By Mike LaBella
---- — Linda Morrissette had no doubt that a shoe found along a bank of the Merrimack River two years ago was worn by her sister Helena Fells at the time she disappeared in 2006.
Yesterday, Morrissette received confirmation that it was indeed her sister’s shoe, which she believed when police showed it to her more than a year ago.
“I’ve been searching for my sister for nearly seven years,” Morrissette said. “Finally, I have closure.”
The Essex District Attorney’s Office said yesterday that a foot and ankle bone recovered on the bank of the Merrimack River in West Newbury in April 2011, just east of Haverhill, was positively identified as that of Morrissette’s sister, Helena Fells, 49, of Dracut.
“I knew it was Helena. I just needed them to tell me,” Morrissette said. “If Helena liked a pair of boots or shoes, she’d buy three pairs each in different colors. The shoe (found on the riverbank) that I was shown was the same brand and size as the other two pairs of her shoes that I’d kept.”
Fells was last seen in Lowell on Nov. 26, 2006. According to Essex District Attorney Jonathan Blodgett’s office, police found her parked car near the Merrimack River and a search dog tracked her scent from the car to the river’s edge. While it was believed that she had drowned, a search of the river produced no results.
On April 12, 2011, West Newbury police notified the Massachusetts State Police detectives assigned to the Essex District Attorney’s Office that an environmental clean-up company had recovered a human foot and ankle bone inside of what appeared to be a woman’s shoe. An extensive search of the area was conducted using a state police dog, but nothing else was found.
Morrissette, a Lowell resident, said Trooper Anthony Schena contacted her more than a year ago to ask if she would look at the shoe that was recovered.
“My sister-in-law and I both screamed when he showed us the shoe,” Morrissette said. “We both said, ‘That’s Helena’s shoe!’”
From that point on, Morrissette waited for the results of testing to prove that the remains found were those of her sister.
During the investigation, detectives learned that two women were reported missing near the Merrimack River in the past several years. DNA samples were taken from a member of each woman’s family. The samples were analyzed by the Minnesota Department of Public Safety Laboratory for Mitochondrial DNA testing and Cellmark Forensic Laboratory for nuclear DNA testing.
Last week, the Essex District Attorney’s Office was notified by Cellmark that there was a 99.99 percent probability that the remains and the sample given by Fells’ sister proved they were siblings.
“I commend the hard work and efforts of Trooper Anthony Schena and Sgt. Barry Brodette for their tireless work in making this identification,” District Attorney Jonathan Blodgett said. “I hope that this identification provides the family of Helena Fells some small measure of comfort.”
Morrissette said she was contacted yesterday by Brodette and that she met him and Dracut Police Detective Dimitri Mellonakos at the Dracut Police Station.
“My brother was with me when they said the lab tests came back and it was a 99.99 percent match,” she said. “I was elated and happy and relieved. I was feeling every emotion you could think of.”
Morrissette had taken part in many searches of the Merrimack River, from Lowell to Newburyport, never giving up hope that remains of her sister would be found.
“I didn’t want to have any regrets,” she said. “I wanted to do everything I possibly could do to find her.”
In 2009, Morrissette said that she believed her sister committed suicide on Nov. 26, 2006, by jumping into the Merrimack River in Lowell. Morrissette said her sister changed after their mother died of ovarian cancer in April 2005. She said their father died a year later, and things got really bad for Fells.
“She took a leave of absence from work, barricaded herself in her house and was only drinking water and ice,” Morrissette said. “She tried to commit suicide by taking an overdose of drugs and survived.”
Morrissette said her sister weighed only 73 pounds before she disappeared.
“I might still go to that place the shoe was found to look around,” Morrissette said. “Maybe I’ll find more bones. Who knows?”
Morrissette said she asked the district attorney’s office if she could have the remains and the shoe so she could bury them with her mother.
“I’m waiting for an answer,” she said.