Our Blue Period

When I wrote this essay for Texas Observer at the end of 2015, my divorce had just been finalized. It was the death of a 17-year relationship, the end of an 11-year marriage, and the sickening conclusion to three years of hell trying to reconcile (and resurrect the dead).

When clinical depression strikes a marriage, the cracks are long and deep.

Our Blue Period, an essay on depression by Sarah Angle

The most important thing to remember about depression, writes Sarah Angle, is this: You do not get the time back. it is not tacked on at the end of your life to make up for the disaster years.

It was a beautiful morning, just a few months after our wedding. My husband was sitting in the garden room doing nothing in particular — except crying. We were both 24 and living in Fort Worth, where we’d grown up.

“Oh my gosh, what’s wrong?” I asked, rushing into the room.

“I don’t know,” he said. “I just can’t stop crying.”

My immediate fear was that he regretted marrying me — regretted it so much that it caused him to sob uncontrollably. Now, I wish it had been that simple.

Sitting beside him in the garden room, I held his hand, stroked his thick brown hair and told him, “Everything is going to be OK. Don’t worry, I love you.”

I’ve always been irrepressibly optimistic, but that bright outlook has dimmed a bit since our wedding in 2004. Back then, I was sure I could help my husband. He needed saving, and I took on the job with unthinking exuberance. A few months after our wedding, I finally convinced him to see a counselor: My husband was diagnosed with clinical depression, which is often chronic over a lifetime due to its biochemical nature. The counselor persuaded him to start taking antidepressants, and that helped — for a while.

My husband and I met in 1997, during our senior year at Haltom High School in Fort Worth. We sat beside each other in class and traded pencils and notes. I tried to touch his hand with every opportunity. I was smitten, and there was a lot to love. He was incredibly smart, with plans for medical school, and he was a nationally ranked swimmer with colleges wooing him. His quiet confidence was his most attractive quality. He strolled the halls of our high school in cut-off khakis, wild Hawaiian-print T-shirts and flip-flops.

Between high school and college, the person I loved started dying. It was a slow death at first, almost unrecognizable as such, masked by a thick layer of booze and the hilarity and antics of youth. For men, clinical depression often strikes in the early to mid-20s, according to mental health professionals. For my husband, that event occurred at Southern Illinois University when he was 20 years old. He started withdrawing, sleeping more and skipping class. Though he didn’t think much about it then, he now sees this behavior for the harbinger that it was. I thought he was just getting lazy, staying up drinking too late. He did that a lot, but then, so did I. Everyone did, which made his first real episode of depression seem like no more than a long hangover.

Later, when we were engaged, I should have recognized the signs; they were so typical of a major depressive disorder. He lost weight, and he was pessimistic, anxious and less confident. But I just assumed he wasn’t a naturally upbeat person, and I believed that I could be happy enough for both of us.

People with clinical depression are wired differently. In a neurotypical brain, mood-regulating neurotransmitters, such as serotonin, noradrenaline and dopamine, carry signals from one nerve cell to another. It’s generally accepted that in the brains of depressed people, those signals are disrupted or depleted. Antidepressants boost and regulate neurotransmitters, and at first they worked for my husband. He took a medication that affects serotonin levels, and he started going to counseling twice a month.

Within a few months, I felt like he was back — like we were back. We bought a house in Arlington. He got a new job that paid more and shortened his commute. He socialized with some of his old high school friends, and we got busy planning a life together. At night, we would lie in bed and talk about our day. “What are you thinking about?” I’d ask. He hated those questions, maybe because he was afraid of what I would come to understand if he answered.

From the outside looking in, his life was perfect. But then, about a year later, his mood started to slide. He had stopped taking his medication and going to counseling. He thought he was better, and so did I. We didn’t know that chronic depression is like any lifelong disease. It requires a lifetime of maintenance.

For people who don’t live with mental illness, perpetual sadness is hard to understand. My mom used to say, “He can walk. He’s smart. He’s got food to eat. He should be thankful.” I spent hours trying to convince him that he should be happy, that the world is full of endless, beautiful possibilities. But the seriously depressed can’t be reasoned into happiness.

Each year, 6.7 percent of U.S. adults experience major depression, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. Women are 70 percent more likely to become depressed than men, but men are less likely to seek treatment. Depression’s most damaging effect on people — besides hopelessness and fatigue — is that it changes their thought process and worldview, according to Jane Hickerson, a licensed clinical social worker and assistant dean of field education at the University of Texas at Arlington School of Social Work. Optimism is replaced with pessimism, she says, and logic is thrown out the window.

In his acclaimed book, The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression, Andrew Solomon writes: “When you are depressed, the past and future are absorbed entirely by the present moment, as in the world of a three-year-old. You cannot remember a time when you felt better, at least not clearly; and you certainly cannot imagine a future time when you will feel better. … The most important thing to remember about depression is this: You do not get the time back. It is not tacked on at the end of your life to make up for the disaster years. Whatever time is eaten by a depression is gone forever.”

For me, the years that followed my husband’s initial diagnosis were filled with denial, misunderstanding and a maddening silence that grew more oppressive with every missed conversation and slammed door. On the occasions when my husband opened up and told me how he was feeling, his words scared me so much that he stopped talking. I wish I’d been able to be stoic, offering a poker face and reassurance, when he said that sometimes he wanted to die and that I’d be better off without him. Instead, I started treating him less like an adult and more like a sick child.

Four years into our marriage, I knew he wasn’t capable of giving me the emotional support and connection I craved. Trying to get it from him created more problems and stress. So I built a new support system by reaching out to people I hadn’t seen in years, and investing more time in the friendships I’d maintained. I started working on myself, going to counseling to figure out what I wanted to do with my life. These survival tactics worked for about five years. I got used to not getting what I needed from my husband and being disappointed with him. Then, before I realized what was happening, resentment set in.

We got married on June 11, 2004, and it was perfect. I shoved cake into his mouth at the reception and he wiped icing on my lips. We danced to “Brown Eyed Girl” by Van Morrison and “At Last” by Etta James. We promised not to go to bed angry and to never (ever) get a divorce.

Couples cross an invisible line when they use the word “divorce” as a weapon in an argument. After that, it becomes a possibility, and both partners can see the exit sign. I can’t remember the first time we used the word. But I can remember how most of our arguments ended: My husband would yell, “I’m done!” and leave the room or the house. At first, that killed me. I felt crazy with anger and sadness. With time, I became used to it.

Once, in 2009, when we were living in Haltom City, I ran to his car and forcibly held open his door so he couldn’t drive away. In an otherwise quiet cul-de-sac in the middle of the night, we were in our driveway, screaming. I was so upset, I didn’t care.

The negative impact of mental health disorders on marriage is pretty much incontrovertible. A study published in the American Journal of Psychiatry found that people with psychiatric disorders, including major depression and anxiety, predating their first marriage were 12 percent more likely to get a divorce than people without them. Add that to a divorce rate of 40 percent, and wedding bells lose their luster.

My husband’s depression was sucking away my happiness. Hickerson says being married to a person with chronic depression is like trying to save someone who is drowning. You can’t let him drag you down, regardless of how much you want to save him. At the end of the day, or at the end of a marriage, you can only sacrifice so much of your own well-being.

In my late 20s, I started thinking about leaving my husband. It wasn’t until age 31 that I was ready. He was experiencing another bad episode of depression, probably his third or fourth in our marriage; each lasted a few months and created permanent damage between us. This time, he stopped talking. I filled dinners with wine and music instead of conversation. I stopped trying to engage him in upcoming events or socializing with friends. He was stoic under his thick beard. His kind, chocolate-colored eyes revealed nothing but sadness. It was like his soul had been stolen, and he didn’t have the energy to find it. I was tired of being with somebody who hated life.

When people reach their 30s, according to mental health professionals, they’re able to develop enough insight into their lives to decide whether they want to stay with partners suffering with chronic depression. They ask themselves, “Is this really going to work? What if we divorce and he kills himself?” The process unearths bad feelings, and I felt all of them: guilt, failure, regret, resentment. Then something totally unexpected happened.

In March 2011, in the bathroom, I saw two blue lines on a plastic stick. I looked out the window in stunned disbelief. I was pregnant.

I had planned to move to Peru and work for a magazine, learn Spanish and date throngs of handsome South American men. Instead, I decided to stay, not just in the country but also with my husband.

It was a smart choice. My daughter is the best thing in my life. She makes every day magical. The pregnancy brought my husband and me together, and our marriage was infused with new hope. During the first months of parenthood, my husband was with me every step of the way. We watched YouTube videos on breastfeeding in the wee hours of the morning while trying to get our daughter to sleep. He comforted and calmed me when I felt trapped in the combat zone of early motherhood.

We had made it out of the doom and gloom. We were a four-piece family, complete with a dog named Daisy. But my husband’s depression never left; I just stopped paying attention.

While I was consumed with painting the nursery and reading baby books, my husband had mentally checked out from his job. He stopped paying attention and made mistakes that ruined his credibility as an employee. (Depression impacts concentration, and even a minor episode can reduce productivity.) They were honest errors, but the consequences were life-changing. Losing his job triggered an earthquake that destroyed the fragile foundation we’d built. His confidence plummeted even further, his mood cycled downward, and I lost all trust in him and our future. Which, according to Hickerson, is what serious depression often does to couples.

I completely took over, becoming the kind of overbearing matriarch I hate. I gave orders and was constantly checking to see if he’d blended the peas correctly for our daughter or, when she began eating solid foods, cut the apples into small enough pieces. When he missed paying our monthly credit card bill a few times, I took over that responsibility. I hounded him to network, and to talk to everyone he knew about finding a job, even though I knew he was ashamed to ask for help.

During the next three years, my resentment grew so thick it blinded me. As our daughter grew from an infant to a walking, talking drama queen with golden curls and hazel eyes, I stopped trying to have a marriage and started operating our household like a business. The business squeaked by; the marriage wilted like hydrangeas in August.

I can’t sleep if anyone else is in bed with me. Even my mom. At first, it was hard to sleep alone after spending so many years next to my husband. But when I finally learned how, it stuck like a bad habit. Now, I can’t relax while lying next to another human being. My husband moved out in March, but we had stopped sharing a bed years earlier. I slowly learned to detach from the man with whom I’d planned to spend my entire life.

Some days, when I’m shopping at the grocery store near my house, I see a couple in their 80s walking hand in hand. The man has a cane, his wife is stooped over with osteoporosis, but they’re still moving forward, together. Maybe when that woman’s hair was brown and she stood a bit taller, she stuck by him even when he told her she was better off without him. Even when he said he didn’t love her anymore. Maybe she never gave up.

In July, my husband and I sat side by side on a bench across from a closed office door. Our legs didn’t touch as we waited; our fingers didn’t brush against each other’s when we passed a pen to fill out paperwork. We were giving marriage counseling one last try, but I wanted to throw up. If sadness could kill, I would have died there — sprawled on commercial-grade carpet outside the office of our 60-something counselor.

She actually had to tell us to stop yelling at each other once our session got underway. At the end, she breathed a deep sigh, the kind that seems to say, “Give it up.” Instead, she said that our Myers-Briggs personality types were completely different. “And with his depression,” she said, “that pushes him even further away from the type of person you are and want to be, Sarah.”

So happiness isn’t contagious and it can’t be grown.

My husband would never have “a zest for life,” she continued. “But I have seen marriages like this work. The two people just have to be willing to accept each other and embrace their differences.” When she asked if we’d like to continue working with her, we said yes, even though we knew we didn’t.

Afterward, I cried in the bathroom. I stared at my red face in the mirror; wrinkles seemed to have appeared just in the last year. Outside, my husband had waited for me. We talked about who would take our daughter to day care, then drove off in our separate cars to our separate houses and separate lives.

Recently, my husband is doing much better, and I’m genuinely happy for him. He has a well-paying job in a new industry that allows him to use his analytical skills and makes him feel appreciated. He takes medication, a different kind than before, but has stopped going to counseling.

Since he moved out, he’s lost 20 pounds, dropping down to 180 on his 6-foot-4-inch frame. We talk a lot, sometimes about getting back together. But I can’t bring myself to trust him, or us. Occasionally, I daydream about the way we were before depression became part of our couple’s vocabulary.

One day, many years from now, I’ll tell my daughter about our struggle with depression. I’ll pray that she doesn’t inherit this part of her father. But if she does, I’ll know how to deal with it and love her unconditionally.


360 West Magazine: Shelter from the Storm

Charlene, 26, is a resident at The Gatehouse. She says she's there to start over and get her life back on track. Photo by Mark  Graham.

Charlene, 26, is a resident at The Gatehouse. She says she’s there to start over and get her life back on track. Photo by Mark Graham.

Domestic violence affects all races, incomes, and family members. But there’s an innovative nonprofit in Grapevine that’s creating a path for women to build new lives—free from fear, full of love, and filled with hope.  And it’s a community like nothing else in the country.

At The Gatehouse in Grapevine, sunflowers are ubiquitous. They are in the pictures hanging on the walls of the nicely furnished, spacious apartments. They are in the vases decorating the community center, where 10 staff members work to support families creating their own paths to sustainability. Soon, they will be growing in the green space surrounding the community’s nature trail and playground — resilient, beautiful and bright.

The 61-acre apartment complex and community located in a serene, heavily treed patch of land off Texas Highway 121 is designed to be a refuge offering support, safety and spiritual growth for women living in crisis situations such as poverty and domestic abuse. It’s a fortress of solitude and security, with cameras strategically placed throughout the space and a meticulously monitored gated entry. Beauty is important, too. The sunflower is the community’s symbol of faith in the future for the families living there, because the flower always turns its face toward the sun and grows tall and strong.

Keep reading here.

Texas Observer: Closing Accounts

Love is hard. And it’s even harder when you’re caring for a dying family member, especially your mother. Here’s an essay I wrote for the Texas Observer about end-of-life care and my grandmother’s life (and death).

Betty with daughter, Karen, husband, Jerry, and son, Jerry.

She’s naked from the waist up when we enter the room.

The sheet on her twin-size bed has slipped from the curve of her slight shoulders down to the small of her back—quietly hinting at the soft round flesh just visible beneath the cheap white bedding. She’s curled up in the fetal position, facing the wall. The bare skin of her back is taut and creamy, seemingly youthful despite its age.

I remember this moment only now, months later. At the time, I was distracted by the stench of urine, sour milk and a colostomy bag that desperately needed changing. My grandmother lay there, somewhere between unconsciousness and the painful reality of being awake. Her forefinger was curled up in the cord residents pull when they need a nurse. The tip of her finger was blue, but her fingernail was covered in a dingy brown film—so dirty that I reconsidered hugging her hello. Hovering at her bedside, I wondered how many days of accumulated filth it would take to turn my fingernail that color. The finger moved, slightly, rhythmically. She didn’t speak to us; we couldn’t help her. Instead, she intermittently mumbled what had become her mantra: “God, please help me. Help me please.”

A nurse’s aide from Green Valley Healthcare and Rehabilitation Center came into the room and helped get my grandmother out of bed and into a nightgown. It was lunchtime. My mother and I had brought her favorite meal, sparing no expense and withholding no calories: Grandy’s fried chicken with mashed potatoes, biscuits and gravy, fried cherry pie and Sprite.

My mom cut up the chicken and biscuits and fed my grandmother baby bites with a plastic fork. I held the straw as she sipped the Sprite. Crumbs and wayward chicken scraps slipped from feeble lips down into her lap, making grease stains on the blanket she always needed to warm her tiny legs.

The scene reminded me of feeding my daughter, Amelia, who was then just 2. Food always covered her chubby cheeks and dribbled gently onto her bib, the floor, and usually—somehow—found its way onto my shirt or into my hair. I took care of Amelia the same way my mom was now taking care of her mother. But while Amelia was getting stronger, more independent and more beautiful by the day, my grandmother, now 91, was fading away.

Love is not always pretty. For my mom, it was sad, depressing and, at times, disgusting. But love was always present: in every touch, in every decision, and in every forkful of fried chicken she fed to my grandmother.

This had been my mother’s life for the better part of three years, and it was taking a toll.

Keep reading here.

Fort Worth Weekly: The Bare Minimum

Texas lives off low-wage workers but does little to help them escape poverty.

Marion Patton makes $9 an hour working at Braum's in Fort Worth. She's waiting (and hoping) to get full-time work at the ice cream and burger joint. Photo by Jordan Ricaurte.

Marion Patton makes $9 an hour working at Braum’s in Fort Worth. She’s waiting (and hoping) to get full-time work at the ice cream and burger joint. Photo by Jordan Ricaurte.

Her eyes are aquamarine, piercing but kind. Like the color of the sea before it washes up onto the beach. Those eyes have seen homelessness, heartache, and the daily needs of three little people who call her Mommy.

She wishes her toes were squishing the cool white sand like they did so many times before she left Pensacola, Fla.

Michelle Schmelzle relocated to Texas with her children and boyfriend last March, not knowing a soul in the state. When her boyfriend left her shortly after the move, she knew she had to “do it alone.”

Schmelzle spent six months at Presbyterian Night Shelter near downtown with her kids before she was able to get a job waiting tables at Denny’s.

Today, we’re sitting at a booth inside the restaurant after her shift (8 a.m. to 3 p.m. five days a week). She got off early, and the restaurant is almost empty. I ask for a glass of tea and immediately feel guilty. She’s worked hard enough already.

Schmelzle, 32, makes about $950 a month. That’s with tips and the $2.13 hourly wage for tipped employees. The tipped employee wage, according to federal law, must equal at least $7.25 an hour when tips and $2.13 are combined.

But that income isn’t nearly enough to pay for her unsubsidized apartment or for licensed childcare for her 4-year-old son. Luckily, her other two children, ages 13 and 8, are already in school.

She couldn’t qualify for the county’s childcare assistance program, Child Care Management Services, until she got a job. But she couldn’t work until she had someone to watch her kids. And even with her Denny’s position, she will never make enough to be self-sufficient. It’s the kind of vicious cycle that keeps minimum-wage workers perpetually on the financial edge.


Low-wage workers across the country — particularly women — face these problems every day. But in Texas, there’s no end in sight.

Fort Worth Weekly: Rising Up

Arletta Grant with granddaughter.

Arletta Grant with granddaughter.

After four months of research and getting to know the brave women featured in this story, “Rising Up” reveals that most prostitutes are victims of sex trafficking and nearly all prostitutes experienced sexual abuse as children. In the U.S., prostitutes are considered victims of sex trafficking until their eighteenth birthday. Then, they become criminals.

Arletta Grant doesn’t remember a lot about that time in her life. “I blocked it out,” she said.

But some things she can’t forget: “At nighttime, he would make me come into his room.”

“He” was an older male cousin who lived with her family in south Fort Worth. The physical and sexual abuse started when she was 11 and didn’t stop until Grant ran away at 13. After that, Grant’s family gave up custody to the state because they thought they couldn’t handle her. She spent the rest of her childhood in a rotating series of foster homes.

“That’s when I really started giving it [sex] away like it was candy,” Grant said. “I was just looking for love, looking for somebody to want me, looking for closeness. I was having sex with whoever. Since I was molested, that was the only way I could feel close to somebody.”

The year she turned 18 was a milestone for Grant. She became an adult, and she became an addict, hooked on heroin, crack cocaine, and methamphetamine.

She also started going to clubs and having sex with men for money. And that meant that her legal status changed in another way: Officially, she stopped being a victim and became a criminal.

In the eyes of most police and the general public in this country, that second category is where most prostitutes belong. Few police departments make a habit of arresting the customers of prostitutes, though they too are breaking the law. Few intervention programs exist to help prostitutes break out of that lifestyle.

But across Tarrant County, people in several walks of life — researchers, some law enforcement officers, social workers, a district judge — see a different pattern, a different reality that they are trying to share with lawmakers, law enforcement, users of prostitution, and prostitutes themselves.

They see prostitutes, by and large, as victims of sexual abuse and sexual trafficking — crimes committedagainst the women both as children and adults.

Dr. Tomi Grover is an adjunct professor at Dallas Baptist University and law enforcement trainer in human trafficking. She estimated that over 90 percent of prostitutes in this country were sexually abused as children.

Most prostitutes get into that business when they’re still minors — in many cases, before they even entered their teens, explained Dr. Vanessa Bouché, an assistant professor of political science at Texas Christian University, who specializes in human trafficking research. The average age of girls who are compelled into prostitution is 12 to 14.

“The same exact women who were victims … are now criminals,” Bouché said.

State District Judge Brent Carr said that about 500 women are convicted of prostitution each year in Tarrant County.

But accurate numbers are hard to find. By one estimate, only about a quarter of sex trafficking and prostitution cases are actually reported.

A Fort Worth law enforcement officer, who asked not to be named, said law enforcement statistics aren’t always reliable “because arrests aren’t always made.” But it’s also true, he said, that few city officials are interested in studying the extent of the problem.

“Why would a city manager want to do a study on prostitution? Why would you want to bring it to light?” he asked.

Melissa Ice believes sex trafficking is a pervasive problem in Fort Worth. She’s the director of The Net, a faith-based nonprofit that serves the city’s homeless population, low-income neighborhoods, and sexually exploited women.

There’s not enough money allocated to the issue in Fort Worth to accurately measure its prevalence and make people sit up and take notice, she said.

Carr is one of those who has taken note. For years he watched women pass through his court in an unending repetition of arrest, conviction, sentences that usually amount to time served, release, and return to the streets or shops to begin the cycle again.

In 2011 he convinced the county to start a rigorous two-year intervention program that includes housing, curfews, drug testing, required counseling, and regular returns to his court to report progress or regression. Two years later, a state grant helped the county expand the program significantly. It’s called RISE, for Reaching Independence through Successful Empowerment.

RISE is still a small, rigorous program that only a handful of women have thus far successfully completed. But he and others are convinced that in the long run it will save women while also saving the county money because fewer women end up in jail.

“Houston is the worst — the city is built on it [sex trafficking and prostitution]. But it happens a lot in Fort Worth,” said Dottie Laster, a U.S. Department of Justice human trafficking consultant and law enforcement trainer.

“They aren’t addressing the problem,” she said of Fort Worth. She believes police need to change the way they conduct prostitution investigations, to focus on the buyer instead of the seller.

But it’s also up to the community to demand more of its elected officials and take a stand against sexual exploitation, Laster said.  “It shouldn’t be cool to talk about ‘pimping’ and ‘boys will be boys’ going to strip clubs.”

Ice agreed. “People have to know what’s going on,” she said. “Prostitution is modern-day slavery.”

Read more here.

A Skull and a Bad Guy

Portion of bone removed from a skull at UNT Health Science for DNA testing. Image courtesy UNT Health Science Center.

Hey, “CSI” fans! Here’s my latest story for you from the Fort Worth Weekly: Dog finds skull in Austin field. DNA results from UNT Health Science Center prove it to be a Most Wanted fugitive.

When a 12-year-old Labrador retriever named Carly found a human skull near a large creek bed in southeast Austin on Sept. 8, the lower jaw was still attached. Part of a dried scalp filled with buzzed brown hair clung to the skull and part of the left ear. Time — compounded with wind, rain, and the scorching Texas sun — had turned the skull brown and yellow.

Its identity was a mystery. And the skull was missing its body.

But U.S. marshals had a hunch. Based on where the skull was found, the agency thought it could belong to a fugitive named Kevin Patrick Stoeser, who’d been on probation after serving time for sexual molestation of a child and possession of child pornography in Austin. And Stoeser was on the U.S. Marshals Service’s Top 15 Most Wanted list. So identifying the remains became a priority.

A small portion of the bone was cut out of the skull and sent to the University of North Texas Health Science Center in Fort Worth for DNA analysis. All unidentified remains from Texas and most other states are sent to the center.

Health science center team members take DNA from remains and enter that and other information in the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System (NamUs). The DNA profiles in NamUs can then be matched against those in another database — CODIS, run by the FBI — to see if there is a match.

And that’s exactly what happened with the skull Carly dropped in her owners’ front yard. The health science center team was able to pull a DNA profile from the bone in early November. In this case, there was a match in CODIS — the Combined DNA Index System — thanks to the Arlington Police Department.

In June 2002, Stoeser, then a soldier stationed at Fort Hood, was arrested in Arlington for sexual assault of a child. An officer collected DNA from the inside of Stoeser’s cheek with a cotton swab and entered the information in CODIS.

According to the U.S. Marshals Service, Stoeser had a long history of sexual violence, including possession of child pornography, rape, and sexual assault of five children. He pleaded guilty to the Arlington charges of child sexual assault and possession of child pornography and was sent to prison in Kansas, where he served most of a 13-year sentence before being released on probation in 2011.

Sent to a military halfway house in South Dakota, Stoeser ended up back in prison that same year for texting and e-mailing with underage girls, a probation violation. He served a few months, was released again on probation — and again got in trouble almost immediately.

That time he was sent to the Austin Transitional Center, a residential re-entry facility, because he wanted to live closer to his daughter.

Stoeser had been there only a few months when, according to U.S. Marshals Service public affairs deputy Hector Gomez, staffers at the Austin facility found him with a smartphone filled with images of underage kids, and he bolted out an emergency exit. He was 41. Nearby are the creeks and fields where, a year later, Carly is believed to have found the skull.

The health science center works more than 700 unidentified-remains cases each year. About 80 percent of those cases are skeletal remains, said Dixie Peters, technical leader for the missing persons unit within the Center for Human Identification at UNT.

Across the country, there are more than 40,000 cases involving unidentified bodies or skeletal remains. Nearly 10,000 of those cases are active in the NamUs database, making it the largest source of information on unidentified remains in the country. More than 1,000 of those cases are from Texas, including more than 100 added in the last year.

NamUs is a national database that helps match human remains with missing persons cases by keeping information on both. In 2003, the National Institute of Justice (NIJ) created it to allow law enforcement officials and the general public to search through the information. Sometimes it’s the family of missing loved ones, rather than law enforcement, who solves the case, as in a story Fort Worth Weekly covered last year (“From the Land of the Lost,” July 24, 2013).

In 2010 UNT Health Science Center was awarded a grant from the NIJ to take over the management of NamUs, making it a “one-stop shop” for unidentified remains, said B.J. Spamer, director of the training and analysis division of NamUs. The center performs DNA testing, operates NamUs, and partners with the Institute for Forensic Anthropology at UNT’s main campus in Denton to provide insight into the sex, age, and causes of death. Two forensically trained dentists are part of the team, along with analysts who use sites like LexisNexis, Facebook, and Ancestry.com to search for clues to identify remains or possibly locate missing people who are still alive.

“We use the most advanced technology to get the short tandem repeats (STRs),” explained Spamer. STRs are a portion of nuclear DNA that’s passed down from both of an individual’s parents.

On all cases, the ID center processes both nuclear (STR) and mitochondrial DNA, which is inherited from the mother. All siblings from the same mother carry the same mitochondrial DNA.

STR testing is a big deal because “it’s really discriminating,” said Spamer — meaning that the likelihood of another person having that same DNA profile is basically zero.

Every crime lab in the country does STR analysis, Spamer said. But technicians can’t always get an STR profile from human remains because that type of DNA is found in the nuclei of cells and breaks down faster than mitochondrial DNA. A body that’s been exposed to the elements for an extended period of time might not have viable nuclear DNA.

In this case, Peters’ team was able to pull an STR profile from the skull, even though the remains were weathered. And that’s the type of DNA profile that was taken from Stoeser in 2002 and loaded into CODIS. Texas uses STR testing (rather than mitochondrial) when it pulls DNA samples from convicted offenders.

Only nine facilities in the U.S. can perform STR and mitochondrial DNA testing and upload those results into CODIS, Spamer said. UNT Health Science Center provides more DNA profiles on unidentified remains than any other lab in the country. Many private labs can do the DNA testing but don’t have access to CODIS, which is restricted to government-funded facilities.

A few days after Stoeser escaped on Oct. 24, 2013, Austin was hit by what came to be known locally as the “Halloween flood” of 2013. David Fugitt, a homicide detective with the Austin Police Department who worked the case of the recovered skull, believes Stoeser may have drowned in the high waters that killed several other people and ruined many homes.

Stoeser had been missing for more than six months when his case was featured on CNN’s “The Hunt” with host John Walsh, and a $25,000 bounty was offered for information leading to his arrest.

Then in June, the U.S. Marshals Service went back to scour the area again. This time, the search was cut short, Fugitt said, after one investigator was bitten by a rattlesnake and because of heavy rains.

In September, Carly brought home the skull, and the next day, 28 law enforcement officials and four cadaver dogs were back at it, wading through an open field and neighboring creek bed full of waist-high grass, searching for the rest of the missing body.

The team searched throughout the course of the day but found nothing. Law enforcement officials put a tracking device on Carly’s collar and let her roam free for a couple of days, hoping she would take investigators back to the place where she had found the skull. But the dog led them to no more grisly trophies.

Dr. Dana Austin, a forensic anthropologist with the Tarrant County Medical Examiner’s office, said that the instincts of dogs and coyotes to drag bones away to chew on them, combined with the natural decomposition process, make it increasingly less likely that more of Stoeser’s remains will be found.

Carly still might represent the best hope of finding them. Owners Anthony and Bonnie Vin Klarek said the Labrador retriever gets a walk every day through the area where they think she found the skull, and at night she often jumps the fence to forage on her own.

The dog has never brought back another bone, Bonnie said, but a week after finding the skull, “she came back home with a kid’s baseball glove.”

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