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Missing Navajo woman remains identified in 35 year cold case

PHOENIX, Ariz. (CBS. KYMA/KECY) - Memories are preserved in pictures for people to hold on to, and it's all Christine Lester's family has had for 35 years.

"She left May 5th of 1987, and Mother's Day was coming up," said Shawna Rockwell, Lester's sister.

Shawna, Herbert, and LaBrenda Rockwell remember that time well, but for the worst reason. Their 24-year-old sister was heading out from the Navajo Nation to the Flagstaff Mall to get their mother and grandmother gifts for the holiday.

"She always hitchhiked. Back in the day. a lot of people did," Rockwell added.

Bittersweet call

Lester told her uncle she'd be back home by the time he was off work.

"We don't know if she made it to Flagstaff. We don't know, but that's where she wanted to go," Rockwell detailed.

They filed a missing persons report as the days went on, but nothing changed. Lester was never seen again.

"We've always had that hope she'll come through that door and introduce her family…introduce her little family," said Herbert Rockwell, Jr., Lester's brother.

Then just two weeks ago, a bittersweet call from authorities, but not in Arizona. Rather, the Madera County Sheriff's Office outside Fresno, California.

"I didn't want to hear the news. I wanted her to come home," Rockwell expressed.

Lester's remains have been buried in a gravesite for decades, labeled "Jane Doe." The Madera County Sheriff's Office says they found a woman dead on the side of a rural county road just 16 days after Lester went missing, but no identification was made.

"Welcome home, Christine"

In 2020, a deputy renewed the effort to identify her and her body was exhumed to create a DNA profile. In March 2023, a DNA match to one of Lester's brothers. The sheriff's office says this is now an open homicide investigation.

Lester's siblings say they have no idea who killed her, but did receive an odd letter written to Lester, more than five years after she went missing.

"To this day, we don't know who wrote it. It was kind of explicit. I don't think Christine would ever do some of the things this guy mentioned. To me, it was…he knew something about Christine, Rockwell detailed.

That letter, now in the hands of authorities, and Christine's siblings, reunited with their sister. Her remains delivered to them, personally by authorities Monday, after more than 30 years of broken hearts.

"I'm going to cherish all the good memories that I had with her," said LaBrenda Rockwell, Lester's other sister.

"I'd just like to say, 'Welcome home, Christine,'" Herbert expressed.

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