Murder Mystery Holds Tight Grip On St. Clair In A Small Town Where Everybody Knows Everybody, The Unthinkable 'Killer Among Us' Theory Cuts Deeply

Posted: April 14, 1997

ST. CLAIR, Pa. — There is a pair of bloody gloves. Bloody footprints. A missing murder weapon, probably a knife. And the presence of a third person's DNA at the scene of the crime.

But this is not L.A. It isn't even Philadelphia.

It's tiny St. Clair, a faded Schuylkill County borough, home to 3,600 people, 17 churches and a gruesome double murder that after seven months remains unsolved - and is impossible for the small town to forget.

Schuylkill County District Attorney Claude A. Lord Shields keeps the crime scene photos in the top left drawer of his desk.

It was a bright summer Saturday morning when he stepped inside the well-kept, blue-shuttered brick home at 7 S. Nicholas St. to find blood on the walls and on the furniture. ``Blood throughout the residence,'' according to the police affidavit.

Then in the kitchen, a large pool of blood on the floor, silhouetting the bodies of two women - Dolores McCord, 74, the town tax collector, and her daughter, Anne Kimmel, 48, the longtime secretary for the county's office of domestic relations.

``It was the worst crime scene I've ever seen,'' said Shields, DA in Schuylkill for the past 12 years. ``There was just blood everywhere. It was horrendous.''

Both women were viciously slashed by what authorities believe was a large knife or ``sharp cutting tool.''

Nearly all of the wounds were centered on the neck. Kimmel's and McCord's throats were slit. An autopsy concluded they had bled to death.

Investigators say the murders occurred early in the Labor Day weekend.

No one reported hearing a sound, even though the house is attached on one side and is less than 10 feet on the other to its closest neighbors.

The bodies were discovered at 10:30 a.m. on Aug. 31, when Kimmel's daughter, Melissa Stramara, entered the home to drop off her 1-year-old, Kaitlin.

A week later, 500 people crowded into St.Mary's Roman Catholic Church to mourn.

``Mothers hold their children's hands for just a little while,'' read a flier distributed at the service. ``But their hearts forever.''

Rev. Francis Shoenauer, the pastor, posed the question on everyone's mind:

``Who would have done such a thing?''

* ALMOST EIGHT MONTHS later, as the bare Blue Mountains surrounding the town begin to show signs of spring, the question remains unanswered.

Evidence of more obvious motives is missing. No money or valuables were taken.

There were no signs of sexual assault. Just signs, a source said, of ``more rage in Kimmel's wounds. And signs both women fought for their lives.''

The mystery consumes this aging, once-prosperous mining town, situated along the Schuylkill River just outside Pottsville, 100 miles northwest of Philadelphia.

``We've had murders before, but nothing like this,'' says Richard Tomko, St. Clair mayor for the last 25 years and a retired teacher who taught Kimmel. ``It's hard to believe anybody who knew them could have done this.''

In the weeks following the murder, most townspeople theorized the slayings were the random work of an out-of-towner.

But investigators swiftly moved away from the theory.

``The likelihood that a stranger could come in is pretty small,'' Shields said of the predominantly elderly, nearly all-white borough of closely spaced homes. ``Almost everyone knows everyone.''

Shields and his eight full-time investigators have spent most of their time focusing on a scenario even more disturbing: The killer lives among them.

While officials have yet to identify a suspect, several locals have come under scrutiny. They include a former lover of Anne Kimmel and one of her son's best friends - the son of a neighbor who also is the police chief in a nearby town.

``We've never said anyone is a suspect or is not a suspect,'' Shields cautions.

Results of forensic tests comparing blood and hair taken from possible suspects to the blood of a third person found at the scene are expected soon from the state police laboratory. The entire town is hanging by a strand of a soon-to-be decoded DNA.

``Our people have a very deep spirtuality,'' says Tomko. ``We've put our trust in the Lord - and the Pennsylvania State Police.''

* THERE'S NOT much else left to hold on to in St. Clair. Some say it changed years ago, when most of the big coal concerns left, leaving stripped mountains, scarred lungs and little to offer future generations but unemployment, alcohol and other diversions.

Then came the Route 61 bypass, which made it possible to whiz right by the downtown. Once home to 8,000 people, St. Clair is now known to passing motorists only by an Exxon station and a roadside warehouse advertising ``Miller's Hot Bologna.''

The McCord-Kimmel murders have had a more profound impact on St. Clair.

Both women were well-liked and longtime fixtures in politics and their church.

McCord's late husband, Richard, was a borough councilman. McCord Street is named for him. He died young, and Dolores raised Anne and two sons on her own, serving as borough treasurer and later as tax collector for more than 25 years.

She was last seen alive reading a book on her porch as night fell on the town.

``She was loved by everybody. She did a lot of things for a lot of people,'' said Tomko.

``If you were a little late on your taxes, she'd help,'' remembered St. Clair resident Kim Marie Weiss.

Anne Kimmel, a spirited blonde divorcee with three children, worked for the last 10 years at the domestic relations office in the imposing fortress-like county courthouse in Pottsville.

Long separated from her husband, a local schoolteacher, she led an active social life. Before she returned home the night of the murder, she and some colleagues were riding dirt bikes in the back country.

``You wouldn't find a person with any dislike for her,'' said her boss, Thomas Eroh, who described her as a ``vibrant, take-charge'' woman. ``Not a day goes by that I haven't thought about Anne.''

Eroh said his wife, who attended school with Kimmel, was still scared and ``sleeps with the lights on.''

Schuylkill County is a tenth the size of Philadelphia, but the county averages only five homicides a year.

Within a week of the slayings, the sheriff reported a 30 percent increase in applications for permits to carry a gun. Most were sought by women.

Doors and windows that welcomed the cool mountain breeze are now shut tight. Residents are mindful that Kimmel's killer entered through an unlocked window.

In a town with barely a handful of stoplights, some installed laser motion detectors. Two months later, St. Clair children donned costumes to celebrate Halloween - during the daytime.

``People were thinking maybe we were a little too open for the 1990s,'' Tomko said.

* THE INVESTIGATION has exposed small-town secrets. Personal debt, failed love affairs, drinking and drug abuse have surfaced.

Lifelong relationships have been complicated by fear and suspicion, fueled every time a state police investigator enters a neighbor's house or pulls a local youth off a construction site for questioning.

``I was down by the bank and this crazy old nut goes, `You better watch out, they're on to you!,' '' said Tom Sullivan, 20, a local construction worker who has been extensively questioned. ``That's real nice. Imagine what they think and they're not saying.''

From the beginning, Shields and investigators have not said much. But in a small town, their movements are well-known.

Nearly everyone imaginable has been interviewed. Friends, neighbors, relatives, co-workers, local troublemakers, jailhouse confessors. Blood and hair samples have been taken from at least four people.

With every step, the rumors fly:

Was Kimmel the victim of an angry ex-lover?

Did McCord's job as local tax collector motivate a citizen to snap?

Did mother and daughter, or perhaps their children, make other enemies?

Or was the killer - who rifled through drawers without apparently taking anything - looking for something else?

Some thought they had an answer on Sept. 19, when an army of state troopers descended on the Pottsville home, garage and car of Richard Tobin, Kimmel's former lover.

The search warrant and affidavit offered what investigators considered a compelling circumstantial case.

Tobin grew up with Kimmel and had known her for 35 years. In 1991, he became intimately involved with her - a relationship that deteriorated into harassment and rose to an obsession for the spurned self-employed construction project manager, the affidavit says.

Hours after the bodies were discovered, police recovered a pair of bloodied latex gloves in a sewer just 10 feet from Kimmel's house and on the way to Tobin's garage.

The affidavit also said that a white table outside Kimmel's home had been positioned under an unlocked window to the dwelling. On it were bloody footprints of a workboot that matched Tobin's foot size.

And Tobin's whereabouts the night of the crime could not be determined.

Weeks passed. And months. And now slowly, word is beginning to leak out.

The DNA, say sources and the Tobin family, does not match.

Tobin's brother, Michael Tobin Jr., said authorities have told his lawyers that his brother was ``never a suspect'' but now was ``no longer under investigation.''

``The search warrant was pathetic,'' he said angrily. ``It was done on hearsay, not on fact. They trumped it up so bad.''

Tobin, a former St. Clair school board president, said his brother was ``not speaking to anybody.''

Michael Tobin said the state's witnesses were unreliable and mischaracterized his brother's relationship with Kimmel.

``It was over four years ago,'' he said. ``She was bugging him.''

``It's been very bad for the families,'' he said. ``It's made everyone a nervous wreck.''

* FOLLOWING the Tobin raid, there was a long public lull in the investigation.

The shock of the murders had worn off, but the anxiety of the unsolved mystery was still unsettling St. Clair.

Then on Feb. 18, a warrant left unsealed by the court signaled a startling change of course in the investigation.

Police asked for blood and hair samples from Harry Harley, 22, who grew up in St. Clair and lived at home, just a few blocks from Kimmel, with his brother, mother and father - Cass Township Police Chief Jack Harley.

The affidavit said Harley had been interviewed two days after the murders and had given statements that conflicted with other witnesses' on the time he left the Buckhorn Bar, two blocks from Kimmel's house.

He also gave conflicting statements about the route he took home, according to the affidavit.

And when a St. Clair police officer on patrol attempted to contact Harley on West Carroll Street around 3:30 a.m. - an hour-and-a-half after he told investigators he was home - Harley ``took off.''

Then on March 2, under a sealed warrant, investigators entered Harley's home and removed a number of items.

One was Jack Harley's reputation.

By virtue of the fact that it was his house, initial press reports implicated Harley, not his son, as the target of the search.

The situation was made even more difficult because Jack Harley is also an assistant county coroner - the man who pronounced McCord and Kimmel dead.

Jack Harley, a lifelong resident, felt compelled to write a letter to the local paper.

``I would ask that the record be made straight and that I am not a suspect and that this be conveyed to the public,'' he wrote. ``My reputation as well as my career in law enforcement has been adversely affected.''

``It's been extremely painful,'' the elder Harley told the Daily News. ``It's left a bad taste in my mouth.''

More than his reputation is at stake.

``We believe my son had nothing to do with the crime whatsoever,'' he said. ``We back our son 100 percent.''

Harley said neither he nor his son ``have gotten a fair shake. My son just happened to be out that night.''

He also seemed concerned that any DNA link found in the house could be misinterpreted by authorities.

Investigators suggest the killer was familiar with the layout of Kimmel's house.

``He's been in that house hundreds of times,'' Jack Harley said, referring to his lifelong friendship with Jeff Kimmel.

``So has Sullivan,'' he said of the construction worker who has been questioned extensively about the murders.

* IT WAS LUNCHTIME and Tom Sullivan was standing outside Nick Panko's machinery-strewn lawn on St. Clair's outskirts.

``Want a beer?'' he asked, along with his workmate, Tom Seladones, who serves as a sort of foreman for Panko's construction and demolition business.

Sullivan, Harley and Kimmel did construction work for Panko - a controversial local lawyer who last year was arrested for growing 65 marijuana plants behind his house.

A former schoolhouse also owned by Panko that's across from Kimmel's home had been the subject of numerous complaints from unidentified neighbors. Summonses - later dismissed - alleged the building was dangerous.

``They're crazy if they think Harry did it,'' said Seladones, 34. ``He's a good guy. His dad would have made him turn himself in if he made him look bad.''

``I think they're grasping at straws,'' said Sullivan, who admits that he also has given hair and blood samples. He said he's been questioned numerous times, perhaps ``10 or 15 hours'' total.

``They bring me in and they're saying `Harry told us you did it.' They're crazy. They're trying to put it in my head that I did it.,'' said Sullivan.

``He can't even plan his next meal, let alone a murder,'' Seladones joked. ``He flunked a lie detector test when they asked him his name.''

Sullivan said he and Harry Harley were at Panko's house earlier in the evening and met separately at the Buckhorn. Sullivan said he left at 11 p.m., stopped at a store and returned to Panko's near midnight.

``They're grabbing at straws,'' Sullivan reiterated. ``It isn't no one around here. They would have emptied the house out.''

Sullivan believes he has been targeted ``because I hang out at night, 1 in the morning, 2 in the morning.''

Seladones said the extensive questioning of Sullivan has ``definitely hurt our business.'' He said he was with others in the woods at a small campsite drinking throughout the night of the murders. ``People see what's going on and they're afraid.''

``The cops are just nuts. First Tobin. Now Harry. Who's next?''

* BRENT STRAMARA does not know who's next, or when the murder of his wife's mother and grandmother will be solved.

``It's just the frustration of not feeling safe,'' said Stramara, 26, who shares his St. Clair home with Kimmel's daughter, Melissa, and their daughter Kaitlin. ``We don't know who did it and we don't know why.''

He said he and his wife - who works for a district justice in neighboring Orwigsburg - have tried not to get too excited every time they hear a rumor of a break in the case.

When the answer comes, though, Brent and Missy plan to leave St. Clair for good.

``We're not going to stay much longer,'' says Brent. ``She wants a new start. Her mom and grandmom were a big part of her life.''

Anne Kimmel's brother, Michael, now lives in the house where his mother and sister died.

The Tobin family has consulted lawyers about possible lawsuits.

``You've never been crucified 'til I crucify you,'' an angry Michael Tobin says.

Harry Harley - who deferred entering the armed services until his girlfriend gave birth - left for Paris Island, S.C., a month ago to begin Marine boot camp. Officials said he recently returned.

``I can't wait until this is over,'' says Chief Jack Harley.

Shields monitors the investigation from his office, which sits high on a hill a few blocks from the boulevard named for his late grandfather, a former Pottsville mayor. Some in town half-jokingly speculate that the crime will be solved in October, just in time for the November race for district attorney. Shields is seeking a fourth term.

For Shields, however, an answer last October would have been much better. In a case file of more than 900 pages, he still has no definite answers.

``We're trying to make sense out of something that's senseless,'' he says. ``Under any scenario you have a madman who butchered two women.''

Tomko thinks his faith in the Lord and the system will eventually pay off.

``I think people have come to realize that this isn't TV - it isn't `NYPD Blue' where things get tied up in an hour,'' he said.

Still, he dreads the day that St. Clair gets the answers it has been searching for.

``I don't think after something like this things will ever be the same,'' says Tomko, weighing the impact of the crime, arrest and possible death penalty trial that is sure to follow.

``The innocence of a small town in Pennsylvania has been lost.''

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