ST. LOUIS — Joseph Parker’s family wondered for four years where the father of five had gone.
Several of his eight siblings described him as always ready to help them if they needed it, especially when his brothers needed an extra hand for their demolition company.
They said he had a golden voice, and loved to record R&B songs with his cousins. They said they tried to be there for him, too, as he struggled with addiction.
He didn’t have a place of his own, and stayed mostly with his mother or his aunt, sometimes squatting in vacant buildings.
Occasionally, a week might pass before a member of his family would hear from him–but the spring of 2017 was different, said his sister, Lashawn Jones.
“Joseph never just disappeared,” she said. “He always needed us for whatever it was. For him to go missing for weeks or months, we were like, ‘OK, something is not right.’”
That’s why in April of 2017, after two months went by with no word from Joseph, his family filed a missing person’s report and formed a search party to look for him in vacant buildings around the St. Louis Place neighborhood where his mother lived.
“We searched every building but that one,” his brother Don Parker recalled, standing outside an abandoned light bulb factory near 18th and Madison streets.
Inside that building, a man found human remains in 2019.
Now, two years after that, the St. Louis Medical Examiner’s Office has identified the remains as the body of Joseph Parker – and reunited him with his family.
It’s an outcome the Parker family feared–but one that has given them the answers they needed to move forward.
And it’s an outcome the St. Louis Medical Examiner’s Office is still hoping to bring to seven more unidentified souls–the highest number of unidentified remains the staff there can ever recall having at one time, according to Tara Rick, director of operations for the morgue.
“We like to hope that everyone has someone and we just have to find them,” she said. “This case, in particular, was one that was close to us that never left our mind.”
Rick credits the success in the Parker case to his family’s own actions, technology and dogged determination by the city’s forensic staff.
A missing person’s report
Joseph Parker’s mother was too distraught to do an interview with 5 On Your Side, so her sister, Gloria Baker, spoke for her.
To Baker, Joseph Parker was “Pee Wee.”
“When he was born, he was so little that my mom made his bed out of a dresser drawer and so I said, ‘This is my Pee-Wee,’” Baker recalled. “So that’d been his name from 1980 all the way until the end.”
To his brother, Don Parker, he was “Joey Joe.”
“I called him and I said, ‘Hey Joey Joe, I got some work for you,’ and he said, ‘All right, come pick me up Don Don,’” Don Parker said. “So I picked him up and we did the job and he got paid, of course, and I dropped him off.
“That was the last time I saw him.” Then, March of 2017 went by. So did April.
Joseph Parker’s mother reported her son missing at the St. Louis Police Department. Along with the report, she gave the police a sample of her DNA.
From there, police sent her sample to the University of North Texas Center for Human Identification. There, DNA profiles from relatives of people declared missing are entered into a database to be checked should a sample of a missing relative’s DNA be recovered and analyzed.
Filing that report and submitting a DNA sample is the single most important step any family concerned about a missing loved one can take, Rick said.
“They may give certain identifiers like a clothing description, a physical description, but very rarely is it information that we need, like DNA, dental records or radiological records that would show if you had broken bones, fractures or treatment records at local facilities that could be used for comparison,” Rick said.
In addition to filing the report, the Parker family formed search parties.
“We went in buildings, vacant buildings and they were lifting up things and yelling out, ‘Hey, Joseph, you in there?’ or ‘Joseph, somebody, anybody,'" his sister, Lashawn Jones said. "Of course, we've seen a lot of things we probably shouldn't see and we didn't want to see, but we did have search parties for him and we put in a lot of footwork and we walked to these places.”
As the months turned into years, the family feared the worst – especially his mother, according to her sister.
“I watched my sister go through day by day, week by week of not knowing where her child is, where he was at,” Baker said. “And it was just really rough.
“We kept the faith, but it was still a struggle because we didn't know where he was and what happened, and we didn't have that closure.”
Just before 2 p.m. on August 18, 2019, a homeless man walked into the Central Patrol station and asked to speak to a supervisor.
A police sergeant greeted him, and the man told the sergeant he had been living in a vacant factory for several months, primarily on the first floor of the three-story building in the 1800 block of 19th Street.
The man told police he accidentally stepped on a piece of plywood that covered a hole in the floor of the first floor and fell to his knees. The plywood started to give way and he fell to his hands and knees. He looked through a small uncovered section and saw a human body floating in water below.
The man told police he was wearing a headlamp at the time, and that was the only reason he was able to see the body.
He told police he didn’t know what to do, so he stayed with a friend for a few days, who told him to notify the police.
The hole in the floor was a cistern–usually built to catch and store stormwater. It measured about 29 inches around, and was 20 feet deep with about 10 feet of water in it when police discovered the body, according to the police report.
The man told police he didn’t hear or see anything during the time he was living in the warehouse that would have made him think someone could be in the cistern, and he didn’t recognize the clothing on the body.
He told police he believed the hole had been covered the entire time he lived there.
When police arrived, they got into the vacant structure through an insecure doorway along the north wall. Broken light bulbs and intact light bulbs littered the floor along with old machinery and other debris, according to the police report.
The first floor was primarily open space with support beams. A piece of plywood almost completely covered the opening to the cistern, according to the report.
The body was clad in a pair of black pants, white tennis shoes, and a black “Dickies” button-down shirt, according to the report.
The Medical Examiner’s Office did not find any evidence of a shooting or any other type of trauma to the body. Decomposition was advanced.
Fingerprints–the first step in getting a person identified–were not an option.
An anthropological exam concluded the victim was likely a white man between the ages of 34 and 48 years old and between 5-feet-6-inches and 6-feet-3-inches tall.
At the time, none of the missing persons reports matched that description.
In the months that followed, two different mothers called the morgue with descriptions of their missing sons. Both sent dental records for comparison. Both came back negative.
The case went cold until October, about two years after Rick first sent samples of the remains to the University of North Texas for analysis.
This year, analysts developed a DNA profile from the remains and ran it in the database of family members who submitted samples for comparison.
The profile from the remains hit on Joseph Parker’s mother.
From there, Rick looked up Joseph Parker’s missing person’s report, and ultimately made the match. DNA was the key, she said.
“I don't feel that we would have had this type of resolution, even though it took a long time, without the family providing those samples,” Rick said. “It was very emotional.
“I know that this family had waited a long time for some answers.”
Don Parker told himself he was not going to cry during an interview with 5 On Your Side about his brother’s case. But talking about how grateful he is to have an answer, and yet, how it also dashed the hope he had about his brother’s whereabouts gets to him.
“I was thinking he was probably out of town somewhere,” Don Parker said.
His sister echoed his heartbreak.
“Just to have the hope for the four and a half years, I mean, we were really holding on,” Jones said.
They’re not sure whether to believe their brother died after accidentally falling into the cistern inside the dark abandoned structure, or whether foul play was involved.
His cause and manner of death are undetermined due to decomposition. The Parker family members now have the most important answer.
“Now we know,” Don Parker said. “We can stop searching and we can stop thinking. We know they found him, and he can rest peacefully now.”