Case of missing Centre County DA

Plenty of theories, but little evidence — 13 years after he vanished, still no closure on Gricar

In this undated file photo provided by the Bellefonte Police Department, Centre County District Attorney Ray F. Gricar stands next to his red and white 2004 Mini Cooper.

HARRISBURG — Ray Gricar told his girlfriend he was playing hooky, set out alone down scenic Route 192 in his red Mini Cooper and strolled through the kitschy storefronts of a Lewisburg antique mall.

There was nothing so unusual about an escape on an unseasonably warm Friday 13 years ago. The Centre County district attorney was eight months from retirement, and he’d once gone to a Cleveland Indians game without telling a soul. The day before he showed up in Lewisburg, on April 14, an acquaintance saw him at Raystown Lake, more than an hour’s drive from Bellefonte.

This time, though, he never returned.

Did Gricar, then 59, climb the steel guardrail of a nearby bridge and plunge into the Susquehanna River? Did he encounter someone he’d prosecuted over his 35-year career and end up in a shallow grave or abandoned mineshaft? Did he flee his old life, with its promise of a safe pension and a calendar full of languid day trips, for something new and exciting?

“It’s frustrating,” said Shawn Weaver, who oversaw the investigation from 2006, when he became Bellefonte’s police chief, through 2014, when the state police took over. “You can be set on one theory, really firmly believe it, and then you can talk yourself right out of it.”

After nearly a decade chasing false leads — and absorbing the overtime pay each required — the 11-person department has returned to the usual grind of domestics and drug busts. The scant pieces of evidence Gricar left behind have been passed along. Tips are forwarded to the State Police’s Troop G major case team.

“Currently, the case is classified as a missing person,” said Trooper David McGarvey. “Due to the nature of the investigation, specific details pertaining to the case will not be released.”

The last known image of Gricar was taken from a surveillance camera on that Thursday night as he left the courthouse where he and his girlfriend, Patty Fornicola, worked. She still works for the county. They shared a modest home on Bellefonte’s Collins Avenue, where he set out from the next day.

“Everybody knew him and everybody has a theory,” an employee at an ice cream parlor across from the courthouse said recently.

He offers his own, that Gricar entered the witness-protection program and will re-emerge at the end of a very long investigation into the mob.

Weaver, who interned under Fornicola in the 1980s when she was a parole officer, said he tries not to dwell on the case.

That’s easier said than done, though.

“Every time I drive by Lewisburg, I think about it,” he said. “At least weekly.”

The early days

Gricar was a man focused steadfastly on his work. He had a deep-seated empathy for victims and could spend hours listening to their families. In the courtroom, he framed his arguments succinctly. Defense attorneys girded their clients for his intense cross-examinations. At work, he was known to pass co-workers in the hall without acknowledgment, his eyes set on some unseen goalpost in the middle distance, unless they initiated conversation.

That focus manifested in a gullibility that former Montour County District Attorney Bob Buehner relished.

“Every time he’d want some help, I’d say, ‘OK, Ray, get me tickets for the big Penn State football game and I’ll see what I can do,'” he said.

Eventually, Gricar grew comfortable enough to reciprocate the joke.

Gricar’s attention to detail resulted in convictions in major cases, such as the 1993 slaying of Dawn Marie Birnbaum. The 17-year-old runaway was found in a snow bank off I-80. The district attorney used DNA, tire tracks and gas receipts to link the murder to a cross-country trucker.

“It was a difficult case, with so much circumstantial evidence,” Buehner said. “That defendant made the mistake of dumping the body in the wrong county because Ray didn’t let up until it was solved.”

After law school and a brief stint as a city prosecutor, Gricar made his name through a series of high-profile murder cases in Ohio’s Cuyahoga County. He left Cleveland in 1979 when his first wife was hired as a professor at Pennsylvania State University.

Rather than take on civil cases or defense work, friend and fellow attorney Amos Goodall said Gricar spent more than a year as a stay-at-home dad to his adoptive daughter, Lara, who declined to comment for this story.

“He couldn’t imagine doing anything else,” Goodall said.

When a post opened up under District Attorney David E. Grine, Gricar was the obvious choice. Despite the insularity of Centre County politics, he won Grine’s old job in 1985 in an election that pitted him against Goodall, a Democrat. By that point, they’d become friends and the election didn’t jeopardize that.

“He certainly wasn’t given to theatrical or grand gestures, even in social situations,” Goodall said. “There was nothing unfriendly or discourteous or disloyal about him. He’s what you’d expect to have in a friend.”

Gricar rarely shared his feelings openly and never provided his friends with an easy explanation for why he chose to be a prosecutor. One of the few times Goodall saw his friend shaken was when Lara had been injured in a snowboarding accident out west.

“We were coming in from a trip and he was flying out” of University Park Airport in State College, he said. “I’ve never seen him as white-faced and worried as when we saw him in the airport that day.”

It’s that equanimity and dedication to work and family — Gricar had planned to visit Lara in Washington state after he retired — that makes Goodall doubt that his friend would “voluntarily absent himself.”

After he vanished, Goodall helped organize a reward to find his friend. In 2011, he represented Lara when she sought to declare her father legally deceased. Grine, who went on to become a judge, presided over the case.

“Can you imagine how you’d feel if your father or fiance disappeared?” Goodall asked. “You’re floored. You don’t know what to do. That’s the way his daughter and fiancee were and, well, I felt the same way.”

Concerns, fear grow

Gricar called Fornicola at 11:30 a.m. to tell her that he was driving down Route 192 and wouldn’t be back in time to feed and walk their dog, Honey. It was a perfect day to drive with the windows down; sunny with temperatures in the 60s.

“I love you,” the pair said before going about their day.

Fornicola returned home from the courthouse, found no note and went to work out at the Bellefonte YMCA. Back home again, still with no word, she fretted over Gricar and made a frantic call to police about 11:30 p.m.

“I don’t want folks to forget about Ray,” she said, 10 years on. “Ray was a wonderful person. I have very wonderful memories of him, and I need to cherish those.”

She declined further comment.

That Friday night, the officers on duty in Bellefonte showed up at the door of Duane Dixon, Weaver’s predecessor as chief, almost immediately after Fornicola’s call.

“We’ve had other missing persons cases, but nothing on the scale where they come to your door to advise you (that) your DA is missing,” said Dixon, now retired and working in the police records room in Glendale, Ariz.

Forgoing standard missing persons procedure, the police under Dixon’s direction immediately sent notice to other departments to be on the lookout for Gricar’s Mini Cooper. The next morning, with still no word from Gricar, the state police joined the search and a helicopter went up to scan the roadsides.

“At this point, you’re thinking it’s a normal missing persons case, that he went somewhere and got lost,” Dixon said. “The main concern is a car crash because the direction he traveled was a two-lane highway and accidents do happen going from Lewisburg to Bellefonte.”

Darrel Zaccagni became the lead investigator because he showed up to work first that Saturday morning. In a perfect world, he said, the police would have given Gricar 24 hours, but “when you hold an office like that — I don’t care what anybody says — you get a little more favored treatment than Susie Homewife Who Doesn’t Come Home Tonight.”

His first thought was that Gricar had met a woman in Lewisburg and decided to stay the night. Outside of his workplace demeanor, Zaccagni said the district attorney had a reputation for the easy charm he had with women.

That theory evaporated as the morning wore on.

“We should’ve heard from him by now,” he remembered thinking. “Patty would be getting up wondering ‘Where’s Ray?’ and he’d have to lie to her and say the car broke down, I slept in the car and my cellphone battery was dead. He’d have to have some explanation for her.”

Police scour river

By 5 p.m. Saturday, the discovery of the Mini Cooper parked across from an antique mall called the “Street of Shops” upset all previous assumptions.

It became obvious that Gricar’s disappearance wouldn’t be easily resolved. His cellphone — turned off — was found locked inside the car with the keys missing. After being taken to a nearby state police barracks, technicians detected an obvious cigarette smell and found ash on the passenger’s side floor mat. Zaccagni said Gricar not only didn’t smoke but reportedly abhorred the habit.

“That indicated that someone was in that car smoking or leaned into the car holding a cigarette,” he said.

Despite the unnerving developments, however, there were no signs of foul play. No blood, no scuff marks, nothing out of order.

There was no activity on Gricar’s email, bank accounts or credit cards. But it soon became clear that Ray’s laptop, which he was seen with on Thursday, was missing.

Dixon and Zaccagni were struck by another revelation brought to their attention by Ray’s nephew, Tony Gricar, who did not respond to requests for comment. Tony immediately recognized something eerily familiar about the scene: the parked car, the broad, fast-moving river and the bridge.

His father and Ray’s older brother, Roy, killed himself in 1996 after a long struggle with depression. The authorities had found his car parked along the Great Miami River in Dayton, Ohio, and found his body a few days later.

That history prompted police to mount a massive search of the river.

“Here’s the interesting thing,” said Buehner, recalling a dinner he’d had with Gricar and a few other prosecutors. “Ray never believed his brother committed suicide. The most important reason was that he thought his brother would never orphan his two sons, Ray’s nephews.”

The issue came up, Buehner said, because the normally tight-lipped Gricar had mentioned a trip back home. Every time he returned, Gricar told his friends that he would check in with police to see if there were new leads.

Buehner said he has always discounted the suicide theory because, in his experience as a district attorney, most people who kill themselves want their body to be found. Their final act might be used to make a statement about their lives or, by ensuring their body is found, allow closure to loved ones.

“If Ray intentionally wanted to commit suicide, all he had to do was drive down Route 192, pull over to the side of the road, stick socks in the exhaust pipe, turn on the radio and let the carbon monoxide take its toll,” he said.

Many of the police officers involved in the Gricar case have favored the suicide theory, but they also note that nothing in his medical history points to — or necessarily rules out — a struggle with depression or a diagnosis, such as cancer, that would spur him to take his life.

But if Gricar did enter the Susquehanna, either voluntarily or through foul play, it’s entirely possible that he might never be found. On the day that he disappeared, the U.S. Geological Survey put the water level a short distance downstream from Lewisburg, in Sunbury, at 11.5 feet.

Sunbury is also home to an inflatable fiber dam. While it generally isn’t installed until late April or mid-May, authorities say it was in place at the time Gricar disappeared.

“If he got into those currents and made it down to the dam, he probably would have been chewed up,” Zaccagni said. “And if he made it past that, there are still more dams further down before he’d get to the Chesapeake.”

Pleas to come home

At a press conference held that Monday, Gricar’s family held fast to hope that he would return.

“I want you to come home,” Fornicola said. “Please call us. We will wait for as long as we need.”

In the years since Gricar’s disappearance, amateur sleuths and conspiracy theorists have pointed to such statements as proof that the district attorney is alive and hiding out — having either skipped town or entered witness protection.

Zaccagni said the sheer length of time that has elapsed makes the latter unlikely. The former remains a plausible, if remote, possibility: In the years since, Bellefonte police have investigated reported sightings from Wilkes Barre to Texas to the audience of The Oprah Winfrey Show, then filmed in Chicago.

Matt Rickard, who took over when Zaccagni retired in 2007, worked with Interpol to distribute fliers in Slovenia, the country of Gricar’s ancestors and a place he visited twice in the late 1970s and early ’80s while it was part of the Socialist Republic of Yugoslavia.

Within a few months of his disappearance, both Lara and Fornicola passed polygraph tests that included questions aimed squarely at the walk-away theory. Most police officials place a voluntary walk-away a distant third among the most common theories.

“If he’s alive, we would have heard something,” Zaccagni said. “He’d be seen at a bar. He’d reach out to his family. He’d slip up, and we’d find out about it.”

Zaccagni said there was little outside hurt feelings to stop Gricar from breaking things off with Fornicola if that’s what he wanted. And Gricar left his bank account and a county pension worth hundreds of thousands of dollars untouched.

“Ray was an intelligent man,” Zaccagni said. “Even if he found a sugar mama, he would know she could dump him tomorrow and he’d need his own means of support.”

Hard drive offers hope

Over the course of nearly 35 years as a prosecutor, Gricar had a hand in hundreds — if not thousands — of cases.

“People say you need to go back through all of his cases,” said Weaver, “but have you seen them all? No department has the resources to do that.”

Even so, Weaver said the department received many tips that people Gricar had prosecuted were involved. Most of them ended with prisoners requesting lighter sentences or help with parole boards in exchange for the information, he said.

One of the early reprisal inquiries centered around Taji “Verbal” Lee. Just a couple of weeks before his disappearance, Gricar had joined then Attorney General Tom Corbett in announcing the shutdown of what Corbett described as the “largest heroin operation we have ever seen in Centre County.”

Zaccagni said he tracked down numerous leads involving that case and, as it turned out, none of the timelines for Lee and his associates corresponded with Gricar’s vanishing. Furthermore, there were far more obvious targets for assassination — such as cooperating witnesses — than the district attorney, he said.

Lee was ultimately sentenced to a minimum of 30 years in prison. According to the Department of Corrections, Lee is being held at the medium-security Mahanoy State Correctional Institution in Frackville.

Many early media reports linked Gricar’s disappearance with former Assistant U.S. Attorney Jonathan Luna, a drug investigator who was found dead in a Lancaster County creek in December 2003. His case remains unsolved.

But that avenue yielded virtually no connection at all with Gricar, Zaccagni said.

There was a victim of domestic violence whose ex had issued a few vague threats years prior, but police in Alaska confirmed that his alibi seemed to check out. His name didn’t appear on any commercial flight manifests.

In 2011, the news broke that Gricar declined to prosecute an alleged case of sexual assault of a minor against Jerry Sandusky. The 1998 decision put Gricar’s name back in the national spotlight. It also spurred a wave of speculation that Gricar’s disappearance was connected to the disgraced Penn State assistant football coach or the alleged cover-up.

Buehner believes Gricar was killed but doubts it had any Sandusky connection.

“Who in the Sandusky case would have the motive to do any harm to Ray Gricar?” he said. “Gricar might have been the best witness (for Sandusky) had he been alive … and any victim probably wasn’t old enough, I don’t think, to be abducting the DA and making him disappear.”

For Buehner, who has criticized the handling of the Gricar investigation, the more compelling lead was a prison tip he received and passed along that Gricar was abducted, killed and disposed of in reprisal for a case he prosecuted against a member of the Hells Angels motorcycle club.

A similar account published in 2013 by the Altoona Mirror outlined the story of a former Hells Angels member who reportedly stopped short of taking authorities to the location of Gricar’s body.

The state police declined to comment on specifics about the Gricar investigation, so the status of that and other inquiries remains unclear.

Weaver said investigators used ground-penetrating radar to follow up on a tip involving an alleged grave site in Blair County. No remains were found. Another tip involving the Hells Angels that originated from the southern part of the state “didn’t pan out,” he said.

Gricar’s laptop was discovered under the Route 45 bridge in Lewisburg in July 2005, with its hard drive ejected. The hard drive was found about two months later in the shallows further upstream.

Investigators also learned that Gricar had purchased software to wipe the laptop; they would later find internet searches from his home computer included phrases like “how to wreck a hard drive.”

For Weaver, the hard drive promised to be the biggest development in the case, as the FBI and Kroll Ontrack, the firm that successfully recovered data from the 2003 Space Shuttle Columbia disaster, examined it.

Weaver said it was determined that nothing could be salvaged from the hard drive. The abrasive action of sand and grit from the river bottom had effectively destroyed it.

The news was a major letdown.

“I wasn’t going into it thinking there was specific information on there, but thought it would at least point us in some direction,” he said. “Obviously, (Gricar) or someone took it out for a reason.”

While the case is now with the state police, Weaver said he hasn’t heard of any advances in technology since that would make recovery more likely.

Memories fade

On an overcast afternoon, Beth Beswick walked her springer spaniel through Lewisburg’s Soldiers’ Memorial Park, one of the last places Gricar was seen in 2005. The wooded park sits between a closed railroad trestle police believe Gricar’s laptop was thrown from and the Route 45 bridge where Gricar himself might or might not have taken a plunge into the Susquehanna.

Nearly a decade ago, Beswick, an attorney, represented one of the witnesses who saw Gricar here. She and her dog joined in the search along the park’s muddy riverbank that spring.

“Anybody who lives down here thinks about it,” she said. “It’s weird because they could come up with no explanation.”

Beswick has her own theory: Gricar was silenced after he threatened to expose a conspiracy to cover up the Sandusky molestation case.

Weaver said his officers had chased more rumors and theories than he can count. At one time or another, most of his 11 officers have worked the case.

The more time elapses, he knows, the less reliable memories become and the less likely the case will be solved. It’s out of his hands now, but he still thinks about Ray Gricar.

“I hope, I really do hope that it’s solved, not for my sake, but for the people who care greatly about Ray, his family and his close friends,” Weaver said. “Especially if he was murdered. You want to see justice done for him because that’s what he’s done his whole life.”

Having himself retired as a district attorney in 2011, Buehner understands the conflicting emotions his friend must have felt leaving his career behind: the heartache and the relief and the optimism.

Gricar was already making plans when Buehner approached him after a meeting in February 2005, two months before his friend vanished.

“Frankly, I’m insulted to see you’re retiring,” Buehner had said. “I don’t know who I’m going to go to for Penn State tickets now.”

Gricar, like old times, didn’t take the bait.

“I want to enjoy life before I’m too old,” Gricar said. “Thirty-five years is long enough.”