A late, last goodbye

ANDREW THAYER / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER Michael Moore, 61, stands by his truck near the location where he discovered Sandy Stiver's body in 1968, when he was 14.
ANDREW THAYER / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER Michael Moore, 61, stands by his truck near the location where he discovered Sandy Stiver's body in 1968, when he was 14.
Posted: July 24, 2014

BATH, Ohio - It was a picture that could break a father's heart.

All that makeup, those long, fake lashes and a whole lot of hair spray, Russell Samuel Stiver's baby girl looking too much like a woman.

Sandra Ann Stiver was just 14 when she sat for that picture in a Philadelphia photo booth almost a half-century ago, but she looked twice as old. She didn't smile or scowl, looking as if she had somewhere better to be, a future she was eager to meet beyond the cramped rowhouse where she lived in the city's Frankford section. Her dark bouffant filled the frame.

Sandy stuck in black and white, forever: It's a picture known well by the Stivers, and by police, and perhaps by the person who shot and killed her. It's the picture that Russell Samuel Stiver likely showed police when his daughter and daughter-in-law, Martha Evelyn Stiver, 17, went missing from their home at Paul and Womrath streets in 1968, a picture he kept in his wallet along with a detective's business card, a picture he passed around every time he drove hundreds of miles back to Philadelphia to find out if she'd been found.

When Russell Stiver clung too closely to his grandchildren and nieces and nephews in later years, it was because of Sandy, his family said, and his heart remained unmended till the day he died in 1974.

"She was his firstborn daughter and they shared the same birthday. He loved her so much. He never stopped thinking about her," Sandy's mother, Elizabeth Stiver, 86, said of her husband and daughter. "I hope they've found some peace."

The one place the Stiver family never imagined they'd see that photo was at Sandy's funeral, but a blown-up version leaned against an easel Saturday on a small stage inside the student center of Grace Church, just off Interstate 77 in this small suburb of Akron. It was framed in black, with gold stenciling, and the dash between her birthday and the day a coroner had determined she died - Aug. 14, 1968 - was a sad reminder that she never saw 15, never started a life of her own somewhere else, as some had hoped, nor even bounced from a juvenile detention center to a jail, as others had speculated.

"I didn't think this day would ever happen," said Sandy's sister, Lilly Deaton, 58. "I never thought my mother would live to see it."

Deaton last saw Sandy and Martha running past the kitchen windows on Womrath Street toward Frankford Avenue a block away. It was early summer or late spring of 1968, the family said, because the windows were open. Elizabeth Stiver yelled for them to stop, but they kept on going. The family assumed the two were running back to the Kansas City area so that Martha, who had married Thomas Stiver, could reunite with the infant daughter they'd left behind there.

The girls never made it, their journey ending violently not long after they left, their bodies dumped in rural Berks County, Pa. Their remains, found separately about eight months apart, were never identified and later were buried together in a potter's field as Jane Does, beside a row of ash trees, and that's where they remained until last year.

The Stivers and Samantha Terry, Martha's daughter, had been in contact with police in recent years about the "Berks County Jane Does" and eventually submitted DNA. Both bodies were exhumed from the potter's field in October and the positive DNA matches came in the spring. The case remains an active homicide investigation, police said, a mystery that's even less likely to be solved so many decades later.

'It's the same tree'

On a sunny morning last week in Caernarvon Township, Berks County, the cicadas were almost deafening on a stretch of Elverson Road.

Michael Moore, a local mechanic who works on "just about anything," leaned against the hood of the faded Ford Bronco that he'd parked along the road's edge there, across from a pond, just before it curves sharply to the left. He wore a Matco Tools baseball cap and the decorative license plate on his bumper showed a whitetail buck and a turkey together in an autumn field.

When asked what the road looked like on Aug. 22, 1968, Moore, 61, looked around, his eyes up to the curve, over the pond and toward a maple tree about 20 feet off the road to his right. Then his eyes went down again quickly to his work boots.

"Nah, nothing's really changed much in this area," he said.

Moore was 14, the same age as Sandy, when he found her body there that day. He was walking to work at a nearby horse farm when he noticed the smell. He traced it to the base of the maple tree, where he found two legs sticking out in the underbrush.

"It's the same tree," he said, motioning to the tree with his head. "It wasn't all rotted up then like it is now, but it's the same one."

Moore recalled that he froze for a moment, and that a passing car startled him and he ran to a nearby house to ask for help.

In four decades, he previously has only spoken to the police about it. He rarely drives down that road.

Authorities said the victim had been shot five times, including once in the head, with a .22-caliber gun. Her body was clothed. Around her neck, they found a medal with a crucifix on it. On the back was the inscription: "In case of emergency, please call a priest."

The victim wore silver nail and toe polish and also chewed on her fingernails, police told the Reading Eagle at the time.

Martha Stiver's skeletonized remains were found by a man searching for mushrooms about eight months later, according to the newspaper, curled up in a fetal position atop a flat rock in French Creek State Park a few miles from Sandy.

Authorities immediately linked the two, according to newspaper accounts, because both victims were wearing the same Italian sandals and both cases were determined to be homicides.

The remains were not identified until earlier this year, and the news came as a relief to Moore, who has always been "the kid who found that dead girl," as he put it.

"I always wondered who she was, all these years," said Moore, a father of four. "I'm glad her family finally has her back."

A weeping angel

On Saturday, Sandy Stiver's cremated remains sat on a table inside the student center at Grace Church, inside an urn sculpted as an angel weeping on a grave. "Our hearts still ache in sadness," says the inscription.

On July 7, Elizabeth Stiver, her daughter Hazel DeMoss and son Thomas Stiver drove 375 miles east to Berks County to pick up Sandy's cremated remains. Berks County Coroner Dennis Hess handed Sandy over to her mother in a metal urn during a news conference at his office. The three had planned to visit the potter's field a few miles away, but the morning had been too much for Elizabeth, so they drove back here to Summit County, where most of the family had settled, in the town of Richfield.

The urn that contained Martha Stiver's cremated remains was shipped last week to Kansas City, Kan., where it now sits on a nightstand inside the home where Samantha Terry now lives. Terry said she couldn't afford to have a memorial service for her mother and didn't plan to attend her Aunt Sandy's either because she's estranged from the family.

At night, Terry said, she places her mother's urn beside her in bed.

"She was trying to get back to me," Terry said, sobbing, by phone last week.

'A hard story'

Hazel DeMoss, the youngest of the Stiver siblings, arrived at Grace Church before 11 a.m. Saturday with her daughter Katie, 11, and the two carried bouquets of roses and daisies from a minivan as drizzle fell. Elizabeth Stiver, seated in a wheelchair, was pushed to the front of the room near the stage, a box of tissues in her lap, and she trembled slightly as dozens of family members and friends made their way in and greeted her.

A scrapbook was making its way around the room before the memorial service began, heavy with pictures, marriage certificates and newspaper clippings. There was Elizabeth, in a black-and-white polka-dot dress, with Russell on their wedding day in 1947 in Hagerstown, Md. There were the Stiver children, together, seven kids born in seven states as the family rambled around the country so that Russell, a commercial painter, could find work. An eighth child, a boy, was adopted by a family in Philadelphia.

Sandra Ann's page is about halfway through the book, and everyone paused on those rare pictures of a woman whom almost none had met: Sandy as a toddler with a doll and tricycle on a rural porch in Kansas; another photobooth shot, this one of Sandy and her brother Donny, but without the makeup and with her hair down, looking like a kid, also taken around the time she disappeared.

Sandy's niece Toni Gillette made the scrapbook, adding stickers and scalloping the edges of the paper on every page. She wrote a caption about the disappearance in gold ink next to the same photo that was on the easel.

"There hasn't been any information on her whereabouts since, sadly. Sandy was loved by many and missed by all!" Gillette wrote.

Pastor Robby Neidlinger, one of two ministers in attendance, took the stage around noon, 46 years after Sandy was murdered hundreds of miles away.

"It's good to spend some time embracing that this is really happening," he told the mourners. "Sandra's story is a hard story. You may have some tough questions and we're not here to give any trite answers. There is no easy answers under these circumstances."

Then Gary Deaton, Sandy's nephew, strummed the chords to "Amazing Grace" and he and his wife, Charity, sang it together in hushed tones.

Neidlinger shared memories of Sandy collected from relatives, nothing but a few small details:She enjoyed riding her bicycle, being outdoors and spending time with her family.

A Frankford rowhouse

The Stivers had moved back to Kansas just a few months after Sandy disappeared, later settling in Ohio, and none of the siblings could recall much about their time in Philadelphia, crammed together in a rowhouse that rises a few feet higher than all the others in the neighborhood.

No one at Paul and Womrath streets could recall the disappearance recently, even those who had lived there for decades.

Pastor Richard Fisher told the mourners that death brings everyone to "God's front door" but that those left behind to grieve want to speak with him, too, understably angry and confused, their faith shaken.

"When things go wrong, we want to talk to the person in charge," Fisher said.

Everyone sat silently, hands folded on their laps, and Hazel DeMoss caressed her young daughter's face as Fisher ended in a prayer.

"Although Sandy has been in your presence for a long time, this is the first time we could commit her to your arms," he said.

Sitting in the back of the room, Nick Rodriguez got up immediately after the service and headed out into the rain-soaked parking lot while others lingered inside.

He had come from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, in Alexandria, Va., where he works as a case manager, just to pay respects.

"I'm so glad this family finally got some closure," Rodriguez said outside. "They never gave up and this story has been shared with the hundreds of other families who are dealing with similar situations. This story can give everyone hope."

A few minutes later, the rain came in stops and starts, and family members passed around balloons with messages they'd written with markers. Elizabeth Stiver held one in her hand, and let it go after a countdown.

"We love you, Aunt Sandy," one balloon read.

At a small luncheon in the basement of the neighboring church afterward, the scrapbook made the rounds again, along with macaroni salad and chocolate-chip cookies, and Sandy's sister debated which niece and nephew resemble some relatives long since passed.

Gillette, who had made the scrapbook, said that she was raised by Elizabeth and Russell Stiver and that their over-protective nature was due to the mystery of their missing daughter. Everyone had a similar experience, a cautionary tale about "Aunt Sandy" told to hammer home the random dangers that lurked around every childhood.

"I was just a little girl, but I had to be in his sights all the time," Gillette, 42, said of Russell Stiver. "He was very protective of me."

Emotional tug-of-war

A tug-of-war stretched through the decades, the family said, from the streets of Frankford to roadsides and unmarked graves in Berks County, way out to Kansas and back east to Ohio, and all the Stivers took turns alternately pulling for hope and for common sense.

"I never believed she was dead," said Sandy's sister Linda Dresko, 57. "I honestly thought she would come through the front door one of these days."

Sandy, after her disappearance, her death and decades in an unmarked grave, was finally back with them, Dresko said, and now they picture their sister waiting by another door. It's the one that Fisher spoke about, "God's front door," and they'd like to think that on the day Russell Stiver died and came knocking, the man in charge stepped aside and let Russell's little girl answer it first.

Elizabeth Stiver sat at a table looking through the scrapbook, page by page, her fragile hands tracing over the plastic covering that protected images of her husband and oldest daughter. She wished that her husband had lived to know what happened, after always returning from Philadelphia in his Ford station wagon with no answers.

"He worried so much about her, so many years," she said, her accent still laced with her native Knoxville, Tenn.

DeMoss said she plans to take her mother, along with Sandy's urn, to her father's grave in the next few days, when the weather improves and her mother is up for it.

"I'm just going to let her and Sandy and my father all be together for a little bit," DeMoss said of Elizabeth. "She really wants that."

An hour later, about 25 miles away on the west side of Cleveland, the sun began to break through the endless gray over West Park Cemetery.

Just inside a side entrance, across the road from a trucking company, grass and weeds were growing over the edges of a simple, flat gravestone.

One day soon, when they bring Sandy's urn there, they'll push those weeds away to reveal the word etched above Russell Samuel Stiver's name:

Father.


On Twitter: @JasonNark

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