DNA evidence shows that Johnny Chrisco killed Anita Louise Piteau 52 years ago, according to police in Orange County, Calif. Credit: Courtesy of Orange County District Attorney's Office

A mystery that haunted a Maine family for 52 years has been solved with genetic genealogy that identified a missing woman and a now-deceased man who is suspected of killing her, authorities said Thursday.

The victim was Anita Louise Piteau, 26, a native of Augusta, who was murdered sometime in early 1968. Piteau was identified last month through DNA matches with her family. Police identified the suspect, a man named Johnny Chrisco, using an investigative genetic genealogy technique, according to a statement from the Orange County District Attorney’s Office.

The genetic detective work relieves the Piteau family of an ache they had felt since they last heard from Anita Piteau. In a letter to her mother postmarked Feb. 19, 1968, Piteau, who had gone to California with some friends 11 months before, said that she had found work as a waitress and would be coming home in May, said her niece, 60-year-old Laurie Quirion of Waterville.

News of the discovery after so many years “is amazing. It’s a number of different things,” Quirion said. “I’m so glad that she’s here and that we found her. It is a big weight lifted off.”

Investigators from the Huntington Beach Police Department and the District Attorney’s office accompanied Piteau’s remains home to her family and attended her memorial service last weekend, according to the statement. Huntington Beach Police Chief Rob Handy saluted the persistence of investigators in pursuing justice over decades.

“Although the suspect was no longer alive to face the consequences, providing the family with the information of what happened to Anita and allowing them to properly lay her to rest is of tremendous importance,” Handy said.

One of seven children, Piteau has two living sisters and a brother who had tried to find her since she disappeared but never had the means to go to California themselves, Quirion said. Quirion had been looking for her aunt since 1980, regularly contacting the American Red Cross, the U.S. Social Security Administration and police in Whittier, Calif., for word of her.

Family members feared that something bad had happened to Piteau within three or four months of the February letter, Quirion said.

“We had a sense that she had probably been killed but no idea how that would have happened,” Quirion said. “There had to be something drastic that was stopping her.”

By then, three boys playing in a farm field in the city of Huntington Beach had found Piteau’s body, though police were unable to identify her at the time. The date was March 14, 1968. She had been raped and severely beaten, and her neck was slashed.

Police conducted an extensive investigation and preserved evidence, including a cigarette butt found near the body. But the case went cold.

Buried in an unmarked grave in Newport Beach, the victim became Orange County’s oldest unsolved Jane Doe case as detective work continued over the decades to identify the victim and whoever killed her.

Analysis of evidence from the victim’s sexual assault kit and clothing developed a male DNA profile in 2001. But there was no identification.

A partial DNA profile produced from blood on the victim’s blouse was put into the FBI’s Combined DNA Index System, and her fingerprints were put into state and national databases. But the efforts were unsuccessful.

Analysis of the cigarette butt in 2010 produced a male DNA profile consistent with the profile developed from the assault kit, but again it did not lead to a suspect.

Last year, police and district attorney’s staff turned to the investigative genetic genealogy technique to find a possible family tree. That led to the identification of Chrisco, authorities said.

Chrisco, who had not been one of the initial suspects in the case, had been discharged after three years in the Army following a psychological exam that found he had “a pattern of being quick to anger, easy to feel unjustly treated, chronically resentful, immature and impulsive,” a statement said.

Chrisco died of cancer in 2015 and was buried in Washington state, according to investigators.

“The death of Johnny Chrisco prevented the full imposition of justice for Anita’s murder, and that is a wound that will never heal, but it was the dogged pursuit of justice that ensured that it was not if, but when, we would finally be able to tell Anita’s loved ones who killed her,” Orange County District Attorney Todd Spitzer said in the statement.

Like investigators, the Piteau family has no idea what connection there could have been between the suspect and Piteau. Investigators hope to make the connection. In the meantime, the family feels a sense of great relief, Quirion said.

“It is a big weight lifted off. She is not missing anymore,” Quirion said. “She is close to us now. We have a sense of peace that comes with that.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.