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MSU forensic anthropologist offers hope in identifying long missing persons

On June 1, 1960, Lyrian Barry-Stallings, a 5-foot-tall Black woman, boarded a Greyhound bus in Columbus to get to St. Louis, Missouri. She vanished, never to be seen at her destination or have further contact with her family. 

Her missing persons case is among the profiles of hundreds of people in a searchable online database created by a Mississippi State University forensic anthropologist who hopes to help law enforcement find them and give their loved ones closure. 

“(This is) to allow the public access to missing persons data so the state of Mississippi and anyone in Mississippi could find anyone who was missing in this state and information for families to advocate for them,” said Jesse Goliath, an assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology and Middle Eastern Cultures. 

The Mississippi Repository for Missing and Unidentified Persons, launched in November,  includes pictures, demographic information, where they were last seen and circumstances of their disappearance. 

Since its launch, the database has profiles for 475 missing people and 51 profiles for unidentified remains. 


Black and Indigenous people and people of two or more races are among the majority of missing people in Mississippi, which Goliath said mirrors national trends. 

The database shows the average missing age was around 34. 

Among the unidentified, the majority are white men and the average estimated age is around 28. 

Cases in the database stretch back decades and the oldest unidentified case is of a Black woman between the ages of 30 and 40 whose skeletal remains were found in Natchez in May 1967.

People went missing or remains were uncovered mostly from population centers such as Jackson, the Coast, outside of Memphis and Hattiesburg, but there are cases from all over the state. 

Jesse Goliath, an assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology and Middle Eastern Cultures at Mississippi State University, has helped create the Mississippi Repository for Missing and Unidentified Persons at MSU. Credit: Grace Cockrell/MSU

Before the database, Goliath said it wasn’t clear how many missing and unidentified people there are in Mississippi. 

There are national databases, like the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System, but because law enforcement isn’t required to submit information to it, there is likely underreporting, he said. The National Crime Information Center collects information from law enforcement and compiles annual statistics about missing and unidentified people, but it has had challenges with receiving quality data that is often incomplete, too. 

Goliath has spoken with members of law enforcement about how a database could be helpful to solve missing persons cases. He has found that there’s not always enough staff dedicated to locating missing people, or there is a lack of communication between law enforcement agencies. 

When someone goes missing, the local law enforcement agency will submit information to the Mississippi Bureau of Investigation to put out a missing persons alert on its emergency system that has the ability to be broadcast statewide, a spokesperson from the agency said. 

This can also include posting the missing person’s picture and information on social media, which would originate from the law enforcement agency where the person was filed missing. 

The main way Goliath has found out about missing people is through Facebook when law enforcement post an alert and information about someone or posts from nonprofit advocacy groups such as MissingSippi and Mississippi Missing and Unidentified Persons

 “The more eyes, the more awareness these cases get,” he said about supporting the groups’ work. 

Undergraduate student workers scan social media to find information about missing and unidentified people to add to the database, Goliath said. Family members have also reached out to ask the team to include their loved one or to update their profile already included in the database, he said. 

Goliath said the goal is to update the database every few weeks. 

The database is modeled after one in Louisiana, which is based at Louisiana State University and is also run by forensic anthropologists. 

Goliath said one of the goals of a Mississippi database is to build something lawmakers can support and create policy around, such as mandatory reporting to the database by law enforcement. 

He and Assistant Professor Jordan Lynton Cox plan to use the database for research. He is interested in why people from certain demographics go missing compared to others. 

With Cox, a cultural anthropologist, they want to map food deserts, hospitals and areas of poverty to find where people are missing from the most in Mississippi. 

They also want to look at law enforcement budgets to see if the offices have the overall funding and resources and support to work in missing persons cases. Goliath wants to know if there are more people missing from areas with departments that are under budgeted. 

He used his forensic skills for the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, the goal of which  is to identify all remains of soldiers missing since World War II and return them home to their families. Goliath said the agency is the biggest employer and trainer of forensic anthropologists. 

At MSU, he is able to teach and research and occasionally the anthropology department is called to assist in missing persons cases, such as the exhumation in Pontotoc County of Felecia Cox – who had been missing since 2007 and was located after her killer, David Cox, told attorneys where to find her before his 2021 execution for killing his estranged wife Kim Kirk Cox, and sexually assaulting her young daughter as her mother lay dying. Felicia Cox was the wife of David Cox’s brother.

Goliath said the The Bureau of Indian Affairs has contacted the department to go into a creek with cadaver dogs to look for a missing woman from the Neshoba area. 

He also is called when bones are recovered and people want to know whether they belong to a human or an animal. 

“We’re all in this together in finding these people,” Goliath said about his forensic anthropology work. 

For more information about the Mississippi Repository for Missing and Unidentified Persons, visit https://www.missinginms.msstate.edu/ or reach out by email at [email protected].


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