There were two cases in the news, both from Central Pennsylvania, about missing persons. The probable solutions to both of these cases, are possible explanations for the disappearance of Ray Gricar, Centre County’s former district attorney.
The first is the case of Brenda Heist, 42, a resident of the town Lititz, in Lancaster County. In February of 2002, she was bookkeeper at an automobile membership, and a soon to be divorced mother of two, a son, 12, and a daughter 8. According to her husband, Lee, and their friends their divorce was amicable.1 On 2/8/02, a Friday, she sent the children off to school, took some pork chops out for dinner, and around noon, talked to her husband at work. When her children came home from school that afternoon Ms. Heist wasn’t there; her car, that belonged to her employer, was not their either. There was no sign of violence, and all of her belongings were there.2
The children called their father, Lee Heist, who was at work about an hour away; he worked in the Valley Forge area, about 50 miles to the west. He assumed that his wife was just out, but would soon return. At 5:00 PM, after the children had called him back, he left work earlier than planned and returned home. He called the police earlier that evening.2
The police put out an alert for Ms. Heist and four days later, the car that she was driving was found. It was in York, PA, about 30 miles west of Lititz. Mr. Heist was immediately a person of interest. They were divorcing, had money problems, and Ms. Heist’s life was insured $100,000.3 He, however, passed a polygraph test and could verify that he was at work. Neighbors still wondered. 2
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Mr. Heist was cooperative, and indicated, a year later, that he thought her disappearance was due to foul play; he posted flyers and quit his job to devote more time to his children. He said, "No matter how you look at it the only thing I keep coming back to is my wife never would have left the kids. Period. That immediately tells you if it's not voluntary, it's involuntary. It's foul play." He had put pressure on the police to do more.2
Two years later, with Mr. Heist’s blessing, a $5,000 reward was offered by an out of state group; with his church, Mr. Heist held a rally to publicize it.4 The divorce was finalized. The police even did a cold case review. Finally, in 2009, more than seven years later, he petitioned the court to declare Ms. Heist legally dead. The petition was granted in 2009.5
Legality and reality sometimes do not mesh, because Ms. Heist was alive, in Florida, living off the grid, working, when she could, as a cleaning lady. She sometimes stayed with her employers, but was finally living in a tent city for homeless people.6 She had some brushes with the law and finally went to the police and identified herself in April of this year.
In the Gricar case, I have often said that the right question to ask is, “How did Ray Gricar get out of Lewisburg?” In the Heist case, we have an answer. Brenda Height hitchhiked to Florida. The car was found about a mile and half from the off ramp of I-83. Her motive? That she was upset that she could not get housing assistance, and that her children would be better off without her.1 While there was a small amount of money missing from her job, it was less than $2002; her disappearance was not the result of a long term plan.
There are some superficial similarities between the Heist disappear and the Gricar disappearance, but there are a lot of differences as well. I hope to be returning to this case to look at both in a future blog.
There is another case, a bit closer to Centre County. It is the case of Sherry Leighty, 23, who was last seen alive in October 1999. Her marriage had ended, and there was a rumor that she had moved to Maine.7 She was not even reported as a missing person until January of 2013.8
In April, police executed a search warrant of property her ex-father-in-law, Kenneth Leighty, owns in Warrior’s Mark. The basis of the search warrant was based, in part, on an intercepted telephone conversation where Mr. Leighty said the he had killed her accidently, and buried her on the property. He was arrested on other charges, but within the last fortnight, Mr. Leighty confessed and led the police to her remains.9 The motive remains unclear. Though his attorney, Mr. Leighty has claimed that his former daughter-in-law was killed accidentally10; presumably he was the one that hid the body. We will, no doubt, be hearing more about the case as it moves through court.
Both of these cases illustrate possible solutions in the disappearance of Mr. Gricar, and produce local examples. That Ms. Heist could, with virtually no experience in law enforcement, an education that does not appear to extend beyond high school, and with virtually no money, could disappear for 11 years certainly illustrates, that an experienced, well educated, and possibly well financed individual could as well. That the remains of Ms. Leighty could be hidden for more than a decade indicates that the same could have happened to Mr. Gricar’s remains, whether his death was planned or not. The possibility exists for both.
Both of these cases have something in common with one another. Ms. Leighty’s disappearance has generated substantially more press since 2010 that it did in the ten years before. Ms. Heist’s disappearance did generate some press at the time, but virtually all of it was local to the area. Even local posters in Lancaster County, and the surrounding area, on the Websleuth web site could not recall the case.11 It produced very little comment, until Ms. Heist went to the police.
The reason for this was very simple. Neither Ms. Heist nor Ms. Leighty were high profile, a bookkeeper and a temporary worker, respectively. They didn’t hold high profile, prestigious positions, like being a district attorney. Those kinds of cases don’t get the same coverage.
That makes a difference. Had there been a report of Ms. Leighty’s disappearance at the time, someone might have realized that Kenneth Leighty was not at work, as he claimed. Had there been national press stories on Ms. Heist’s disappearance, including national television coverage, and active Internet sites, someone might have seen her and knew that she had been reported missing. While both of these solutions are possible solutions to the Gricar disappearance, that coverage makes them materially different. Still, between the two, we have seen the overwhelmingly likely answer to the question, “What happened to Ray Gricar?”
Centre Daily Times Ray Gricar Section: http://www.centredaily.com/138/
Link to the Main Index for Sporadic Comments on Ray Gricar: http://www.centredaily.com/2011/03/21/2597340/main-index-32011.html
E-mail J. J. in Phila at email@example.com