Charles Fergus became part of a group that nobody wants to join in June 1997 when Walter Chruby was convicted of murdering his 73-year-old mother, Ruth, in her State College home.
Fergus retold the story last week while visiting the area from Vermont with his first fiction book, which draws heavily from his past. Though it was years ago, he remembers the details vividly.
Phone calls poured in as Fergus was shaping stones for the walls of his State College home. Rae Chambers, one of Ruth’s friends, called to tell him she was “worried about Ruth.”
Fergus, then 44, followed up by calling his mother’s neighbors to see if they could check on her. They obliged, and said they’d call back if they found anything out of the ordinary.
With no return phone call and no answer from his mother, Fergus decided to visit her home, alongside his 7-year-old son, William.
His mother’s carport was empty, the kitchen door was half-open, the calendar was empty, dog food was scattered on the floor and her purse was heaved on the counter.
“I came into the house and there was a sense that something was just badly wrong,” Fergus said.
William started down the hallway yelling, “Grandma! Grandma!” before Fergus stopped him and ushered him back to the kitchen. He began to piece the puzzle together.
Fergus walked down the hallway, pushed the bedroom door open and found his mother on the floor in a pool of her own blood the day after she was stabbed to death.
“It’s the kind of memory that I’ll probably remember it all my life,” Fergus said. “I don’t dwell on it because it’s not a pleasant memory.”
Fergus, now 67 and living in Vermont, pulled on those experiences — he has called it “the real truth about murder” — to write “A Stranger Here Below,” a fictional mystery seven years in the making.
It’s the first in a planned series based in Pennsylvania in 1835. Fergus’ main character, a young sheriff named Gideon Stoltz, finds links between a judge’s suicide, a trial and hanging 30 years prior and a recent murder. The investigation forces Stoltz to relive his mother’s own killing, which remains unsolved.
Fergus wasn’t happy with the character until a friend suggested he incorporate his own experiences about his mother’s murder into the book. At first, Fergus rejected the idea because, he said, “it’s just too painful.”
“Then the more I thought about it, I thought, ‘That would be a really honest way of writing.’ I felt it was a story that people should hear,” Fergus said. “It’s part of life. I’m not glad to have gone through it, but I went through it. When I write, I want to bring that experience into my fiction.”
Though the book was published in March, Fergus launched the book at Webster’s Bookstore Cafe on April 14. He also visited the Centre County Library and Historical Museum on Wednesday.
Fergus visited the library to conduct research for his book and reached out to Robbin Degeratu, administrative director of the library and historical museum, in 2017 to express his interest in giving a reading his book once it was published. Eighteen months later, their plans came to fruition.
“We were delighted to have Mr. Fergus back in the historical museum, both to welcome him back to Centre County, and to see his research come full circle,” Degeratu said. “ ‘A Stranger Here Below’ is historical fiction done right, and we are delighted that our facility played a (small) part in his writing process.”
On Friday, Fergus reflected on Chruby — a man he said was “very unsavory,” “a braggart,” “selfish” and “not pleasant to be around” — the subsequent trial and former Centre County District Attorney Ray Gricar, who prosecuted the case.
Chruby was released from a federal prison in North Carolina three weeks prior to the killing and owed more than $200,000 in judgments and medical bills, according to Centre Daily Times archives.
The trial began in June 1997 and closed with Janice Accordino, Chruby’s sister, telling Gricar, “Your cheap theatrics have won you an Academy Award ... and won you a place in hell!”
Sitting through the trial and Accordino’s outburst was tolerable, but Fergus said he couldn’t bring himself to sit through Chruby’s sentencing while Gricar argued for the death penalty.
“In order to get a sentence of execution, they had to really show that the victim had been basically tortured,” Fergus said. “And I wasn’t gonna go and listen to that.”
Chruby was ultimately sentenced to life in prison, though he still has pending appeals of his conviction.
Throughout it all, Gricar was “a great help to the family” and one of the few positive memories Fergus carries with him from that time. Yet Fergus, like many others, is left wondering what happened to Gricar, who was last seen in 2005 and declared legally dead in 2011. Bellefonte police oversaw the investigation into his disappearance until state police took over in 2014.
“It was another really jarring thing that makes one question, what is the world like in which we live?” Fergus said. “What we consider to be a safe, prosperous place — goes by the name Happy Valley — it just stands your world on its head and makes you wonder what the world’s really like.”