Inside a false wall and stuffed inside a container in the basement of the home Jo Ann Nichols shared with her husband in upstate New York, her body was inevitably whittled away by time.
A skeleton was all that was left when a contractor accidently stumbled upon her remains last week, after the body had spent nearly three decades hidden from the world.
Ms. Nichols’s identity was confirmed through dental records on Monday, but this only partly answered the riddle of what became of a well-liked teacher who taught first graders who disappeared a few days before Christmas in 1985.
She had never left her home in Poughkeepsie. She was most likely killed there, buried there and forgotten there.
From the day her husband, James L. Nichols Jr., first reported her missing, rumors abounded about what might have happened to Ms. Nichols, who was 55.
It was suggested that perhaps she was depressed. Her only son, James Nichols III, 25, had died three years earlier. He had drowned in a boating accident, the police said at the time.
Ms. Nichols’s husband told the authorities that she had called him on Christmas Eve but had hung up when he asked where she was.
He gave an interview to The Poughkeepsie Journal and calmly described the 30-second call.
“There’s no reason to assume she’s dead or alive, joined a group or run off with some other man,” “There are a thousand possibilities. The pain is not knowing.” The newspaper quoted him as saying.
The police never found any evidence of the call.
An extensive search, which even included the assistance of a psychic, turned up nothing, and gradually, the case eventually faded from the public’s attention. The police said that it remained open and was reviewed annually, but that the trail had been cold for years.
It is not clear if Mr. Nichols was ever the focus of investigators. The police declined to go into detail about the case.
Mr. Nichols carried on with his life as per usual, a man of strange and obsessive habits, according to neighbors. He was known as a hoarder, a collector of things that held no value to anyone apart from himself.
In the Nichols basement there was a steady accumulation of junk, piled high to the ceiling, the authorities said. The secret hidden within the wall was buried deeper and deeper by the flotsam.
On Dec. 21, 2012, Mr. Nichols died of what the police said were natural causes. He was 82. It was 27 years to the day that he had reported his wife missing.
No relatives claimed his body, and control of his estate fell to officials from Dutchess County. Mr. Nichols’s burial was also handled by the county.
The Nichols home, at 720 Vassar Road in the Town of Poughkeepsie, needed a major cleaning before it could be sold. A private contractor was brought in to do the job.
At 5 p.m. on June 28, the contractor made the terrible gruesome discovery.
The cause of death was straightforward: blunt-force trauma to the head, Dr. Kari Reiber, the Dutchess County medical examiner, told reporters on Monday.
The body, placed intact in the container and hidden in the wall, behind mounds of junk, might not have given off enough of a smell to attract attention, Dr. Reiber said.
In a statement, Thomas Mauro, the chief of the Town of Poughkeepsie Police Department, said the authorities would “continue the investigation by further examination of the case and new forensic evidence.”
Mr. Nichols was buried in an undisclosed location. While the contractor’s discovery has answered the question of where Ms. Nichols went, the full tale of what took place in that suburban basement so long ago might have gone to the grave with her husband.