Gricar mystery fading from memories in Lewisburg

mjoseph@centredaily.comJuly 24, 2005 

LEWISBURG — Thick weeds crowd the Susquehanna River banks, and the water rides much lower than it did 14 weeks ago, revealing a log here and a boulder there that in spring were sunken and out of sight.

But there's no sign of Ray Gricar.

The riverside moorings have long been cleared of last winter's clinging debris, and two popular boating holidays -- Memorial Day and the Fourth of July -- have come and gone since the Centre County district attorney vanished after taking a Friday off from work and driving here, an hour east of Bellefonte.

There's been no sign of him since, and the vortex of the unexplained that once pulled in detectives, rescue crews, reporters and the neighborhood curious no longer consumes so much attention.

Or so it seemed last week at an antiques mall restaurant, the Remember When Cafe, where police think the district attorney was last seen.

"So how's the search for Ray Gricar going?" a reporter asked waitress Bobi Keiser.

"For who?" Keiser said.

"Ray Gricar."

"Oh, is that that DA guy?"

"Yes."

"You don't hear too much about it any more."

The restaurant, a milkshake and hamburger stop that spotlights nostalgia for Elvis Presley and other rock 'n' roll icons, was not quite ready to open on the weekend Gricar disappeared. On that Saturday, April 16, antiques mall owner Craig Bennett stopped by about noon to check on the last phase of construction.

Bennett noticed a man standing eight to 10 feet away. The man stood there five to 10 minutes, neither shopping nor browsing. When Bellefonte detectives converged on the Street of Shops antiques mall after Gricar disappeared, Bennett told them repeatedly that the man fit the district attorney's description.

Last week, Bennett remained steadfast in his recollection. Bennett saw nothing else that was relevant. He didn't see the man interact with anyone, and he didn't notice how the man came to leave the mall. But Bennett's apparent sighting of Gricar -- detectives call it a "visual on Ray" -- has given him an eyes-on connection to the mystery and, for a time, helped fuel hope that Gricar may be alive somewhere.

"He looked anxious," Bennett said last week. "He was not a relaxed person. He was waiting for someone."

Bennett dismisses suggestions that Gricar may have jumped off a nearby bridge into the Susquehanna River or otherwise drowned there. With water only about 30 inches deep now, the river bottom shows quite clearly from above, and fish can be easily spotted navigating their way through the deepest of quite shallow channels.

"They would have found him if he'd jumped," Bennett said.

Detectives have had less and less presence in the area as the time has gone by, but Bennett did notice plain-clothes agents nosing around one day within the past month.

Gricar's car, a red-and-white Mini Cooper, was found in the antiques mall parking lot after he disappeared -- one of the case's few anchoring facts around which many have tried to lash their theories, however inconclusive.

"How can something so bizarre happen and still be unexplained at this time?" Bennett said. "Somebody knows. That car didn't beam itself down here. It got here somehow."

In the oaken taproom of the Lewisburg Hotel, two blocks from the antiques mall, radio station owner Don Steese and bartender Terri Peterson chatted over the lunch hour.

The small talk had nothing to do with Gricar, though Steese and Peterson allowed that three months ago it might have.

"That's yesterday's news -- not top of mind any more," Steese said.

Peterson joked that Gricar was probably off somewhere with Elvis or Jim Morrison, another rock star who died young, but then she got serious. She recalled how, in the early days of the investigation, detectives asked her and others at the hotel to try to remember whether they'd seen Gricar.

The bar gets fairly crowded on weekends, Peterson said, especially with middle-aged men, and she hadn't been able to help the police.

"I wish I could have said, 'Yes, I saw him,' but I couldn't," she said. "How would I know if he was in here? I see how many people a day ... ?"

Mike Joseph can be reached at 235-3910.

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