FREEHOLD, N.J. (PIX11) — Skeletal remains found along a waterside New Jersey bike trail in 1988 have now been identified as belonging to a 16-year-old girl missing since 1972, authorities said Monday — though the mystery of how she died persists.

Nancy Carol Fitzgerald sat down with her family for Easter dinner in their Mohr Avenue home in Bloomfield on April 2, 1972, the Monmouth County Prosecutor’s Office said in a news release. One day later, she disappeared without a trace.

Over 50 years later, investigators now know that Fitzgerald’s remains have been recovered, thanks to advanced DNA testing and interviews with distant relatives in Georgia and Pennsylvania, officials said.

“Today’s announcement marks the culmination of decades of hard work by a network of individuals whose collective determination and ingenuity proved inexhaustible,” Monmouth County Prosecutor Raymond Santiago said in a statement. “In addition to being a testament to their efforts, it’s also reflective of our firm commitment to uncover the truth and serve the interests of justice, regardless of how much time has passed or what investigative obstacles might ever stand in the way.”

On Dec. 10, 1988 — more than 16 years after Fitzgerald’s disappearance — skeletal remains were found during a community clean-up event near the Henry Hudson Bike Trail in Atlantic Highlands, a short distance from Sandy Hook Bay, officials said. 

But it took nearly another 34 years for investigators to positively identify the remains as belonging to Fitzgerald. A forensic anthropologist could only determine at the time that the remains belonged to a young, white female between the ages of 15 and 18, who had likely been deceased since the mid-1970s, officials said. In the 1990s, a DNA profile was obtained from the remains for comparison purposes, but that effort was initially unsuccessful.

A breakthrough finally came in 2020, when Lt. Andrea Tozzi and Det. Wayne Raynor of the Monmouth County Prosecutor’s Office turned to Virginia-based DNA analysis firm Bode Technology, which reviewed the profile with more advanced technology than had previously been available, officials said. That search returned a distant relative of Fitzgerald living in Georgia.

That relative agreed to an interview and submitted a sample of her mother’s DNA, which in turn led to the identification of another relative in Pennsylvania, believed to be the younger sister of the girl known only as Jane Doe for more than three decades.

That woman too agreed to an interview and a DNA analysis, which revealed with 99.9997% confidence last month that she was an immediate relative of the Jane Doe. New Jersey officials then made an official determination that the remains belonged to Nancy Fitzgerald. Her other known surviving relatives were then notified, and arrangements are being made to transfer Fitzgerald’s remains to them for burial, officials said.

But while one mystery has been solved, another remains.

“While we are certainly encouraged that the identification was made, solving a 50-year-old mystery, this is ultimately a puzzle that will remain unfinished until we locate the final missing piece: the circumstances behind Nancy’s death,” said Santiago, the Monmouth County prosecutor, in a statement. “To that end, we are urging anyone who may have any information about this matter whatsoever to come forward and tell us what they know. Ms. Fitzgerald’s peers would all likely be in their 60s today, so we firmly believe that it is not too late to determine what happened to her and why — and, if possible, to hold any living person who may be responsible accountable for it.”

Adding that Fitzgerald attended Bloomfield’s Berkeley Elementary School and North Junior High School — today known as Bloomfield Middle School — officials asked for help finally closing the case.

Anyone with information is urged to contact MCPO Detective Raynor at 800-533-7443 or Atlantic Highlands Police Department Lt. Michael Zudonyi at 732-291-1212. Those who wish to remain anonymous can submit a tip to Monmouth County Crime Stoppers by calling their confidential tip-line at 1-800-671-4400; by downloading the free P3 Tips mobile app (available on iOS and Android – https://www.p3tips.com/1182), by calling 800-671-4400, or by going to www.monmouthcountycrimestoppers.com.