from making an ID, Wood called the choice for a place to dispose of the body as “high risk.”

Businesses and a major plant are nearby, and “there are probably 500 cars a day there,” he said.

“He (the killer) didn’t want her to be identified, but it’s like he didn’t mind if she was found,” Wood said. “It’s like he had a little bit of feeling toward her and wanted her to be found.”

Wood thinks the murder took place in North Carolina. Authorities in both states are trying to solve the case.

“It will be difficult,” Wood said. “But sometimes people talk. Relationships change. Someone who was your best friend years ago can become your worst enemy.”

DePriest: 704-868-7745
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