California governor offers reward in Newfoundland-born woman’s 1970 murder

Melissa Carson was eight years old when the badly decomposed remains of her mother were found in a rural area of central California known as French Camp.

At the time, Carson was told her mother had simply disappeared.

When she was 18, her father told her the truth: Phyllis O’Brien Carson — a young woman originally from Newfoundland — had been murdered in October 1970, and police had yet to solve the case.

So began her 35-year quest for the truth, which attracted international attention earlier this week when California Gov. Jerry Brown offered a US$50,000 reward for information leading to the conviction of the murderer.

“The governor’s reward is the biggest thing yet,” Carson said in an interview Tuesday. “I’m just hoping for the best. Hopefully, it will bring some peace to my soul.”

Police in California’s San Joaquin County say Phyllis O’Brien Carson, a 32-year-old mother of four, was last seen alive at a truck-stop bar in French Camp, where she was entertaining visiting relatives. Police say the relatives left her at the bar, and she was later spotted leaving with an unknown man.

Her body was found four weeks later on Nov. 22, 1970.

The cause of death was unclear, given the level of decomposition, and there was no DNA testing at the time. The police investigation turned up few clues.

Melissa Carson still lives in California, not far from the town west of San Francisco where her mother died.

She said her parents met in the late 1950s, when her father, U.S. Air Force serviceman Edward Carson, was stationed at Ernest Harmon Air Force Base in Stephenville, N.L.

The base was one of several sites in Newfoundland and Labrador used by the U.S. military between the early 1940s and the 1960s. Heritage Newfoundland and Labrador estimates that about 30,000 women from the province married American servicemen during that time.

Many of them, like Carson’s mother, moved to the United States to raise their families.

“Some came home and some didn’t,” she said. “Some marriages lasted … My aunts told me that a lot of the women met service members in (Stephenville).”

When Carson’s father died of leukemia in 1992, he told her to stop looking for her mother’s killer.

“He was just overwhelmed with hurt and pain,” she said. “He told me, ‘Leave it alone. It’s going to hurt.'”

But she didn’t give up. Her search for the truth continued off and on, and has ramped up in the past five years.

Her investigation has included going door to door in French Camp, seeking interviews with locals who may have seen something. A Facebook page dedicated to her mother is filled with photos and information.

“I went on with my life, but it’s always been in the back of my head,” said Carson, who at 55 is the mother of two adult children and works for the U.S. federal government.

She said her mother came from a large family in western Newfoundland, where relatives are well aware of her quest.

As for the governor’s decision to offer a reward, Carson said she is hoping someone will finally come forward to help police solve the case.

“I was shocked because it’s such an old case,” she said. “Yet, there are people out there that I know are still alive and may know something … Even if nobody comes forward, in my heart I know that I’ve done everything I could.”

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