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September 2, 2014, 5:33 am

Cops no closer to finding missing D.A.

Every day in America, more than 2,000 people go missing, leaving family members and friends to grapple with images of where they are and what might have happened to them. More often than not, loved ones have little time to worry: in the majority of cases — from 50 to 80 percent — the person reported missing is returned home — or comes back of their own accord — within 48 hours of vanishing.

Less often, absence turns to tragedy, and police are given the unenviable task of notifying a family that the object of their search — a child, a spouse, a parent — has met a violent end.

But the families of a tiny number of missing people — by some accounts less than one percent — never get that closure, as months, years and eventually decades go by with no sign of their loved one, or his or her body. It’s as if the victims in these cases (if they are in fact victims at all) simply vanished into thin air.

In the early morning hours of Saturday, April 16, 2005, as police and friends scrambled to determine the whereabouts of Centre County District Attorney Ray Gricar, his live-in girlfriend Patty Fornicola would have had no idea she was about to join the ranks of these long-term dispossessed. Gricar had gone missing less than 24 hours earlier.

Fornicola and Gricar had been living together in her childhood home in Bellefonte, Pennsylvania, for the past three years, and with just months to go to Gricar’s retirement, the two had been eagerly discussing their plans to travel the country. By all accounts, the DA was looking forward to his impending freedom.

So when he failed to return home or answer his phone Friday night after a day of playing hooky from work, Fornicola — niece of a former Bellefonte mayor and a well-liked fixture in the community — notified police and colleagues at the courthouse where she had worked alongside Gricar. Within the hour police put out a BOLO — or “be on the look-out” report — and began retracing Gricar’s steps.

The last time Fornicola had spoken to him, at 11:15 that morning, Gricar said he was taking a drive on Highway 192 towards Lewisburg, where the couple liked to go antiquing. Investigators initially suspected that the prosecutor — who liked to drive fast — may have been in an accident, so they began a detailed search of the area around his last reported location. The next morning they commenced an intensive air and ground search using a helicopter and fixed-wing aircraft.

But it was a State Police corporal taking a shortcut to his barracks who would discover Gricar’s 2004 red Mini Cooper Saturday evening, sitting in a parking lot outside a row of antique stores in Lewisburg.

A search of the car revealed nothing untoward; there was no forced entry. Gricar’s county-issued cell phone was sitting in the center console. It had been turned off. There was a faint smell of tobacco smoke and a speck of cigarette ash on the passenger seat — which seemed odd to people who knew him, since Gricar was a non-smoker and was said to be meticulous about his vehicle.

In the weeks and months that followed, the case gained national notoriety as police tracked down dead-end leads, turned up inexplicable clues and struggled to develop a working theory of what might have happened to Gricar.  

Witnesses surfaced who claimed to have seen Gricar the day he disappeared, browsing antiques with a “mystery woman.” Even stranger, a subsequent search of his house revealed that his government-issued laptop — which he rarely used anymore — was missing, and it was revealed that before disappearing, Gricar had conducted an Internet search on “How to fry a hard drive.” When his laptop turned up in the Susquehanna River, missing its hard drive, investigators didn’t know what to think. The subsequent discovery of the hard drive added little to the mystery, since experts were unable to retrieve its contents.

Yet for every strange turn the case took, there was a plausible answer. Gricar was retiring, colleagues said, it made perfect sense he would want to wipe his hard drive. As for the mystery woman, maybe she wasn’t a mystery at all, but just a random shopper whom Gricar had engaged in conversation.   There was no shortage of conjecture about what did or did not happen to Ray Gricar, but very little in the way of concrete evidence.

Within weeks of his disappearance, police had formulated three possible scenarios of what happened to the prosecutor: he was murdered — perhaps as a result of his longtime work as a prosecutor; he committed suicide — just as his older brother Roy, who suffered from depression, had done years earlier; or, he simply decided to walk away from it all and start a new life.  

“Most people in Bellefonte and Centre County thought he’d walked away, that he’d planned the entire thing so he could retire without looking over his shoulder the entire time,” said Pete Bosak, a former reporter for Centre Daily Times.

Bosak covered the Gricar disappearance almost exclusively throughout 2005 and 2006, and continued to report on the case until his departure from the paper in September 2008.

“Ray was a highly intelligent individual,” Bosak said, “if he wanted to walk away, he would have been able to pull it off.”

For Gricar’s family, however, conjecture simply wasn’t enough. In a July 2005 press conference, Gricar’s daughter Lara called not knowing what happened to her father “the hardest thing I’ve ever had to go through.”

“In some ways, it’s worse than having a parent die, I think, because you have no closure,” she said. “I just want to know where my dad is.”

More than six years later, investigators are no closer to answering that question.

Last spring — at Lara’s behest — Gricar was declared legally dead. For his daughter, that may have offered a modicum of the closure she so desperately needed. But with recent revelations that Gricar failed to prosecute Jerry Sandusky when the first reports of indecent sexual contact with a minor surfaced in 1998, the case of the missing DA is being viewed in a new light, with some people looking desperately for a link that most likely isn’t there.

Odd behavior

While opinions about what happened to him vary among his friends and peers, one thing everyone seems to agree on is that Gricar didn’t seem himself in the weeks and months before he vanished.

Fornicola says she was concerned about his frequent naps and went so far as to suggest he see a doctor. Others say the prosecutor seemed preoccupied, even morose; and he had been spending less time at the office. That’s not especially odd for someone so close to retirement, but even when he was at the office, Gricar seemed to have something on his mind.

“Something was going on with Ray for months before he disappeared — judging by the way he was acting and the breaks he was taking,” said Bozak. “Numerous people told me he was not himself. Something was going on and Ray was well aware of it.”

On one occasion, during a meeting in the chambers of Centre County President Judge Charles C. Brown Jr. one month before he disappeared, Gricar seemed particularly out of sorts. According to Court Administrator Cheryl Spotts, the prosecutor was there to discuss the timing of an upcoming murder trial.

“It just seemed that Ray wasn’t with it,” Spotts said, in an interview with the Centre County Times. “He was just looking around, which kind of shocked me because this was a death-penalty case.”

Things got even stranger when the judge suggested a trial date in October 2005.

“Ray just turned and looked at the bookcases,” Spotts recalled. “He didn’t even look at the judge when he said it. He just said, ‘I won’t be here.’”

By all accounts, that was not normal behavior for the county’s chief prosecutor. Gricar was first elected to the office of District Attorney of Centre County in 1985, and would go on to serve six terms in the role before announcing he would not run for reelection in 2005. He was a popular official, and is described as a dedicated attorney by colleagues, who use words like “ethical” and “meticulous” when talking about him. But he was also a closed person who had, according to Bosak, just two friends.

“Ray was a very hard man to know, and he kept it that way,” Bosak said. “He kept people at arms’ length.”

Nevertheless, as the person closest to him at the time, Fornicola’s concern is telling. Excessive sleeping is one of the tell-tale signs of depression, and the illness has a tendency to run in families. In what Gricar’s nephew Tony Gricar has called an “eerie coincidence,” the DA’s car was found in a setting — near a bridge overlooking the Susquehanna River — strikingly similar to the one where his brother Roy’s was discovered after he killed himself by jumping from a bridge over Ohio’s Great Miami River in 1996. Divers scoured the Susquehanna for any sign of Ray Gricar, but turned up nothing. Bellefonte police have noted that under the right circumstances a body falling into the river could conceivably never be found.

The Sandusky Angle

The Gricar case reentered the news cycle soon after the Sandusky story broke — some six months after Gricar was declared dead. On November 4, 2011, the Nittany Lions’ defensive coordinator had been indicted on 40 counts of child molestation. Thirteen years earlier, Gricar chose not to pursue a case against Sandusky for a single incident that took place in a Penn State shower room involving an 11-year-old boy. According to the indictment against him, Sandusky admitted showering with the boy and bear hugging him naked. He told the boy’s mother he had showered with other boys in the past and said: “I understand. I was wrong. I wish I could get forgiveness.”

Much has been made of Gricar’s decision not to pursue a case against Sandusky.

“People are baffled as to why Gricar did not further the investigation against Sandusky in 1998,” said Matt McClenahen, an attorney who practices in State College. “One thing we do know is that it had nothing to do with Penn State or Sandusky’s position. Gricar had no connection to Penn State as an alumnus or fan, and had prosecuted people connected to Penn State in the past.”

In his defense, colleagues have insisted that if Gricar didn’t move forward, it’s because he didn’t believe he could make a legal case for sexual abuse. A recent interview with former University Park Detective Ronald Schreffler, who investigated the 1998 case against Sandusky, sheds some light.

In December, Schreffler told The Pittsburgh Post Gazette that the state Department of Public Welfare failed to level a charge of abuse in the case, which would have made Gricar’s job difficult if he chose to prosecute anyway.

“It’d be a little hard for them to prosecute, when you have the state saying there wasn’t any abuse,” said Schreffler.

Whatever the feelings about his decision to let Sandusky off the hook, evidence that Gricar’s disappearance is related to the coach’s current troubles is non-existent. After all these years with no answers, it’s tempting to latch onto any development and mine it for gold, but sources dismiss any notion that the two cases are linked.

“I can tell you with near certainty that there is absolutely no connection between the disappearance of Ray Gricar and the Sandusky case,” said McClenahen. “This is not the first time that Gricar’s disappearance has been linked to cases he either prosecuted or investigated.”

Meanwhile Bellefonte police continue to track down any and all leads that might shine some light on the DA’s whereabouts, or the location of his body.

When asked about the likelihood of a resolution, Bozak said that if police don’t solve the mystery of Ray Gricar, it won’t be from lack of trying.

“These aren’t the type of people who are going to give up — you may not hear much, because there’s not much going on, but I know these guys, and I can tell you this has not fallen by the wayside.”