Man pleads guilty to ’99 murder

HUNTINGDON – An Altoona man will spend between 7 and 14 years in state prison for the murder of Sherry Jean Leighty, a sentence that comes as cold comfort for her family, police and prosecutors.

“I don’t think anyone in this room is happy with this sentence,” Huntingdon County District Attorney George Zanic said after Kenneth Wayne Leighty, 66, of Altoona accepted a plea deal Thursday.

Zanic explained that Leighty, who now stands convicted of third-degree murder in the killing of his former daughter-in-law, Sherry Leighty, in the fall of 1999, wouldn’t have served a single day in jail without the plea deal, one that state police, Altoona police and Zanic’s office came up with last spring in order to find Sherry Leighty’s body.

“I’m not happy with the sentence, but I made the decision because we wouldn’t have been able to find her without it,” Zanic said, surrounded by investigators from the Altoona police and Huntingdon state police, as well as Sherry Leighty’s family.

While Kenneth Leighty, appearing before Judge Stewart L. Kurtz in an orange jailhouse jumpsuit and shackles, entered his plea Thursday, his sentencing is slated for Feb. 27 with prosecutors recommending the 7-to-14 year sentence.

Altoona police Detective Cpl. Matthew Starr said Thursday that Kenneth Leighty told investigators that Sherry Leighty was killed after an argument between the two became heated and then turned violent at his 19th Avenue home.

“Mr. Leighty struck Sherry Leighty in the head with some sort of solid object, whether a bat or a pole,” Starr said, adding Kenneth Leighty never told investigators what led to the argument. Starr said that Kenneth Leighty then put the young woman into his vehicle.

Sherry Leighty died while in the truck, and her father-in-law drove to his rural Huntingdon County hunting property.

Before Kenneth Leighty was arrested April 19, police had suspected a heavily wooded, 155-acre property in Warriors Mark Township, Huntingdon County, was where Kenneth Leighty had buried Sherry Leighty, but it wasn’t until a phone call admission by Kenneth Leighty on April 19 during a conversation with his son and Sherry Leighty’s former husband, Aaron Leighty, that they were certain he had committed the crime.

Even with the admission, one where Kenneth Leighty claimed the killing was an accident, there wasn’t enough evidence to file charges, Zanic said.

Zanic said he was shocked by the size of the property, and even after five days of searching, complete with 20 cadaver dogs, nothing was found. Zanic said without Sherry Leighty’s body, there just wasn’t enough evidence to prosecute Kenneth Leighty, so police and prosecutors offered him the deal on May 10.

Leighty, negotiating through his attorney Thomas Hooper, agreed, the incentive Zanic said was the possibility the then 65-year-old could one day get released from prison.

After a visit to the property with Leighty that same day turned up nothing, police returned the next day and found the young woman’s skeletal remains, “mere feet” from one of the areas investigators originally excavated during the first search in late April, Zanic noted.

Sherry Leighty disappeared in late September of 1999 but it wasn’t until Aug. 2012 that the Altoona police considered it a missing person’s case since at the time of her disappearance her father, the late Sheldon Dumm, told police it was rumored she had run off to Maine with a boyfriend.

Sherry Leighty, then 23 years old and the mother of three children, was in the midst of a divorce but living with her in-laws on 19th Avenue. Kenneth Leighty told police back in 1999 that he dropped her off near Labor Ready in Duncans

ville the morning of Oct. 1, 1999, before heading to his job at Veeder-Root Co., a fact that Starr learned in the fall of 2012 wasn’t true.

Starr developed more leads in the case that pointed to Kenneth Leighty, with the state police coming on board after the investigation lead to Huntingdon County, and by April 19 officers were at Kenneth Leighty’s home to detain him for further questioning. Kenneth Leighty assaulted officers, telling them, “I’m not going anywhere,” and ultimately pleaded guilty to aggravated assault for which he received a 23-month jail sentence.

Still, Kenneth Leighty refused to talk, investigators said. While Leighty did show police where he buried his daughter-in-law, much remains unknown about what happened or even when Sherry Leighty was killed.

“The best we can determine is it was sometime between Sept. 22 and Oct. 1,” said state police investigator Cpl. Daniel Sneath, a 20-year veteran with extensive homicide experience. “There’s some discrepancy as to when things happened.”

Zanic said the case, including the outcome, was frustrating. While he believes Kenneth Leighty’s claim it was an accident, what did happen will likely remain unsaid, he added.

“There are two people who know what happened that day,” Zanic said. “One was in jail and had a lawyer and didn’t want to talk to us. The other was dead. Without this agreement, this wouldn’t have happened. We did not have the circumstantial evidence to proceed.”

The time between the murder and the prosecution certainly didn’t help, Zanic said, but no one involved in the case now can criticize how the case was handled when Sherry Leighty first disappeared, he said. Zanic called the work of the present-day investigators “next to miraculous” and praised the efforts of the scores of people who played a part in bringing Sherry Leighty’s killer to justice, even if the end result is a bit unsatisfying.