20/20 Hindsight

Posted by JJinPhila on April 3, 2009 

The novel 20/20 Vision has played a part in the narrative of the disappearance of former Centre County District Attorney Ray Gricar.  The book, published in 1990, by Pamela West (now Kraske), is a combination time travel science fiction and detective story; it is good science fiction. 

            The plot, about a student stabbed in a public building on a university campus, was inspired by the 1969 murder of Betsy Aardsma murder in Pattee Library stacks.   Ms. West actually spoke with Mr. Gricar before starting to write the book; he encouraged to write a non fiction book on the Aardsma case.   The main male character was a police detective heading for retirement.   Another character has developed a method, not so much for time traveling, but for changing a person’s action in the past, after the fact, rewriting the person’s personal history.  Ms. West noted some similarities between her book and the case, and more than a year ago, contacted people in Centre County.  A description is here:  http://www.centredaily.com/news/ray_gricar/story/426195.html  

After this story was published, a State Police Trooper, now handling the Aardsma case, came forward.  He stated that is now dead predecessor told him that Mr. Gricar actually borrowed his copy of 20/20 Vision and read it. 

            Just how similar?  The action in the book took place on the dates April 14-15, of three different years, 1995, 2020, and 2040.  The setting was based on State College and the surrounding area.  The main male character was a police detective heading for retirement; he drove a “boxy” BMW, vintage, that he called “Lady.”  Mr. Gricar drove a car with a license plate based on his girlfriend’s name made by BMW.   Cremation ashes played a role in the plot; cigarette ashes in the Mini play a key role in the Gricar case.  One point unreported is a drive described in the novel, in a rural valley; Mr. Gricar was driving in Brush Valley when he made his call.  A key plot point involved a faked death.

            Mr. Bosak spoke with me prior to the news story about 20/20 Vision being published.  He knew that I was a science fiction fan (the first published paper I wrote was on symbolism in works of Robert Heinlein).  I hadn’t, but his referral gave me time to order and read the book.  When he asked my opinion, I asked if he’d ever heard of a book called Futility, or the Wreck of the Titan.  That is a novel about a ship the Titan that sank in April in the North Atlantic after hitting an iceberg.  Does the story sound familiar?  It didn’t when Futility was first published in 1898.  The Titanic sunk in 1912, ironically on April 15, nearly 14 years after Fultility was published.   http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Futility,_or_the_Wreck_of_the_Titan

Coincidences do happen.

            Now let’s look at these things.  Ms. West was a thesis editor at Penn State, so the setting makes sense; nothing in the book is analogous to Lewisburg.  There are a lot of valleys in the area; Mr. Gricar lived in one.  There is a long tradition of stories about the retiring cop; the plot device is so common it is parodied from time to time on The Simpsons.   The book described an urn of ashes, not one stray ash.  I’ve been known to refer to my vehicle as “the old girl,” and I have a friend who referred to her car as “Miss Daisy,” so she could go about Philadelphia “driving Miss Daisy.” (At least one person in Centre County knows who I'm referring to with that reference.)   I’m inclined to dismiss all these as coincidence, and really reaching on most of these points.  20/20 Vision could be the Futility, or the Wreck of the Titan for the twenty-first century.

            There are two points that cannot be easily dismissed however.  The date is the same date.  The action in the book takes place on April 14-15; Mr. Gricar disappeared on April 15.  Mr. Gricar read the book.  The designers, builders, owners and captain of the Titanic did not read Futility or know the author.  So what does this point to?

            Let’s first look at murder; could a murderer be using this to taunt the police.  First, the murderer would have to have read the book, known that it was based on the Aardsma murder.  20/20 Vision was not a best seller and in the science fiction community, Pamela West was not a household name (that’s unfortunate, because she’s quite a good writer).  The murderer would also have to have known Mr. Gricar had read it.  Virtually no one did; the State Trooper was either retired or dead at that point.  Nearly anyone currently associated with Mr. Gricar didn’t know him at the time.  His first ex-wife didn’t make the connection.  His daughter was an eleven year old girl when the book was published, and it is an adult novel; she didn’t remember ever hearing about the book.  Mr. Gricar didn’t even own the book; he borrowed it.  No one who actually knew Mr. Gricar in the early 1990’s made the connection.  This probably wasn’t set up by a “taunting murderer.”

            Suicide?  I don’t recall the book having any characters killing themselves, though the detective muses about it at one point.  Was Mr. Gricar obsessed about the Aardsma case, like the detective was with his version of it?  Not that anyone has said; he’d moved to State College more than a decade after it happened.  He didn’t give a great deal of material help to Ms. West; she didn’t even know if he had read the book.

            A voluntary departure?  Well, possibly.  Could that have been a message in a bottle, tossed into the sea of the investigation?  The book deals with a faked death; in theory Mr. Gricar could have been sending a message that he was faking his death.

            As I’ve indicated, Mr. Bosak discussed his article on 20/20 Vision with me prior to publication; he told me when it was going to be run.  I decided to have a little fun and the night before the article ran, I decided to send a message of my own, to show how it could be done.  I posted a message on a message board, much to the continued annoyance of my fellow posters.  Saying that I was doing my Amazing Criswell imitation, I posted, “I predict that a little (though not much) more sunlight may shine on this case, on the day that the dawn comes from the west.   It was an obvious reference to Ms. West, as can be seen with 20/20 hindsight.  I did send a message, that when sent, perhaps ten people on the planet understood; the next day, everyone got it.  I did it not just to have a little fun, but to show that a message could be sent.  Is that what Mr. Gricar did?

            If this was a message from Mr. Gricar, to who was it sent?  There are maybe 4-5 people that could have known Mr. Gricar read 20/20 Vision.  None of them seem to have ever made the link, but it is possible.

            If 20/20 Vision is related to the disappearance of Mr. Gricar, it points to his intentional departure, but not strongly; I think coincidence is the best explanation.  There would be one thing that would change my mind.  One plot point of the novel is a Kennedy half dollar, from 1965.  The 1965 coin is not particularly valuable or rare and can be purchased for less than five dollars; Mr. Gricar could have easily acquired one and left it in the Mini.  If a Kennedy half dollar was found in the Mini Cooper (and that might not have been reported), especially one from 1965, I would find that above coincidence.

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