AG used grand jury to bring charges in cold case murder

Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro on July 24, 2017.
Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro on July 24, 2017. Associated Press, file

Cold cases are the crimes that aren’t solved, the ones where no one gets answers, the ones where justice never comes.

In Pennsylvania, one of those cases may have thawed.

According to court documents, Carl Rodgers was charged Monday with criminal homicide for an April 22, 1983 offense.

Rodgers is being held without bond in Perry County Prison. Preliminary arraignment was set for 9:15 a.m. Tuesday. A preliminary hearing is set for Friday.

State police at Harrisburg arrested Rodgers. According to the state Office of the Attorney General, the move came after collaboration between the OAG and state police, although the Perry County District Attorney’s office is listed on court documents as the prosecutor in the case.

Rodgers, 62, of Shermans Dale, was the husband of Debra Rodgers, whose her body was found in a wooded area along a state road in Northeast Madison Township in 1983, according to The (Carlisle) Sentinel. She died from traumatic head wounds. She was 23.

Thirty-four years later, Attorney General Josh Shapiro says he was “aided by the effective use of a statewide investigating grand jury, which examined all available evidence, heard testimony and recommended the charge.”

According to the grand jury presentment, Carl Rodgers told his wife’s family that she was missing on April 23, 1983, giving them the impression that “she was depressed over her job and had seemed suicidal.” They argued, he went to bed and she stayed in the living room of their trailer on his parents’ dairy farm to watch television with their 5-year-old daughter.

He said he heard the car start and never saw her again.

That was a Saturday. He said Debra Rodgers went to work that day but when family contacted the state park where she worked, they were told she never came in. Her jacket was in the trailer. So was her purse. By 7 p.m., her car was found. Her brother, Dean Peters, testified that Carl Rodgers directed him as they searched, and the car was found the first place they looked.

It was less than 5 miles from the Rodgers farm. It was on a dirt road off state Route 850, heavily wooded and unlit.

That road became a sticking point for modern investigators. According to the presentment, troopers drove it with dashboard cameras and the grand jury saw the “isolated nature” of the road.

Peters and former girlfriend Ruby Vorhees testified that Carl Rodgers had one set of keys to the car on him, which he used to unlock the vehicle where he “immediately reached under the passenger-side floor mat and retrieved a second key.”

Another brother, David Peters, said Carl Rodgers was “subdued and quiet,” and avoided eye contact with his in-laws.

The search for Debra Rodgers continued until 10 or 11 p.m., when it got too dark. Carl Rodgers refused to leave the car, despite family members’ concerns over her coming back in the cold and not finding it or having shelter or transportation. Her body was found the next morning.

“Carl did not ask any questions,” according to the presentment, despite the fact that no one said whether his wife was alive or dead when she was found.

She was hundreds of yards from her car, with indications she had been dragged. A knife with the name “Carl” on it was nearby. Carl Rodgers later told state police that he believe his wife took the knife from his gun cabinet to hurt herself.

Both a friend and Carl Rodgers’ second wife, Laurie Mohler testified that he told them his first wife committed suicide. He indicated to the friend that she cut her wrist.

Co-workers and supervisors testified Debra Rodgers was not suicidal. In fact, state records show her career was on the way up. Three days after her death, the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board sent a letter saying she had been selected for a new job with a 20 percent raise.

Rather than suicide, autopsy results showed a beating that left blunt force injuries on her head and torso. Her skull was broken. Her spleen and liver were lacerated. She would quickly have lost consciousness and been dead in minutes, according to pathologist Samuel Land.

Yes, he said, there were cuts to her wrist, but they had been made close to — or after — the time she died and were “extremely unlikely” to have been self-inflicted.

The grand jury decided Carl Rodgers “was the only individual with a motive to make her death appear to be suicide.”

According to the OAG, the road to the charges started in 2016, when Senior Deputy Attorneys General Kelly Sekula and Heather Castellino met with Pennsylvania State Police to look at some of the state’s cold case homicides.

“As a result of that meeting, the Office of Attorney General obtained a referral from the Perry County District Attorney’s Office and brought the case before a statewide investigating grand jury, which reexamined all of the evidence and heard testimony from witnesses and experts,” the OAG said in a statement.

It is the most recent cold case to warm up in court. In July, George Shaw went to trial in Bucks County, where the Florida man was convicted of murdering 14-year-old Barbara Rowan. A grand jury recommended charges in that case, too, according to Those charges came 31 years after Rowan’s death.

Centre County District Attorney Stacy Parks Miller called for an investigating grand jury in 2015. Her reasons at the time included “at least one unsolved murder.”

While Parks Miller has not elaborated on the unsolved case in question, Centre County does have several cold cases, including the stabbing deaths of Penn State students Dana Bailey in 1987 and Betsy Aardsma in 1969 and the disappearances of then-DA Ray Gricar in 2005, Penn State student Cindy Song in 2001 and Brenda Condon in 1991.

Lori Falce: 814-235-3910, @LoriFalce