Search on for missing woman
The case of an Altoona woman who disappeared nearly 14 years ago is under investigation as a possible homicide, with police focusing their search for a body near a Huntingdon County camp, according to court records.
Sherry Jean Leighty was 21 years old when she vanished Oct. 1, 1999. On Friday Altoona police, along with investigators from the state police and Huntingdon County District Attorney’s Office, took Leighty’s father-in-law, Kenneth W. Leighty, 65, of 1225 19th Ave., into custody for assaulting an officer.
“You’re not [expletive deleted] taking me anywhere,” Kenneth Leighty allegedly exclaimed after police told him they were detaining him for investigative purposes after a half-hour interview at his home around 7:30 p.m. Friday, according to charges filed this weekend. Police said Kenneth Leighty leapt from his couch, threw his shoulder into Trooper Fred Chadwick of the state police at Huntingdon and darted to the dining room where he kicked and punched at officers.
Police charged Kenneth Leighty with aggravated assault of a police officer and related counts, and he was jailed early Saturday in lieu of a $250,000 cash bond set by Magisterial District Judge Fred Miller.
Kenneth Leighty has not been charged in Sherry Leighty’s disappearance.
Police said that Kenneth Leighty allegedly lied to investigators on Oct. 12, 2012, about what he was doing the day Sherry Leighty disappeared.
Records show in an October interview with Altoona police, Kenneth Leighty said he last saw his daughter-in-law early on the morning of Oct. 1, 1999, when he dropped her off at her workplace, Labor Ready. Sherry Leighty never showed up at work that day.
Police note Kenneth Leighty told investigators he then drove to his job at Veeder-Root between 6:30 and 7 a.m. Kenneth Leighty said he worked until about 2:30 or 3 p.m. and that Sherry Leighty never returned home. But police learned after pulling his work records that Kenneth Leighty was off work between Sept. 29 and Oct. 4.
Since that interview, police have spoken with others, including Sherry Leighty’s then-husband, Aaron, and the couple’s son. The couple’s divorce was finalized in October 1999, and Sherry Leighty’s father, Sheldon Dumm, was granted full custody of their three children, then ages 7, 3 and 1. Dumm died in 2005.
Police indicated Kenneth Leighty’s grandson told police he was young when his mother disappeared, but he remembered his parents yelling and fighting a lot. Sherry and Aaron Leighty’s son also told police he has heard his mother was buried underneath “an old, unused outhouse” at Kenneth Leighty’s 150-acre property in Warriors Mark Township, Huntingdon County, according to a search warrant executed this weekend.
Aaron Leighty also spoke with investigators and allowed police to listen in on two phone calls between him and his father on Friday. In the first call, Kenneth Leighty explained why he at first gave permission on Wednesday for police to search his Warriors Mark property and why he changed his mind on Friday, advising police they needed a search warrant.
Kenneth Leighty allegedly said he had read about search warrants and decided against granting permission so police would have to specify what they were looking for in the warrant.
In the second call, Leighty allegedly made incriminating remarks and allegedly told his son where to find Sherry Leighty’s body.
“I did it. … It was an accident,” Kenneth Leighty allegedly told his son as police listened in, records show. The body, Kenneth Leighty allegedly said, would be found along a fence row.
The property, police point out, is mostly wooded and used for hunting. Police said there are two outhouses and a primitive building on the 150-acre property as well as a 1996 GMC Sonoma that Kenneth Leighty was likely driving the morning of Sherry Leighty’s disappearance.
Altoona police and state police investigators flew over the property in early March, according to court records, and spotted the pickup truck that is now unregistered. According to police, Kenneth Leighty and his wife, Darlene, owned only one vehicle in 1999, that same red pickup.
Police secured two search warrants late Friday to search Kenneth Leighty’s Warriors Mark property and the pickup truck, according to Huntingdon County District Attorney George Zanic.
“There’s an active investigation and active search for the body,” Zanic said. The search of the property for Sherry Leighty’s body began Saturday morning, but investigators remained tight-lipped about what, if any, evidence was found.
“I’m not at liberty to say what we’ve done or if anything’s been found,” Zanic said. He added the effort involved many agencies and was a tedious process.
On Saturday, Magisterial District Judge Fred Miller issued a search warrant for Kenneth Leighty’s home and several computers, phones and other electronic storage devices were seized, records show.
In the warrant, Altoona police note that police believe Kenneth Leighty used the Internet to research “search warrants, disposal of human remains, and/or police tactics and techniques related to searching for buried human remains.”
Kenneth Leighty remains behind bars with a preliminary hearing on aggravated assault, simple assault and harassment charges slated for Wednesday in Central Court.
State police spokesman Trooper David McGarvey said it is the policy of the state police not to identify suspects in any investigation, but McGarvey did say the state police were assisting the Altoona police with an investigation when Kenneth Leighty allegedly assaulted a trooper.
As recently as September, Altoona police maintained Sherry Leighty’s disappearance didn’t meet the criteria of a missing person. There was a rumor at the time that she had run off to Maine with a boyfriend, and in a September article in the Mirror, her sister, Shelly Nagle of Altoona, said the family still held out hope they would find out what happened.
“I don’t want to think the worst, but with her having been gone this long, obviously we have thought of that,” Nagle, who started a Facebook page about her sister’s case, told the Mirror last year.
Mirror Staff Writer Greg Bock is at 946-7458. Mirror Staff Writer Kay Stephens contributed to this report.