Special Reports

Foul play theory weakened

BELLEFONTE — Before he disappeared on April 15, 2005, police say former District Attorney Ray Gricar used his home computer to search the Internet for information on “how to wreck a hard drive,” “how to fry a hard drive,” and “water damage to a notebook computer.”

Tuesday, a day before the fourth anniversary of Gricar’s disappearance, Bellefonte Police Detective Matthew Rickard released the information, raising the question of why Gricar would have wanted to destroy that hard drive.

Family spokesman Tony Gricar said it seems to dismiss the theory that Gricar was a victim of foul play.

“To me,” Tony Gricar said, “it looks like it absolutely knocks out the theory of foul play.” But he’s quick to add that this is just one fact in a complex mystery.

“Everything has been, still is, in that circumstantial realm,” Tony Gricar said. “But I’d be a fool to say that I can rule out or can’t rule out homicide at this point.”

Gricar was eight months from a planned retirement when he took a drive through Brush Valley toward Lewisburg on April 15, 2005. He hasn’t been heard from since.

What was believed to be the hard drive from his county-issued laptop computer was found in the Susquehanna River six months later, separated from the computer itself, which had earlier been found in the river.

Two FBI labs and Kroll Ontrack, a company that was able to recover data from hard drives on board Space Shuttle Columbia after it was destroyed, all evaluated the hard drive and concluded it was too damaged for data to be recovered.

“This information is very important to the investigation,” Rickard said. “It, in and of itself, focuses on the possibility of walkaway or suicide. However, it certainly does not eliminate the possibility of homicide.”

There have been few, if any, credible leads since the discovery of the hard drive in the Susquehanna.

The theory of foul play, along with two others — that Gricar walked away from his life or committed suicide — are continually debated by those who knew him, those assigned to investigate him, and those just fascinated by the mystery of his disappearance.

“I don’t think it does anything to dispel the theory that he was murdered,” said Gricar’s friend and colleague, Montour County District Attorney Bob Buehner. “As a matter of fact, I think it does the opposite. I believe that he was murdered. ... Why would he want to destroy information on a hard drive of a computer? Cause somebody wanted that information.”

Authorities say they remain stumped by the four-year-old case.

Initial searches of Gricar’s home and office revealed little information, investigators said. And his car, left in a parking lot in Lewisburg, has so far been a dead end.

It wasn’t until Tuesday that they revealed the extent of Gricar’s probable quest to clear the hard drive. They say the state police forensic computer lab found early in the investigation that the searches for information on “Window Washer 5.0” and other hard-drive erasing products had been made on the computer at the home Gricar shared with his live-in girlfriend.

Other searches included: “how to wreck a hard drive,” “how to fry a hard drive,” “what’s inside a computer,” “what’s inside a notebook computer,” and “water damage to a notebook computer.”

Investigators previously had disclosed that they had, through interviews, heard that Gricar was talking about ways to erase a hard drive with friends and colleagues about 16 months before he disappeared. A box for such software was seen at his house around January 2004.

“The investigation learned early on that Mr. Gricar had, in fact, purchased software to accomplish this,” Rickard said. “It was believed that pending Mr. Gricar’s retirement, he may have wanted to erase his county-issued laptop computer prior to returning the laptop to the District Attorney’s Office.”

On any given day, Tony Gricar says he switches between the three possibilities of what happened to his uncle.

“With an undiscovered body, it’s always going to be that situation,” he said.

He’s hopeful that this newly released information might help generate leads in the case. But he also worries that the public’s interest might wane, hurting the investigation, if people believe Gricar purposely disappeared or committed suicide.

Tony Gricar said the case has been “devastating” to the family. As long as no body has been found, they are in “no real rush” to petition the courts to declare Gricar dead.

Gricar’s pension will likely be on hold with Centre County until the family petitions the court or the mystery is solved.

Rickard said he’ll continue to follow the hundreds of leads that have been received by conducting interviews and seeking information.

And Buehner, who has publicly criticized the investigation in the past, said he’s said his piece and he’s “past that.”

“Every day I say a prayer asking that this mystery be solved,” he said. “Not a day goes by that I’m not reminded of it, that I don’t think about it. All I’ve ever wanted to know is what happened to my friend.”

Sara Ganim can be reached at 231-4616.