Jewell Parchman Langford’s parents and siblings died without even knowing what happened to her, but the Tennessee woman’s surviving relatives provided the key clue that helped identify her remains, and the suspect in her murder, nearly five decades later.
“I am heartbroken that my family did not find out what happened before they passed away, but I am so grateful that [police] didn’t give up and that they kept working hard to try to figure it out and find out who she was,” Langford’s niece, Denise Chung, told Radio-Canada from Tennessee on Tuesday.
On Wednesday, the Ontario Provincial Police (OPP) confirmed that human remains discovered east of Ottawa in 1975 were those of Langford.
Chung and some of his relatives have known this since 2020, when his DNA was used to decipher what Deputy Commissioner Marty Kearns described during a virtual press conference as “one of the oldest and only unsolved investigations of unidentified remains in the OPP history”.
‘All About Spreading Love and Joy’
Langford was 48 when he left Madison County for Montreal, a 750-mile journey, in April 1975.
Chung, who was 10 at the time, greatly admired her Aunt Jewell, a prominent businesswoman who opened a spa in Jackson, Tennessee, and was described Wednesday as “a woman ahead of her time.”
“She was dedicated to spreading love and joy and making people very happy to be around her,” Chung recalled.
Langford, who had no children of her own and had kept her ex-husband’s last name, vowed to keep in touch, but the family soon lost contact and reported her missing to Montreal police.
According to Chung, her grandmother Eglah Mae Parchman did not want Langford to go to Canada and never really got over her daughter’s disappearance.
“My grandmother sold everything, she spent every penny she had hiring private investigators to try to find my aunt,” Chung said.
“I know my grandmother was constantly calling the local FBI… pushing and pushing because she didn’t want them to forget about Aunt Jewell, and she never wanted to stop looking, and she didn’t stop looking until she passed away.”
Search united to the family
Chung’s uncle, Ronald Parchman, traveled to Montreal to join the search for his sister, but returned to Tennessee with only Langford’s Cadillac, which police had recovered. Langford’s ex-husband, Axel, also became involved in the search, Chung said.
Among the presenters at Wednesday’s news conference was Janice Mulcock, a retired OPP detective.
Another speaker described Mulcock as “one of many investigators who had been assigned to the case over the years and who became personally involved in finding out who the Nation River Lady was and who killed her.”
Mulcock credited Langford’s family with knowing something was wrong when she didn’t keep in touch.
“Unfortunately, that was a promise she couldn’t keep. Her family and friends knew something was terribly wrong. She loved them very much and was devoted to all of them, and they knew it,” Mulcock said.
In May 1975, a few weeks after Langford left home, the body of an unidentified woman showing obvious signs of foul play was discovered in the Nation River near Casselman, Ontario. The police assumed that someone had thrown her body from a nearby bridge.
For the next 45 years, she would be known only as the Lady of the River of the Nation.
New DNA methods
On Wednesday, OPP said they never gave up their efforts to identify the Nation River Lady, noting “multiple” public calls for help in the intervening years, including the 2017 release of a 3D “facial approximation” based on the remains.
“Dedicated members of our local crime unit in the criminal investigation branch have always believed that this case could be solved, that one day we would identify the person who became known as the Nation River Lady,” Kearns said Wednesday.
“Historic homicide investigations and missing person investigations where foul play is suspected are never closed.”
It took the advent of new DNA technology to finally crack the case, investigators said. In 2019, the Nation River Lady’s body was exhumed and a new DNA profile was created and analyzed by a genealogy research firm working with US law enforcement.
When a possible match was found, investigators requested DNA samples from some of Langford’s surviving relatives to confirm their suspicions. Several, including Chung, immediately agreed.
‘Finally home and at peace’
Investigators finally identified Langford in 2020. They informed his surviving family members, but have not made it public until now.
They have also charged Rodney Nichols, 81, with murder. Nichols resides in Florida, where he is currently the subject of an extradition request.
Radio-Canada has confirmed that Langford and Nichols were living together at the time of her disappearance in 1975.
It is unclear why a connection was not made at the time between Langford’s reported disappearance and the discovery of a woman’s body just 150 kilometers away.
“I am very happy and grateful to know that he is finally home, but I would love to see that justice is done and that the person who did this … is held accountable for the crime,” Chung said.
He also thanked investigators for pursuing the case and giving the rest of Langford’s family some form of closure.
“I hate that it wasn’t [solved earlier]but… honestly, I just have to sing the praises that nobody forgot about her and that they didn’t leave it as an cold case and didn’t proceed,” she said.
Langford’s headstone, which used to read “Gone but not forgotten”, now reads “Finally home and at peace”.