Former teacher now digging into Gwinnett cold cases

Christina Pursley is the unidentified remains case coordinator for the Gwinnett County Medical Examiner's Office.

Credit: Contributed Photo

Credit: Contributed Photo

Christina Pursley is the unidentified remains case coordinator for the Gwinnett County Medical Examiner's Office.

Within a matter of days, Christina Pursley decided she wanted to change career paths and swapped a colorful preschool classroom for a cold, fluorescent-lit morgue.

Now, she’s in charge of discovering the names of Gwinnett County’s unidentified human remains, some of whom have been unknown for decades.

In fact, the medical examiner’s office created a position just for her — unidentified case coordinator — after she took it upon herself to reopen the county’s dozen or so cold cases after just a year with the department.

Before then, the 37-year-old had been teaching preschool for nearly a decade, though it wasn’t her initial career path. Her degree is in anthropology, and upon graduating in 2011, she had an internship lined up with the National Park Service the following year.

But that plan quickly dissolved with the 2013 federal government shutdown.

“I still needed a job, so I started teaching preschool and fell in love with that,” Pursley said.

That’s where she stayed until 2020 when the coronavirus pandemic hit and classes moved online. Then one night, she called her father, a former DeKalb County homicide detective, and asked if he knew of any job openings in forensics.

Within a week, Pursley went from caring for little ones at the start of their lives to caring for those whose lives had already ended.

“We’re caring for families, caring for the decedent, caring for cases, so I still have that part of my job,” she said, “but I mean everything else is just incredibly different — but in the best way.”

She started as an autopsy assistant and quickly took on the role of reopening and coordinating investigations into about 14 cases of unidentified remains. Those include victims of homicides as well as cases in which foul play isn’t suspected but the person simply wasn’t identified.

It’s a slow, painstaking process because of the age of many of the cases. She works with different organizations, including labs specializing in advanced forensic DNA testing and forensic genetic genealogy research, and they’ve already identified one person: Gordon Rexrode. He was a homeless man whose body was found in Lawrenceville in 2003 when city workers opened a manhole to clean out the storm drains, according to the DNA Doe Project, which helped make the identification through genetic genealogy.

It’s that addictive pull of solving a case that has driven her ambition, Pursley said.

“I was like, ‘Oh, I can do this,’” she said. “(It’s) the intrigue, the mystery of it — it’s like solving a puzzle. And if I can make a difference in one family’s life or one person’s life, and tell one person’s story, then that’s enough for me.”

There were, of course, challenges as she stumbled into her new career trajectory, especially relearning subjects she hadn’t studied in years. But she caught up quickly and took on responsibilities that enabled her to reach the position she’s in today.

That’s why Women’s History Month is important to her, she said, to create opportunities to hear stories that aren’t always heard and give women the recognition they don’t always receive.

“For modern women, I think that maybe that’s not as relevant,” Pursley said, “but sometimes it is because women do tend to get overlooked.”

“Men’s accomplishments — even if they’re not actually men’s accomplishments, they’re women’s accomplishments — they still always get the credit for it,” she added. “So it’s just the recognition and kind of patting each other on the back and saying, ‘I see you. I see what you’re doing, and we’re gonna make the world see what we’re doing.’”