Special Reports

Revisiting the Laptop, the Drive, and the Case

One element that has prefigured in the disappearance of Ray Gricar, the former District Attorney of Centre County, has been the removal from his residence and the ultimate destruction of Mr. Gricar’s county issued laptop.  That, the apparently willful destruction of county property, has been the only thing even approaches a definitive crime in this case.   On that, the statute of limitation expired more than two years ago.

            Just over a year ago, as a result of “Dueling Press Conferences” current District Attorney Michael T. Madeira agreed to send the drive from the computer, where the data is stored, to a company with an impressive record of data recovery, Kroll Ontrack.  This was on the strong suggestion of Montour County District Attorney Robert W. Buehner, Jr.  Prior attempts by the FBI and a police lab in California had failed to recover data.  While Kroll ultimately failed to read the drive, those press conferences did generate a release of new information.

            The new information released was this:

1.  Mr. Gricar, sometime in late 2003 or early 2004, asked people, outside of the office, how to destroy data on a computer (he only had the hard drive).

2.  In the months before he disappeared, Mr. Gricar did computer searches on how to destroy a hard drive, including on the method used, tossing it into the water.  These were done on his home computer, not his laptop.  He purchased the home computer in late 2004 or early 2005.

Notice that I said released.  The second piece of information was announced on 4/14/09, but had been discovered by the Pennsylvania State Police two and half years before. http://tiny.cc/heldback   Because this occurred roughly while the Pennsylvania State Police Criminal Investigation Analysis Unit was conducting its investigation of the investigation, it seems likely that it was byproduct of that.  Clearly, Mr. Gricar wanted to eliminate the data on his laptop’s hard drive and this was a long term interest, spanning months.  That evidence points to a motivation of something on Mr. Gricar’s part; that is that Mr. Gricar did not want the data on the drive to ever see the light of day.

Now, there are three separate elements to the missing laptop, the laptop itself, the drive, and the case.  The drive is both the heart and brain of the computer; it contains both the data and the operating system.  It is also the smallest piece of the puzzle; if you put two packs of cigarettes side by side, you would have the approximate size of the drive.  The laptop itself is the body for getting to that brain.  The case is basically the clothing to cover that body, but it also contained the peripherals, the way to get connected to the Internet and the method for using alternate power.  All three were in different locations that could not have occurred randomly.

First was the laptop case.  Mr. Gricar’s nephew, Tony Gricar, was at the house when the laptop was discovered missing.  The case was still there, in the closet, “…would any piece of something akin to luggage.”  Someone had taken the case out of closet, removed the laptop, and replaced the case.

Second was the laptop itself.  It was discovered on the north side of the bridge that carries Route 45 from Montandon to Lewisburg.  On the south side of the bridge is a walkway, but not on the north side.  Again I’m indebted to Tony Gricar who with his brother, Chris, looked at this.  They had a question if the laptop could have been tossed from a car driving across the bridge.  Chris Gricar, who has an engineering background, was prepared to make all the necessary calculations (that are well beyond me).  He found he didn’t have to.

They concluded that, even from the driver’s side, someone could have tossed the laptop over the barrier, even from a low car.  Presumably, the driver would have to slow or stop briefly, three or four seconds; obviously, so could a passenger.  Of course, someone on foot, not using the foot bridge, could have as well.  Someone could have gone into the water and placed it there.  The only constraint is that the car would have to be heading west into Lewisburg (and toward Bellefonte).  The laptop itself showed signs of long term water damage.

Now for the last piece of the puzzle, we have the drive.  It was in the Susquehanna, very close to the bank.  From Tony Gricar’s description, there would have been about two to three feet of water covering it1.  There was a great deal of debris there as well, things like dead branches.  If you would draw a line, perpendicular to Water Street, from the Packwood House Museum to the river that is about (25 yards in either direction) where the drive was found.  Site photos with commentary fro Tony Gricar can be found here: 

http://www.raygricar.com/siteimages/sitephotos.htm 2

Note that the drive was found upstream from the bridge and was too far distant to have been tossed from the bridge.  The laptop showed no indication of damage that could have dislodged the drive when tossed.  The drive was removed prior to the laptop ending up at the bottom of the river.

Now that we know where everything computer related was, where was Mr. Gricar?  In the early afternoon of 4/15/05, multiple witnesses put him across from the Packwood House Museum.  At least one of them saw him holding or reading something on a park bench.              http://tiny.cc/zYD5Y  Later in the day, Mr. Gricar was seen on Route 15 between 4:00 PM and 5:00 PM, then up the street in the Street of Shops and in the parking lot across from it between 5:30 PM and 6:30 PM.  So, he arrived in Lewisburg just after noon, and was there sometime after 4:00 PM.  That’s a big gap.

Now, that is the evidence.  There have been several theories about how this evidence got there, including some from me, which were discussed on Internet message boards.  All of them, however, came out before it was known that Mr. Gricar was interested in destroying the data.

Here is what I would give as the most probable explanation, based on the current evidence; I would say that it is perhaps 60% likely.  Mr. Gricar took the laptop out of the case, possibly to check the power.  He replaced the case.  Anyone wanting to grab the laptop and quickly take it from the house would just grab the case.  He took it with him to Lewisburg.

For some unknown reason, Mr. Gricar had data on the laptop that he wanted to make sure would never see the light of day.  He decided that he would be some distance from home, near a river, and this would be a good time and place to dispose of the drive. 

Mr. Gricar arrived early enough in the day to find a place a toss it.  Maybe there was something else planed for later in the day; later in the day was when the “Mystery Woman” was spotted with Mr. Gricar.  He removed the drive from the laptop and walked less than 100 yards to the river, where he tossed the drive.  Perhaps he made one last check or purchased a flash drive someplace and downloaded the data.  What the people saw him reading was actually the laptop.  I located a photo of the park taken by another message board poster, TOL.                  http://tiny.cc/benches    It was taken across Water Street from the Museum area.  Had Mr. Gricar been seated on one, anyone at the Museum on the street would have only been able to see his back; what he was doing, reading, typing or removing the drive could not be seen from that angle.

That would explain the case and the drive, but not the laptop itself.  No witness put him anyplace close to the bridge.  No witness put him on the other side of the river so he could cross back.  There is another problem; the laptop wasn’t his.  It was the property of Centre County.  He could easily tossed the drive, purchased a new one from the manufacturer, and replaced it before returning it, if all that he was worried about was the data.

Now, could Mr. Gricar have tossed the drive prior to committing suicide, perhaps deciding that if he left the laptop itself, people might focus on finding the drive?  Yes, that is possible.  Could Mr. Gricar have tossed the drive prior to walking away, perhaps deciding that if he left the laptop itself, people might focus on finding the drive?   Again, the answer is yes.

Could Mr. Gricar have decided to kill two birds with one stone and tossed the drive prior to meeting someone for another reason.  Yes, that too is possible, and that is consistent with the known evidence.  That meeting could have ended with his murder.

Now, as has been shown, the police have not released all the information they have.  Suppose that they have a witness that saw Mr. Gricar leaving the house with the laptop under his arm; would that indicate he walked away or committed suicide?  No.  What about if somebody saw in Lewisburg, using the laptop or removing the drive; would that indicate he walked away or committed suicide?   No.   What if somebody saw him walking across the park and throwing something in the water; would even that indicate he walked away or committed suicide?   No.  Any of these things might eliminate some theories, and increase the probability that Mr. Gricar tossed the drive, but not much more.

1 One poster on message boards, who was at the area where the drive was found, has stated that the depth was six inches; he looked after the search teams departed, possibly a week or more after the disappearance.  The water had been receding from recent flooding that occurred prior to the disappearance.


2 Tony Gricar indicated that on the weekend of 4/15/05, the strip of land on the left of the photo of the site where the drive was discovered was completely submerged.  


{Note:  There were a number of theories discussed online about how the laptop and drive ended up in the river.  All the others have some serious problems, including two that I advocated for a while.  If I get a lot of requests, I’ll explain the problems in detail.]