Remains found in North Carolina wooded area ID'd after 23 years

Sampson County Sheriff's Office announced development in cold case Thursday

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Friday, August 4, 2023
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CLINTON, N.C. -- In 1999, the remains of a young woman were found in a wooded area in northern Sampson County, North Carolina. For 23 years, her identity remained a mystery.

On Thursday, the Sampson County Sheriff's Office said it was "pleased to announce a significant development" in the cold case.

The longstanding investigation began on July 20, 1999, when Sampson County 911 got a call reporting human remains in the woods on Easy Street. Local law officers as well as agents from the State Bureau of Investigation, responded and started an investigation. Because the remains were in "an advanced state of decomposition," and no ID was found with the body, positive identification couldn't be made.

Investigators figured out that the person was a young Caucasian or Hispanic woman, probably between 17 and 24 years old and approximately 5-4 to 5-7 with long red hair. Investigators ran fingerprint and DNA analysis but no matches were found. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children also extended assistance to the effort but for years, that also proved fruitless.

Despite tracking down hundreds of leads, including comparing missing persons' reports to the description of the unidentified remains, investigators came up empty for more than two decades.

A Turning Point

In June 2021, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children contacted the Sampson County Sheriff's Office and said there was now a federal grant that could aid in analyzing the remains of unidentified people through DNA via genealogy databases.

The Sheriff's Office contacted The Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, which agreed to support the testing process. The Kin Finder Group was hired to analyze the genealogy information.

In August 2021, hair samples were sent to Astrea Forensics for DNA testing. In January 2022, the DNA samples were sent to The Kin Finder Group for inclusion in the genealogy databases.

In June 2022, the sheriff's office caught another break when a person notified the office that they had come across a National Center for Missing and Exploited Children Facebook post about the unidentified remains in Sampson County.

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The tipster told the sheriff's office that they believed the remains could be those of Victoria Dolores Mejia Paredes, known to have a daughter in California. When contacted, the daughter agreed to provide a DNA sample for kinship testing.

Victoria Dolores Mejia Paredes was 21 in 1999,
Sampson County Sheriff's Office

Approximately a week later, The Kin Finder Group said information from Family Tree DNA indicated a link between the remains and people with the surname Paredes. The Kin Finder Group found that the Paredes family originally hailed from Honduras, with several members living in the United States. The ethnic results from the DNA supported the possibility of Hispanic/Honduran heritage.

The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children helped the San Jose Police Department to collect Mejia Paredes' daughter's DNA. In December 2022, the sample was submitted to FTDNA for comparison, and in January, The Kin Finder Group received confirmation of a parent/child relationship between Mejia Paredes' daughter and the unknown DNA.

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"The Sampson County Sheriff's Office extends its gratitude to the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation, the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, Astrea Forensics, The Kin Finder Group, and the San Jose Police Department for their invaluable contributions," Sheriff Jimmy Thornton said. "This collaborative effort has brought the investigation closer to providing closure to the Paredes family. I would like to further thank my investigative staff and Captain Dixon for their unwavering efforts in this cold case."

Past emerges but questions remain

In 1999, Mejia Paredes was 21 years old and living in Honduras with her family.

She was in a relationship with Vayardo Meza, with whom she had a daughter. Meza was living in Rose Hill and arranged for her to join him in the United States.

She left Honduras around January or February of 1999 and her family lost contact with her. Meza eventually returned to Honduras in April 2000 and told Mejia Paredes' family that she had left him and not returned.

Mejia Paredes was never reported as missing to law enforcement, and to deepen the difficulty in getting answers, Meza died in Honduras sometime around 2000 or 2001.

Vayardo Meza, who died sometime around 2000 or 2001.
Sampson County Sheriff's Office

Throughout the investigation, interviews were conducted with Mejia Paredes' and Meza's family members.

It's not clear whether Mejia Paredes was the victim of foul play. The sheriff's office did not name Meza nor anyone else as a suspect and the circumstances of Mejia Paredes' death remain murky.

In the meantime, the investigation remains ongoing.

Anyone with information about this case is urged to please contact the investigators at the Sampson County Sheriff's Office at (910) 592-4141.