Officials have put a name to a woman whose skeletal remains were found off a Louisiana highway nearly 39 years ago, and two men have been charged with killing her.
Leo Laird, 64, and Gary Joseph Haymon, 54, both of Oakdale, have been charged with first-degree murder, first-degree rape and aggravated kidnapping, according to the Rapides Parish Sheriff’s Office.
Laird was arrested Aug. 14 on the charges and is being held in lieu of $1 million bond on the kidnapping and rape charges. There is no bail on the murder charge, jail records show.
Haymon is currently serving a 49-year prison sentence for kidnapping, robbery and public bribery. Sheriff’s Office officials said in a news release that arrangements have been made to transfer him from the Avoyelles Correctional Center in Cottonport to Rapides Parish to face the new charges.
Laird and Haymon are accused of killing Donna Gayle Brazzell, 18, whose remains were found Nov. 5, 1980, in a wooded area off Louisiana Highway 28 West near Gardner. Brazzell had been living in the Alexandria and Pineville areas at the time of her death, authorities said.
Rapides Parish Sheriff William Earl Hilton told the Town Talk in Alexandria that a man was rabbit hunting with his beagles when one of the dogs began baying. The hunter initially thought a rabbit had grabbed the dog’s attention.
“He went over there, and it was a skull,” Hilton told the newspaper.
A pair of socks and a clump of hair were found with the bones, the sheriff said.
Though it took nearly four decades to identify Brazzell and her alleged killers, Hilton said she was never forgotten. Hilton was the lead detective assigned to the case in 1980 when the bones were discovered.
“These cases never, ever leave a policeman’s mind,” Hilton told KALB in Alexandria. "They prey on you all the time. Especially cases like this, that you never solve.”
Investigators turned to Louisiana State University’s Repository for Missing and Unidentified Persons, known as the FACES Lab, to help identify the remains. According to the lab’s website, LSU’s Department of Geography and Anthropology has been offering forensic anthropology services to law enforcement since the late 1970s.
The formal lab was established in the 1990s. Since it’s inception, it has begun working with law enforcement agencies across the country.
In a statement on its Facebook page, FACES lab officials commended law enforcement for identifying Brazzell and solving her homicide.
“It was only through the hard work of the Rapides Parish Sheriff's Office and Louisiana State Police Crime Lab that we were finally able to solve one of our oldest unidentified persons cases,” the statement said.
The lab was able to establish that the bones found near Gardner belonged to a white woman between 16 and 21 years old. Her remains had been exposed to the elements for at least two months and up to one or more years.
FACES obtained a DNA sample from the remains and kept it stored over the years, the Sheriff’s Office news release said.
“FACES composed a reconstruction of the victim’s skull, which provided investigators a likeness of the victim,” the news release said. “A photograph of the reconstruction was later placed on the repository’s website. Over the years, it would be shared on many other web-based sites, along with social media sites.”
As the decades rolled by, the case remained unsolved. In 2014, however, detectives received information pointing to Laird and Haymon as potential suspects in Brazzell’s death.
Hilton told KALB that the case heated up again in July when a Pineville woman called investigators to say she recognized the face of the unidentified woman.
Detectives collected a DNA sample from Brazzell’s grandmother and compared it to that of the remains. The results confirmed the older woman’s suspicions.
Authorities have not said what evidence links Laird and Haymon to Brazzell’s slaying.
The Center for Missing and Exploited Children announced Brazzell’s identification on its main Facebook page Monday.
“Thank you to everyone that shared this Jane Doe’s information over the years,” the post read. “Your attention and efforts helped give Donna back her name!”
Rapides Parish detectives said the homicide investigation is ongoing and additional charges may be filed.
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