Suspect directs police to remains
After three weeks of searching a 150-acre tract near Warriors Mark, it was the suspect in Sherry Leighty’s murder who directed investigators where to dig for her remains, according to police.
Kenneth W. Leighty, 65, of Altoona, accompanied by his attorneys, met with state police in Huntingdon on Friday and not only told investigators the specific location where he buried his daughter-in-law’s body in the fall of 1999, but also admitted to killing the 23-year-old mother of three small children, police contend in fresh charges filed Monday.
Kenneth Leighty, who since April 19 has been in Blair County Prison on aggravated assault charges, was taken to Huntingdon County on Monday where he was arraigned on a single homicide count, Huntingdon County District Attorney George Zanic said.
Armed with the new information and a new search warrant, police found Sherry Leighty’s skeletal remains just before 4 p.m. Saturday, Zanic said.
“We feel grateful today that our sister has been found,” said Sherry Leighty’s brother, Richard Dumm, who along with her sister, Shelly Nagle, attended Monday’s press conference announcing the latest development in the case. “We can put her to rest, and that was our main concern – that we find our sister for her kids and for our sake.”
Kenneth Leighty’s court-appointed attorney, Thomas K. Hooper, confirmed his client spoke with state police on Friday and told investigators where to find Sherry Leighty and that he caused her death. Hooper wouldn’t say how Sherry Leighty died, and neither would investigators who said the case is still ongoing. A team led by a forensic anthropologist from Mercyhurst University in Erie is working to determine the cause of death.
Hooper said Kenneth Leighty has maintained his daughter-in-law’s death was accidental.
Hooper also said he was confident the case against his client will be resolved with a lesser degree charge and not first-degree murder. Zanic noted that until the cause and circumstances surrounding Sherry Leighty’s death are fully known, there will be no decision on whether the state will seek the death penalty.
Zanic praised the “tireless work” of Altoona, state police and individuals from an array of agencies, including the Warriors Mark Volunteer Fire Department, who participated in the multi-jurisdictional case, one that started in Altoona with Detective Cpl. Matthew Starr. Starr began work on the Sherry Leighty case in August 2012. At that time, Zanic pointed out, it was a missing person’s case that police were always interested in but could never find enough evidence of a crime to pursue.
“[Starr’s] work on this case has been incredible,” said Zanic.
State Police Lt. James Emigh said Monday that suspicions grew as the investigation unfolded with the state police taking over after the search for Sherry Leighty took investigators to Kenneth W. Leighty’s property in Huntingdon County.
Emigh said that while one part of the case is over, the investigation remains ongoing as police piece together the events surrounding Sherry Leighty’s death in 1999.
Zanic offered his condolences to the family of Sherry Leighty, who was just 23-years-old when she vanished, and praised their persistence in finding their sister.
“It’s been very frustrating at times, but Saturday was very satisfying,” Zanic said. “It was my honor to meet with Richard [Dumm] and Shelly [Nagle], the siblings of Miss Leighty, this morning and again, my condolences to them. I appreciate their patience and their assistance.”
Dumm, standing with his arm around Nagle, said while the day is long overdue, the family is grateful.
“[It] brings joy to us that we can bring our sister home,” Dumm said. “My sister [Shelly] kept me going. She did a lot. She did a lot of leg work herself through all this. Just keeping tight with the family. That’s what got us through.”
According to previous search warrants filed in the case, police focused on Kenneth Leighty when they determined he lied about having gone to work after he said he dropped Sherry Leighty off near her job at Labor Ready the morning of Oct. 1, 1999. At the time, Sherry Leighty and Kenneth Leighty’s son, Aaron Leighty, were in the midst of a divorce, one that was finalized later that month. Sherry had been staying with her in-laws, records show.
Sherry Leighty was rumored to have run off to Maine with a boyfriend, police said, even though she had three children, ages 7, 3 and 1 at home at the time.
She was reported missing on Nov. 3, 1999, by her late father, Sheldon Dumm, police note, and according to the most recent charges, police put the time frame of her death between Sept. 22 and Oct. 1, 1999.
Kenneth Leighty was due in Blair County Court this week for a bail reduction hearing on charges stemming from an alleged altercation with investigators April 19 at his 19th Avenue home, but Zanic said in light of the homicide charge, that will be a moot point. Bail was denied Monday by Magisterial District Judge Douglas Gummo.
Kenneth Leighty waived his preliminary hearing on the homicide charge Monday and is next due on Huntingdon County Court in September. For now, he’ll remain in Blair County Prison, Zanic said.