Stuffed in a container and tucked inside a false wall in the basement of the home JoAnn Nichols shared with her husband in upstate New York, her body was inevitably whittled away by time.
A skeleton was all that was left when a contractor stumbled upon her remains last week, after nearly three decades hidden from the world.
Nichols' identity was confirmed Monday through dental records, partly answering the riddle of what became of a well-liked first-grade teacher who disappeared a few days before Christmas in 1985.
She never left her home in Poughkeepsie. She was most likely killed there, buried there and forgotten there.
From the day her husband, James L. Nichols Jr., reported her missing, talk swirled about what might have happened to JoAnn Nichols, who was 55.
It was suggested that perhaps she was depressed. Her only son, James Nichols III, 25, had died three years earlier. He drowned in a boating accident, the police said at the time.
Nichols' husband told the authorities that she had called him on Christmas Eve but had hung up when he asked where she was. He gave an interview to the Poughkeepsie Journal and calmly described the 30-second call.
"There's no reason to assume she's dead or alive, joined a group or run off with some other man," the newspaper quoted him as saying. "There are a thousand possibilities. The pain is not knowing."
The police never found any evidence of the call.
An extensive search, including with the assistance of a psychic, turned up nothing, and gradually, the case faded from the public's attention. The police said that it remained open and was reviewed annually but that the trail had been cold for years.
It is not clear if James Nichols was ever the focus of investigators. The police declined to go into detail about the case.
James Nichols went about his life -- a man of strange and obsessive habits, according to neighbors. He was known as a hoarder, a collector of things that held no value to anyone beyond himself.
In the basement there was a steady accumulation of junk, piled to the ceiling, the authorities said. The secret hidden within the wall was buried deeper and deeper by the flotsam.
On Dec. 21, 2012, James Nichols died of what the police said were natural causes. He was 82. It was 27 years to the day that he had reported his wife missing.
No relatives claimed his body, and control of his estate fell to officials from Dutchess County. His burial was also handled by the county.
The Nichols home, at 720 Vassar Road in the town of Poughkeepsie, needed a major cleaning before it could be sold. A private contractor was brought in to do the job. At 5 p.m. on June 28, the contractor made the gruesome discovery.
The cause of death was straightforward: blunt-force trauma to the head, Dr. Kari Reiber, the Dutchess County medical examiner, told reporters Monday.
The body, placed intact in the container and hidden in the wall, behind mounds of junk, might not have given off enough of a smell to attract attention, Reiber said.
Police Chief Thomas Mauro said the authorities would "continue the investigation by further examination of the case and new forensic evidence."
James Nichols was buried in an undisclosed location. While the contractor's discovery has answered the question of where JoAnn Nichols went, the full tale of what took place in that suburban basement so long ago might have gone to the grave with her husband.
By MARC SANTORA
The New York Times