Six years later, district attorney's disappearance is still a mystery

Above, Ray Gricar , former Centre County district attorney, with his red-and-white 2004 Mini Cooper. At left, pieces of his laptop, which turned up without its hard drive.
Above, Ray Gricar , former Centre County district attorney, with his red-and-white 2004 Mini Cooper. At left, pieces of his laptop, which turned up without its hard drive. (Bellefonte Police Department)
Posted: July 31, 2011

On Monday, a judge reached a conclusion about Ray Gricar, the longtime Centre County district attorney who vanished in 2005.

He's dead.

Hours later, word spread that a nameless vagrant locked up in Provo, Utah, just might be the missing prosecutor. His mug shot went viral.

By Tuesday night, Provo police had put a name to their man - and it wasn't Gricar.

That's how it has gone in the six years since investigators found the red-and-white Mini that Gricar last drove locked in a Lewisburg, Pa., parking lot - and his county-issued laptop computer turned up in the Susquehanna River.

Tips, alleged sightings, conspiracy theories. Two reexaminations, three district attorneys. Whispers, criticism. And questions still endure about one of Pennsylvania's most baffling mysteries.

How and why does a 59-year-old prosecutor with 20 years in elective office, a stellar reputation, no known personal troubles, and looming retirement plans just disappear? What exactly have investigators done - or not done - to find him?

Even among those closest to Gricar or the investigation there is no consensus. A suicide, says the retired police chief who first presided over the case. Probably a walkaway, says Gricar's immediate successor. Murder, say two district attorneys of nearby counties.

Then there's Stephen Sloane, a former assistant district attorney who spent more than a decade working for Gricar and considered him a close friend.

"I think he's alive," Sloane said Wednesday, quickly acknowledging the only undisputed fact: There's no proof of that - or anything.

"Any of these options - foul play, walkaway, suicide - if in the end we find out one," he said, "none of them are going to be any more bizarre than the others."

The ruling Monday was an administrative step more than an investigative one.

Gricar was twice divorced, and his only child, Lara, sought the death declaration so she can finally settle his estate. The order by Centre County Judge David Grine does not say what happened to Gricar, just that a thorough investigation suggests he won't be seen again.

Amos Goodall, the lawyer representing Lara Gricar, said investigators had two new leads on the case, but he would not elaborate. Goodall's opinion? Gricar was killed.

"I can't believe that he would have spent the last six years causing his family to be in the real purgatory that they have been in," he said. "If he were alive, he would've contacted his family."

With 145,000 residents, aptly named Centre County is the geographic heart of the commonwealth, home to cornfields, verdant hills, and Pennsylvania State University. Violent, shocking crimes are not unheard of, but certainly less expected: Each year brings a murder or two.

So it's unlikely any case will overshadow the abrupt and unexplained disappearance of the county's top law enforcement officer.

Gricar was eight months from retirement in April 2005 when he told his longtime girlfriend, Patty Fornicola, that he planned to go shopping for antiques in Lewisburg, 50 miles from their Bellefonte home.

When he did not return that Friday night, Fornicola called police. A day later, they found the Mini parked near the river. Inside was Gricar's cellphone, and nothing else.

Search-and-rescue teams swarmed the site and the river. Fornicola and Lara Gricar held a press conference appealing for help from the public or for his return. Neither happened.

The years since have brought a trickle of head-scratching details, dead-end leads, and, at times, finger-pointing accusations.

Gricar abhorred smoking, but investigators found cigarette ashes on the passenger side of his car. His county-issued laptop, which he did not use regularly, according to Sloane, turned up later in the Susquehanna without its hard drive, a component typically screwed in.

When the hard drive turned up downstream, experts from two labs could not access its content.

No fewer than seven websites sprouted to chronicle the case. And cable and network news shows and dramas gave it hours of attention.

That has helped fuel unconfirmed sightings of Gricar over the years, from so-called witnesses who described a "mystery woman" with Gricar at a Lewisburg shop on the day he disappeared to the patron at a Chili's restaurant in Texas who whipped out her cellphone to snap a photo of the diner she insisted was the missing prosecutor. (She was wrong, the FBI concluded.)

Then there's the suicide theory. Gricar's older brother, Roy, who struggled with depression and bipolar disorder, killed himself in 1996. Police found his car alongside the Great Miami River near Dayton, Ohio, and fished his body from the water days later.

Roy Gricar's son, Tony, was stunned nine years later when he pulled up to the Susquehanna where his uncle disappeared and felt an eerie sense of deja vu. But Ray Gricar did not have a mental-health history similar to his brother's.

These days, Tony Gricar does not subscribe to one theory over another. He says he thinks the investigation was mismanaged from the start. "I question whether there was the experience needed for this kind of case given the geographic spread and the paucity of evidence," he said.

Others agreed. Three years after Gricar's disappearance, two of his fellow district attorneys unsuccessfully called for then-Attorney General Tom Corbett to take over the case.

Montour County District Attorney Robert Buehner and then-Clinton County District Attorney Ted McKnight asked how the police in Bellefonte (population 6,137) could handle what they contended was a daunting investigation of foul play against someone who was not just their friend, but a prominent elected official.

"I think someone lured him to a meeting, and the issue was the hard drive," Buehner said last week. "Someone wanted whatever was on the hard drive."

Police and prosecutors in Centre County brushed aside the criticism and insisted they did all they could.

"I know our department didn't have the manpower to do this investigation by itself. I knew that from the get-go," said former Bellefonte Police Chief Duane Dixon, who retired to Arizona after Gricar's disappearance and still gets updates. "All the manpower I wanted, I had. I couldn't ask for any more help."

After Michael Madeira took office as the newly elected Centre County district attorney in 2006, he enlisted the state police criminal-investigation analysis unit to review the case. But there was a dearth of evidence to start, and the trail grew colder.

"As time went on, the information that came in during my four years became less and less reliable and hard to follow up on," Madeira said.

The case became his albatross. In 2009, he lost a reelection bid to Stacy Parks Miller, who made the Gricar case a pillar of her campaign.

Last year, Parks Miller convened a new task force on Gricar. It meets monthly, has been reinterviewing subjects, and has employed new technology and databases, she said.

She previously said she considered murder the least likely explanation, but she backed away from that Friday. "When I say something is 'least likely,' that really does not mean much because, again, anything is possible," Parks Miller wrote in an e-mail. "When you consider the fantastical notion that a missing, highly respected, well-known district attorney could disappear virtually without a trace for all these years, you have to leave room for the idea that the explanation for it could be just as unpredictable."

Tony Gricar, the unofficial family spokesman, said he had not heard from Parks Miller since a month or so after she took office. He said he did not get worked up over each new lead or rumor, like the Provo news. "There's been no sea change since - since the day he disappeared, really," he said.

Others are just as resigned, or perplexed. As Sloane, Gricar's former assistant, discussed the case Wednesday in his State College law office, his law partner Phil Masorti bounded into the room and the conversation - proof that the debate still ripples through legal and political circles in central Pennsylvania.

Masorti, a defense lawyer, gushed about Gricar as a brilliant and principled district attorney who honed his trial skills as a young prosecutor in Cleveland but who traded that for a quieter role in Happy Valley when his first wife landed a job at Penn State.

Masorti insisted Gricar was "intellectually capable" of disappearing without a trace and might have arranged it to confound locals who did not always belong in his league.

Or not. Masorti started rationalizing a Gricar suicide, then pivoted and suggested checking the federal Witness Protection Program.

"You don't think he's dead, do you?" he pressed Sloane, adding, "I don't think he's dead."


Contact staff writer John P. Martin at 215-854-4774 or jmartin@phillynews.com.

 

comments powered by Disqus
|
|
|
|
|