Courtesy Lizzy Evans Lizzy Evans and her father, Thomas Redd Evans, in May 1982
Shortly before Father's Day 2021, Lizzy Evans was tracking her dad's ashes via FedEx and eagerly awaiting their arrival from a Brooklyn funeral home to her North Carolina home.
About a year earlier she'd learned the shocking news from an intrepid investigator with the New York State Police that the missing body of her father — who died by suicide at 51 at the Tappan Zee Bridge in the early morning of Feb. 1, 1994 — was finally located, in a burial plot of New York City's public cemetery, Hart Island.
After all these years, his remains were on his way to her. She tried waiting for her husband to arrive home, but feeling impatient once the box arrived, she opened it and put the ashes in an urn she'd bought from Amazon, nestling it alongside her late mother's urn on a shelf, with their wedding photo between them.
"Now there's some place to mourn," says Evans, 52, whose dad would have turned 80 on Friday. "There's somebody to mourn. And my father and my mother and I were finally under the same roof again for the first time since I was 3 years old."
Courtesy Lizzy Evans Urns containing the ashes of Lizzy Evans' mom (left) and dad
This unusual reunion was one Lizzy never expected.
Her father, Thomas Redd Evans (whose father is prolific lyricist and musician Redd Evans), and mother were living in the Bronx but separated when she was 3 and divorced two years later. Thomas remarried and remained in New York, while at the age of 12, Lizzy moved to Miami with her mom.
Since that time, Lizzy saw him just twice — when she was 12 and 17. Their last meeting, 35 years ago, was followed by a falling out; they never saw each other again. They also didn't speak for another six years, until Lizzy reached out to her dad by phone in the fall of 1993.
"He was ecstatic to be in touch with me," she says. "I found out that he had been looking for me in fact, and couldn't find me."
At the time, Thomas was living in Yonkers, New York, and Lizzy was still in Miami. Through phone calls, "we were building on a new chapter of our relationship," Lizzy says. "We put what was in the past between us to rest. I just wanted to move forward. And so did he."
"Six months after we started talking, around 10 p.m. on Feb. 1, 1994, I got a phone call from my stepmother saying that my father killed himself," Lizzy recalls.
"After that happened, everything just fell apart," she adds. "I flew to New York two days later for his memorial service because there was no body."
Witnesses saw Thomas' final moments on the Tappan Zee Bridge around 3:30 a.m. on Feb. 1. He'd left a license in his nearby 1979 gray Chevy Malibu and a suicide note on his kitchen table, according to police records of the case that Lizzy shared with PEOPLE.
Law enforcement and Coast Guard searches didn't recover his body, and for decades Lizzy had no idea where he was.
"Birthdays would pass and Father's Days would pass and my birthday would pass," she says. "And just every year he was never out of mind."
Courtesy Lizzy Evans Lizzy Evans and her dad in 1971
"My feeling was he was carried out to sea, or he was snagged on the bottom of the Hudson River, and they just didn't search deep enough," Lizzy continues. "And the third option was that spark. What if he faked it?"
Meanwhile, two months after his death, Thomas' body had washed up on a New York City shoreline south of the bridge and recovered by the NYPD on March 31, 1994. But investigators were unable to determine just who was this middle-aged man over 6-feet tall and about 300 pounds.
And for more than a quarter century no connection was made between the body — buried in Hart Island — and the missing man. Then, in April 2020, New York State Police senior investigator Kevin Hoeverman got this "cold case" and dove into solving it.
"I became immersed in the details," he says in an email.
Hoeverman took the case home, spreading files across his dining room table and working many a late night "looking for clues that could help solve the case."
Within weeks, and by using the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System (NamUs) — an online national clearinghouse for missing, unidentified, and unclaimed person cases across the U.S. (and unavailable in 1994) — Hoeverman's sleuthing made the long-awaited connection.
Hoeverman discovered that an unidentified male body "of similar characteristics" as Evans was recovered on March 31, 1994 by the NYPD.
"I had great optimism that the case could be brought to a successful resolution after considering tidal patterns associated with the Upper New York Bay area of the Hudson River estuary," he says via email.
The NamUs database identified living relatives of Evans, and indicated dental records were available for comparison.
Hoeverman first called Thomas' sister with the news, and she called Lizzy. "She said, 'They found your father's body,'" recalls Lizzy. "Needless to say, I felt, WTF?"
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Hoeverman called Lizzy and requested a DNA sample, which ultimately wasn't needed: On June 24, 2020, the medical examiner confirmed through dental records that Hoeverman had indeed found her father.
"It was the epitome of bittersweet," says Lizzy. "It snuffed out that last piece of hope like a match. And it was like starting all over with mourning him. It was the one thing I never could have imagined happening, which is getting closure. Of course, I'm never going to have the closure of why."
"Once I found out that he was on Hart Island, there was this mission, which was to get him disinterred and cremated and brought home to me," adds Lizzy. "I said to myself, 'This is the one thing that I can do for him.'"
While she remains angry at other investigators over the years who did not do a more thorough search, she praises Hoeverman.
"If it wasn't for him," she says, "none of this would've happened."
The COVID-19 pandemic delayed the exhumation, but last spring, Lizzy received a call from the medical examiner's office "saying we have your dad's body," she says. "We got him out."
After his cremation and arrival at her home, Lizzy immediately took a photo and shared it with Hoeverman — a resolution that remains meaningful to them both.
"I know that closure of this case meant a lot to Lizzy. It meant a lot of me too," he says. "I have that picture saved on my desktop as a reminder that hard work pays off. It's great motivation to never give up on a case."
If you or someone you know is considering suicide, please contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255), text "STRENGTH" to the Crisis Text Line at 741-741 or go to suicidepreventionlifeline.org.