Missed leads

pbosak@centredaily.comMay 13, 2006 

BELLEFONTE — One year after former Centre County District Attorney Ray Gricar seemed to step off the face of the planet, a review of the police investigation has uncovered new details that indicate key elements may have been missed.

Following the previously undisclosed news this week that a witness reported seeing Gricar talking with a woman in a Lewisburg antiques mall the afternoon he disappeared, the Centre Daily Times reviewed the early days of the police investigation by interviewing Gricar's family, friends and co-workers. Some startling revelations emerged:

u An assistant district attorney is certain she saw Gricar in Bellefonte at 3 p.m. on Friday, April 15, 2005, the day he vanished. It was reported to police but dismissed as not fitting the timeline police had established for Gricar.

u Police admit they are not monitoring Gricar's checking and savings accounts for strange activity, which experts called a serious mistake.

u Two close and longtime friends of the missing district attorney -- Ed Walker and Assistant District Attorney Steve Sloane, who is perhaps Gricar's best friend -- say they were never interviewed by Bellefonte police Officer Darrel Zaccagni, the lead investigator in the case. Zaccagni also never interviewed Gricar's co-workers in the courthouse or District Attorney's Office.

"I find that incredibly odd," Sloane said.

The men have never been asked for advice or their thoughts on Gricar's state of mind in the months and weeks leading up to his disappearance.

"I'm really surprised (Zaccagni) didn't talk to Steve," Walker said.

Zaccagni said conducting interviews of Sloane, Walker and a bevy of county workers likely would yield nothing.

"If my chief wants me to go and do that, I have no problem with doing that," Zaccagni said. "It may be worthwhile, it may not be. But I really don't have an answer to that. It could be a lot of time to lead us nowhere. It could provide us a real lead.

"But it more likely would just lead us toward a theory," he said.

New sighting

Authorities say the last credible sighting of Gricar occurred on the afternoon of April 15, 2005, at the Street of Shops, a Lewisburg antiques mall. That's where his red Mini Cooper was found the next day.

But Centre County Assistant District Attorney Carolyn Fenton said she saw Gricar in the county courthouse parking lot in Bellefonte about 3 p.m. April 15, Zaccagni revealed.

Fenton, then a law clerk for Judge David E. Grine, was taking the afternoon off after a trial ended and was feeling guilty about leaving early, she said.

"I see a car leaving the parking lot and the driver was Ray," Fenton said Friday. Police never revealed the sighting until questioned by the Centre Daily Times, which then contacted Fenton.

"I thought, 'Well, even the district attorney is taking the rest of the day off, so I don't feel so bad now,' " Fenton said.

She looked to see if Patty Fornicola, Gricar's housemate, girlfriend and co-worker, was in the passenger seat. But Gricar was alone, Fenton said.

Fenton said she was about 15 to 20 feet away. Gricar was driving a gold or silver, metallic-colored car, not his Mini Cooper or Fornicola's Honda, she said.

When she heard Gricar was missing, she went to police. But her sighting was immediately ruled out as not fitting the timeline they'd established, which put Gricar in Lewisburg at that time.

Gricar had called Fornicola about 11:30 that morning to tell her he was taking a drive toward Lewisburg, police said, and reported sightings of him at the antiques mall followed.

Surveillance footage shows Fenton leaving the courthouse at the time she remembers, but cameras did not pan wide enough to catch the car she said was driven by Gricar.

Gricar's daughter, Lara Gricar, seemed stunned by the information when contacted at her Lake Stevens, Wash., home.

"I've never heard that before," she said.

Uncharacteristic behavior

Centre County Criminal Court Administrator Cheryl Spotts was never interviewed by police. But she has long been struck by what she says was odd behavior by Gricar about a month before his disappearance.

"I remember distinctly a meeting we had, March the 9th," Spotts said. It was a meeting in the chambers of Centre County President Judge Charles C. Brown Jr. They were there to talk about a potential death-penalty case and set a trial date.

"It just seemed that Ray wasn't with it," Spotts said. "He was just looking around, which kind of shocked me because this was a death-penalty case."

At one point, Brown told Gricar he had two weeks available in October for the trial.

"Ray just turned and looked at the bookcases," Spotts said. "He didn't even look at the judge when he said it.

"He just said, 'I won't be here,' " Spotts said.

What he meant is not known. That was a time of year Gricar sometimes would vacation in Vermont, Sloane said. Other sources also speculated that Gricar was referring to vacation plans. Gricar's 60th birthday was Oct. 9.

But his behavior left Spotts unsettled enough that she remarked on it to several co-workers at the time.

Spotts said she did not go to police with this information because she knew they hadn't believed Fenton's supposed sighting of Gricar.

"So why would they believe me?" Spotts said.

Spotts' story about Gricar's behavior on March 9 startled Zaccagni.

"That's the first I've heard of that," Zaccagni said. "No, we did not talk to every county employee Ray had contact with. But we made it known we would sit down with anybody."

He said Sloane was interviewed for hours in the days after Gricar disappeared by a state police profiler, who later said Gricar likely committed suicide.

Zaccagni could not recall the profiler's name.

"To be honest with you, we never got the written reports (from the profiler)," Zaccagni said. "But we spoke verbally."

Call for 'another set of eyes'

These revelations, including the previously undisclosed news that Gricar was seen with a woman in Lewisburg the day he vanished, prompted Montour County District Attorney Bob Buehner to again call for the investigation to be handed over to the state Attorney General's Office or FBI.

"I think this case is larger than the Bellefonte Police Department's capacity to investigate every lead that is out there," said Buehner, a friend of Gricar's who believes he was murdered. "They have worked it as hard as they can. But this case needs a statewide task force led by a veteran prosecutor."

Centre County District Attorney Michael Madeira has repeatedly said that the only way the state could take over the investigation is if a grand jury became necessary, or if Madeira could argue he does not have the resources to investigate the disappearance. Neither is the case, Madeira has said.

Gricar's nephew, Tony Gricar, was reluctant to criticize local police, but said new eyes are needed in light of the latest information. He said he plans to be in Centre County next week to find answers.

"At this point, given the revelations, another set of eyes can do a lot of good," Tony Gricar said.

"If there are lapses in the investigation, things need to be tightened up and we need to find whoever can complete this investigation. I just hope there haven't been other lapses."

Relying on Lara

Zaccagni also revealed that police are not monitoring Gricar's checking and savings accounts, which Zaccagni said totaled more than $100,000 -- but not much more -- when Gricar disappeared.

The accounts were held jointly by Gricar and his daughter, Lara, and had been for years. Since his disappearance, Lara Gricar has been named trustee of her father's estate.

"It's a substantial sum, but nothing extravagant," Zaccagni said.

"I don't personally check it at all. Lara knows to contact us if anything unusual happens. We rely on Lara to contact us if there are any unusual withdrawals."

Zaccagni said he last talked with Lara Gricar more than a month ago.

Gricar was making $129,000 annually when he vanished.

He had no investments.

He owned no property.

He was living in his girlfriend's home and owed nothing to two ex-wives.

When he bought his Mini Cooper, he paid cash and registered it in Fornicola's name. Zaccagni said Fornicola told him Gricar did this as a precaution in case he was ever sued for wrongful prosecution, or something of the sort, Zaccagni said.

Sloane, when told the state of Gricar's financial accounts, was stunned. Gricar was known as a frugal man who did not throw money around, he said.

"Wow," Sloane said.

"He should have had more money than that, I would think. He wasn't into investing. He wasn't very into 401(k)s or IRAs."

Lara Gricar would not comment on her father's finances. "That's nobody's business," she said.

Gricar's finances should be the Bellefonte Police Department's business, said John Lajoie, a nationally known, Massachusetts-based private investigator who serves as Northeast regional director for the National Association of Legal Investigators.

"If they are not personally watching his checking, savings and credit cards, they're not conducting an effective investigation," Lajoie said.

Lajoie also took issue with the fact that Zaccagni never personally interviewed Gricar's best friends and courthouse employees.

"I would think you would want to talk to as many people who knew him as possible," Lajoie said.

'I believe he is alive'

"In my heart and soul, I believe he is alive, and that might be just wishful thinking on my part," Sloane said. When told of the new information, Sloane conceded the disappearance is beginning to sound "like something he planned."

"But it just doesn't make sense though," Sloane said. "Why?"

The Gricar family, however, no longer holds much hope that Ray Gricar will be found alive, Tony Gricar said.

Even Lara, who long believed her father was still alive, has accepted that, he said.

"Early on, she was hopeful," Tony Gricar said.

"But now, she doesn't believe he is alive."

Pete Bosak can be reached at 235-3928.

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