The Investigation, Part One: The First 24 Hours

Posted by JJinPhila on August 5, 2009 

[This is the first part of a series on the investigation into the disappearance of former Centre County District Attorney Ray Gricar.]

            The investigation started with a telephone call.  Around 11:30 PM on the evening of 4/15/05, Bellefonte Police Detective Darrel Zaccagni answered the telephone at the Police Department Office. 

            The caller was Patty Fornicola, the girlfriend and housemate of the sitting District Attorney of Centre County, Ray Gricar.  She called to report him missing.  She had last heard from him in the late morning (11:14 AM, is the time assigned).  Mr. Gricar had taken Friday off.  He called to tell her that he was on Route 192, headed toward Lewisburg and that he wouldn’t be home to walk the elderly dog, Honey.  She said that they hadn’t had a fight1.

            I’ve heard on-line that Det. Zaccagni called the Chief of Police, Chief Duane Dixon, to ask how this should be handled.  Chief Dixon, within a half an hour of the call, contacted the State Police, who issued a “Be On The Lookout” (BOLO) for the Red Mini Cooper with the vanity plate PFO that Mr. Gricar was driving2.  Possibly, the police went to the house to take a formal report.  Some of Mr. Gricar’s acquaintances may have been contacted that night3.

            For someone unfamiliar with Bellefonte, this might have seemed to be an unusually quick response; it wasn’t.  Both these people were known to law enforcement, in a good way.  Mr. Gricar was the elected District Attorney for nearly 20 years and an Assistant District Attorney in Centre County for about 5 years prior to that.   Det. Zaccagni had actually been in his office to discuss cases over the years.

Ms. Fornicola had been, until January, a Witness/Victim Advocate with the District Attorney’s Office; prior to that, she had been a county probation officer; on 4/15/05, she was a clerk in the Office.  Possibly excepting her time in college, at Penn State, twelve miles south, Ms. Fornicola grew up in Bellefonte; Det. Zaccagni actually remembered when she was in high school.  The Fornicola name was also well known in Bellefonte.  Ms. Fornicola’s uncle, the late Gino Fornicola, was a prominent local businessman, actually known as “Mr. Bellefonte,” former Mayor of Bellefonte, and County Treasurer; Det Zaccagni served under him while he was Mayor.  In short, both were pillars of the community, prominent, well established individuals and both had professional interaction with the local police.  This might very well have helped ignite the quick response.

We know that by 11:30 AM on 4/16/05, Det. Zaccagni had called various members of the staff.  According to then Assistant District Attorney J. Karen Arnold, she noted Mr. Gricar’s out of character behavior, Det. Zaccagni said, “Everyone is telling me the same thing.”  She also thought that the police were able to check his office computer.  The cell call was being discussed before the press conference, though Ms. Arnold was unaware if the cell tower was known.4

One of the people in contact with the police by that afternoon was Assistant District Attorney Steve Sloane, a close personal friend of Mr. Gricar.  Mr. Sloane remembered the time Mr. Gricar went to a Cleveland Indians game without telling anyone (including his then wife).5  The police called Jacobs Field, the ballpark in Cleveland, and asked them to check for the Mini Cooper6.

It is very probable that the cell records from Mr. Gricar’s phone were checked.  In the mid-afternoon, searches by fixed wing aircraft were conducted along Route 192.  The premise for this search was that Mr. Gricar, not known for driving slowly, might have had an accident and couldn’t be seen from the road7.  The area is sparsely populated. Along Route 192, between Rebersburg and the outskirts of Lewisburg, there is a “dead zone” where cell phones cannot get signals; had he been trapped in a car, even if conscious, he might not be able to call out using his cell phone.

At this point, the police had not ruled anything out and were intently looking for the Mini Cooper.  At the press conference that day, at about 5:00 PM, Chief Dixon held up a photo of the Mini Cooper.  At about 6:30 PM, the Mini Cooper was found.

 A State Police corporal was heading for the Milton Barracks from Lewisburg.  He was planning to use River Road, a local shortcut; River Road connects with Water Street.  As he passed the lot, he spotted the Mini.

Tony Gricar and his brother, Chris, had been informed earlier in the day that Mr. Gricar was missing.  They were heading to Bellefonte on I-80 and were one to two hours away from Lewisburg when they got the call that the Mini was discovered.  Long ago, Tony posted on a message board that the parking lot was at the corner of a street called Water Street, the both said, “Suicide.”8  Their father, Roy Gricar, had killed himself by drowning in a river in 1996.  It wasn’t, in that context, an unusual thought.  It would shape the next day’s investigation.

The police opened the car, and discovered the scent of cigarette smoke and Mr. Gricar’s county issued cell phone, turned off 9, 10.  They had initially planned to stake out the Mini, but by the time Tony Gricar arrived, so had the news crews 11.  It couldn’t be done.  The Mini was towed to State Police barracks in Milton.  The State Police attempted to lift prints and gather forensic evidence. 

Opening the car made a great deal of sense at this point.  There were no outwardly visible signs of damage to the Mini or of foul play.  There may have been some clue to where Mr. Gricar was.  One thing noted was that Mr. Gricar was acting uncharacteristically in the days prior to this.  He might have had a health problem and left his medication in the car, by mistake (his medical records had not been checked).  There may have been a note explaining where he was or a suicide note.  There might have been some evidence of foul play, not visible from outside. 

Ultimately, there were none of these things.  The police also collected cigarette butts found outside of the car. 

Lara Gricar was flying in and arrived sometime that night or in the early morning hours.

Okay, what mistakes were made?  I really cannot see any.  The police forces on the ground were notified almost immediately after Ms. Fornicola’s call.  An air search at night was impossible, but by midday on Saturday, it was conducted.  The Bellefonte Police didn’t jump to the, very logical at that point, theory that Mr. Gricar was in an accident in a rural area.  They looked at all possibilities.  They did not immediately assume that he was murdered, that he committed suicide, or that he walked away.   The secured the vehicle, and moved it for immediate forensic analysis.  They seem to have looked, immediately, at Mr. Gricar’s cell phone and computer records.

While I think that, yes, there were mistakes made in the investigation, the first 24 hours were near perfection.

[Part 2, The Second Day, is next]

Notes

1Centre Daily Times (CDT) 4/30/05:  http://tiny.cc/one505

2CDT 4/23/05, http://tiny.cc/Two834

3CDT, initial timeline,

http://www.missingabducted.com/2005/11/index.html

4Ladies and Gentlemen of the Jury (LGJ), http://gricar.disappearance.googlepages.com/gricardisappearance

(I have been informed that the tower was the one in the Aaronsburg area.)

5 A copy of the post is here: http://tiny.cc/TonyGricar

6Pittsburgh Post Gazette (PPG), 4/18/05,

http://www.post-gazette.com/pg/05109/490420-85.stm

7Associated Press story, 4/18/05 http://tiny.cc/accident153

8Comments from Tony Gricar,  http://tiny.cc/TonyGricar

9.  PPG 4/30/05, http://www.post-gazette.com/pg/05120/496817-156.stm

10Daily Collegian (DC), 4/18/05

 http://www.collegian.psu.edu/archive/2005/04/04-18-05tdc/04-18-05dnews-01.asp

11This post may no longer exist, but it is clear that at prior to Tony Gricar’s arrival, there was noted police activity around the Mini.  http://www.freerepublic.com/focus/news/1385294/posts

 

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