POUGHKEEPSIE, N.Y. ( N.Y., Journal) -- A woman whose skeletal remains were found nearly 28 years after she disappeared apparently died from blunt trauma to her head, according to police.
On Monday, the Dutchess County Medical Examiner's Office identified the decayed bones uncovered in a Poughkeepsie home as JoAnn Nichols, who was reported missing on Dec. 21, 1985, by her husband James L. Nichols Jr.
On Friday, a female skeleton was found in the home JoAnn Nichols shared with her husband, who died of natural causes in December at 82.
After Nichols went missing, police had looked into the possibility she had run away or committed suicide because her only son had drowned three years earlier, but eventually the case went cold. Until Friday.
Dr. Kari Reiber, the county's medical examiner and acting health commissioner, said Monday's autopsy revealed JoAnn Nichols' body was placed "intact" in a container before it was sealed in a false basement wall.
The 55-year-old schoolteacher had had "extensive dental work," including a partial denture, leading to a "straightforward" positive identification, Reiber said.
The cause of death was "apparent" and "physical," she said.
The grisly discovery of a sealed container holding human remains was made Friday by a private contractor cleaning up the after its sole occupant, the missing woman's husband, died in December.
Described by neighbors as an unemotional hoarder, he died at 82 of natural causes.
Despite a police investigation, JoAnn Nichols, who was a first-grade teacher for 22 years, was never found.
Reiber said the body had been in the container "for a very long time," and that the bones separated after tissues and cartilage decomposed.
In a dry basement, buried behind a false wall and piles of hoarded items, a putrefied body might not have a strong smell, she said.
With news of the case's developments, many current and former local residents who knew the couple expressed sadness, but no shock at the turn of events.
James and JoAnn Nichols ate dinner at the Ground Round Grill and Bar in Poughkeepsie, the night before JoAnn Nichols disappeared.
Bill Emigh, former Ground Round manager, said that James Nichols would come in nearly every day to eat, from 1983 to 1984, when he was an IBM Corp. employee.
"He'd have these long two-hour lunches," Emigh said. "He told me that if I was ever in the area to stop by, so one time, I did."
The house Emigh saw was the one James Nichols lived in until he died.
"There were magazines and stuff everywhere. Jim (James Nichols) had a vintage camera collection," Emigh said. "JoAnn had that Southern class, she had a sense of refinement to her, so Jim must have been the dominant one," Emigh said. "Once she went missing, our restaurant staff... definitely suspected that he had something to do with it."
In the backyard of their home was an Amphicar, a floating car that had been owned by their son, 25-year-old James "Ticker" Nichols III who drowned in May 1982, Emigh said.
JoAnn Nichols' loved ones said that she was "devastated" by his death.
Following her disappearance, police found a note on Nichols' home computer that indicated suicide may have been a possibility.
But some things didn't change, as James Nichols apparently kept up his pattern of dining out twice a day. Emigh saw him at the Ground Round after that, sometimes with a woman, he said.
Eventually, he began taking his meals in the Town of Wappinger Perkins Restaurant and Bakery, said former waitress Alison Burns.
Burns and James Nichols had lunch together once a week at Perkins for about a year, from 2004 to 2005, she said.
"He never mentioned he had a wife and only mentioned his son once, when I asked him if he had kids," Burns said.
James Nichols was always nice and tipped well, Burns said.
But other Perkins staff members were uneasy about him.
"Someone walked by his car, he had a camera and some pictures - he had apparently been taking pictures of the Perkins employees," Burns said. "I really do think he was asked to stop coming in after that."
News of the discovery of JoAnn Nichols' remains chilled her, Burns said.
"That poor woman," she said.
Just four days before Christmas, James Nichols discovered his wife had missed her hair appointment at a local beauty parlor.
He helped police find her car in the parking lot of a shopping mall and then told police she called him on Christmas Eve morning to say she was fine, then quickly hung up, the Journal reported.
About a year and three months after his wife disappeared, on March 13, 1987, he filed for divorce, the Dutchess County Clerk's Office confirmed. The information in the file is not available to the public.
Six months after that, on Sept. 18, Nichols submitted a "findings of fact" - the answer to a question of fact, according to legal definition - and a judgment of divorce.
A judge, according to county clerk records, never signed it.
After James Nichols died passed away and no one claimed his body, Dutchess County Commissioner of Finance Pamela Barrack was appointed the temporary administrator of his estate by the state Surrogate's CourtNew York State Surrogate Court, said Kelly Traver, Barrack's attorney in the matter.
"We found two relatives of his, but they were elderly and had no interest in handling the estate," said Traver, of McCabe & Mack in Poughkeepsie.
James Nichols was buried by the Dutchess County Department of Community and Family Services, Traver said.