Gricar left lasting legal legacy in Centre County

Ray Gricar discusses a plea agreement with Jillian Robbins, who killed one and injured two others in the 1996 shooting on the HUB lawn. Gricar said the senseless act of violence made him consider the death penalty for Robbins.
Ray Gricar discusses a plea agreement with Jillian Robbins, who killed one and injured two others in the 1996 shooting on the HUB lawn. Gricar said the senseless act of violence made him consider the death penalty for Robbins. CDT file photo

When Ray Gricar disappeared in 2005, his daughter lost a father. His family and friends lost a loved one.

But Centre County lost a watchdog.

For more than 20 years, he was the teeth of the county’s legal system. He took the head chair as district attorney in 1986, a part-time job that took up to 70 hours a week, he told the Centre Daily Times back in the day. Ten years later, he became the county’s first full-time DA.

“Sometimes I made a conscious effort not to cheat myself and worked about 30 hours a week, but it always bothered me to see the results,” Gricar said at the time. “If I ever took a day off I would be swamped, and professionally, I didn’t feel good about the job I was doing.’’

At that point, he had a staff of 17 people, including administrative assistants, paralegals and lawyers.

Over the years, his office handled a slew of cases — most routine, but a number of them high profile.

As first assistant district attorney in 1985, he prosecuted Moshannon Valley mother Sharon Comitz for the murder of her infant son.

The case was notable as one of the first times postpartum depression or psychosis was used as a defense. Gricar maintained that Comitz was aware of her actions at the time, but a number of women have used the same defense over the years.

Texan Andrea Yates was found guilty of the 2001 drowning of her five children, but a 2006 retrial returned a verdict of not guilty by reason of insanity. Claudia Mejia, of Illinois, was similarly found not guilty of the 2011 stabbing of her baby.

The 1994 conviction of James Cruz recently was in the news when the man found guilty of murdering Massachusetts teenager Dawn Marie Birnbaum and dumping her body in Spring Township lost his bid at an appeal.

One factor in the denial was cited as the inability of many witnesses and other key people to be involved in a retrial. Gricar’s disappearance was noted by the judge. Cruz is an inmate at Fayette state prison.

In 1996, Penn State garnered national attention, one of three universities in two months where gunfire erupted. Gricar prosecuted Jillian Robbins for the shooting on the HUB lawn. Melanie Spalla, 21, was killed. Another student was shot but survived. Brandon Malovrh, the student who wrestled the rifle away from her, was stabbed in the process.

The violent, unprovoked attack prompted Gricar to talk about pursuing the death penalty, although he was public about his opposition to capital punishment.

“It’s a matter of principle,” Gricar said. “I don’t feel it’s right to take a life under the legal process, after the fact. ... I always keep an open mind and evaluate cases through, to the eve of the trial.”

Robbins eventually entered a guilty plea to third-degree murder and attempted murder. Today, she is incarcerated at Muncy state prison.

There were more headline-making prosecutions and pleas.

It was Heath Quick and Thomas Huddleston in 2000 for a drug deal turned deadly, interstate machete killer Eric Jerome Fant and Vincent McGee’s murder of his wife, Amy, in 2001.

In 2002, Centre County watched the story of Daniel Opdenhoff’s murder of his parents, including former State College Area School District Superintendent Bill Opdenhoff. In 2003, it was the story of Pittsburgh-area teacher Joseph Williams who fatally shot his cousin at the family’s hunting camp and hid the body in the woods.

While his record made him popular in some corners, some people on the other side were less happy with his job.

“Mr. Gricar, your cheap theatrics have won you an Academy Award ... and won you a place in hell!” said Janice Accordino, one of Walter Chruby’s sisters, after the guilty verdict was delivered for the 1995 murder of W. Ruth Fergus. Chruby remains a prisoner at Laurel Highlands state prison.

But some opponents had the utmost respect for the longtime litigator.

“He was the consummate professional,” attorney Bruce Manchester said. “He was very good at what he did. He was very fair, yet very tough.”

He tells the story of a client who was finishing a doctorate at Penn State and already had a job lined up in Arizona. He was a Korean national who faced problems when his family arranged a marriage. After the wedding, he came home one day to find his in-laws packing up his furniture and clothing and leaving with his wife, demanding money. Manchester became involved when charges were filed against the man for assault.

“But a short time afterward, (an) attorney sent a letter saying ‘if you don’t pay us $1 million, we will proceed with prosecution,’ ” Manchester said.

He took the letter to Gricar, who not only dropped the charges against the student but helped Manchester get the other attorney disbarred.

“If it was a case worthy of prosecution, you couldn’t have a tougher guy. He served as a beacon to other prosecutors,” Manchester said. “He was a great guy. I miss him.”

“Ray was a formidable opponent. It wasn’t a game to him,” attorney Karen Muir said. “I beat him a couple of times, which was always very rewarding because he was a darn good trial attorney. His closing arguments were the best I’ve ever heard — in person, on television or in a movie. They were it.”

Gricar had announced just months before his disappearance that he would not seek his sixth term in office, despite his dedication to his job.

“Ever since I was introduced to this profession as an intern in college ... I fell in love with the profession,” he said in 2001. “This is the reason I went to law school 30 years ago.”