Skip to comments.MURDER, SUICIDE OR JUST A RUNAWAY? (Ray Gricar; missing PA DA)
Posted on 05/13/2005 6:59:34 AM PDT by Born Conservative
BELLEFONTE, Pa. - For the last couple of Friday afternoons at the dark and historic creekside eatery called Gamble Mill Restaurant, bartenders have kept glancing over at Centre County District Attorney Ray Gricar's usual spot at the bar.
"They look over at the little spot he used to sit in," with his girlfriend, Patty Fornicola, playing their weekly game of Trivial Pursuit as he sipped a Grey Goose martini, said the restaurant manager, Andi Heidt-Nixdorf. "When every Friday comes along, they think they're going to see him."
But no one in this Victorian-tinged, mountainside county seat is known to have seen the 59-year-old Gricar - a button-down, lifelong prosecutor looking to retire at year's end - in the last 28 days.
The 20-year veteran D.A. called out of work on that Friday, April 15, drove to the riverside antique-selling town of Lewisburg, parked his red-and-white Mini Cooper - and then vanished.
No one knows if Gricar has intentionally gone missing, committed suicide, was kidnapped or even murdered. In fact, amateur sleuths - and there seem to be about as many in this north-central Pennsylvania valley as there are Penn State football fans - can find circumstantial evidence for each possibility.
What about the witness who talked with a man who matched Gricar's description and who spoke of the D.A.'s beloved Cleveland Indians, some 120 miles away in Wilkes-Barre, two days after his car was found?
Did Gricar intentionally throw himself in the river and commit suicide, just as his own brother had done nine years earlier?
Or were some members of the big-city drug ring that Gricar had helped bust just two weeks earlier hell-bent on revenge?
And what of the fresh flowers that were found in an orange-juice container near the riverbank where his car was found - a detail so strange that it reminds some locals of the 1967 suicide-mystery "Ode to Billy Joe."
The questions hang in the nippy spring air even as Gricar's trail is growing colder. The cable-TV news trucks and media stars like Fox News Channel's Greta van Susteren have long left the tarnished Civil War statues in front of the picturesque county courthouse. Other big made-for-TV stories - like Georgia's "runaway bride" - already have come, supplanted it, and left.
But the case of the runaway - or possibly dead - D.A. remains in bizarre, unresolved limbo. Said Heidt-Nixdorf: "It seems like everybody's just moved onto the next story."
Gricar's 27-year-old daughter, who lives in the Seattle area, has returned home. Even Fornicola, who lived with Gricar, has returned to her job in the district attorney's office that he once ran, albeit only part-time.
Wearing a mostly black top, a black skirt and wire-rimmed glasses, the slightly built Fornicola nervously fingered a set of keys and spoke of her boyfriend with the same sense of puzzlement that her friends and neighbors share.
"Hopefully, he's out there... looking at old cars," she said during a short interview in the hallway outside of the fourth-floor district attorney's office.
Fornicola is the last confirmed person to have spoken with Gricar, who called her at 11:30 a.m. that Friday to report he was driving east to Lewisburg on state Route 192.
At first, it all made sense. Gri-car was known to like an occasional, impromptu, solitary road trip - once he went to a baseball game in Cleveland without telling a soul - and he also liked shopping for antiques.
But when the D.A. didn't return home by 11:30 that night, Fornicola decided to call the police, who found his car in the parking lot of a Lewisburg antique mall the next day. What detectives uncovered there was a mix of the expected and the odd.
Gricar's cell phone was in the car, as well as a water bottle that later tested positive for Gricar's DNA. But his county laptop was gone. There were cigarette ashes in the car, which friends say doesn't sound like the meticulous prosecutor.
Not much of the known story makes sense. Jim Bryant, a flamboyant former Philadelphia prosecutor who's now a defense lawyer here, said his longtime friend Gricar was quiet and very straight, "like being around a bowl of oatmeal."
An Ohio native and graduate of the University of Dayton, Gricar has been a prosecutor ever since law school, first in his native Cleveland and then in Centre County, when the first of his two wives got a teaching job at nearby Penn State.
In 1985, the Republican was elected district attorney, and his biggest achievement was taking what once had been a part-time job and making it a full-time post. He personally tried every murder case - there is usually one or two a year here - and some high-profile crimes from the Penn State campus, and he earned praise for tackling violence against women.
Last year, he announced that this term, his fifth, would also be his last. He told friends that he was looking forward to traveling with Fornicola and spending some time in New England.
Still, there are now differing opinions on Gricar's state of mind when he disappeared. Bryant, the defense attorney, said he thought Gricar was chronically depressed, and Fornicola told police her boyfriend had been sleeping more than usual lately, also a possible sign of depression. But Gricar'smedical records offered no hint of trouble.
"On the personal side, he was very reserved and kept things to himself," said Scott Conklin, a county commissioner who like a number of employees had dealings with Gricar right before he vanished. "But he showed no signs of unusual behavior in the weeks leading up to this, so it is baffling."
Conklin said that as a politician, he can't walk down Bellefonte's hilly streets without someone asking: "Any news on Ray?"
Indeed, with the popularity of forensic- crime shows like "CSI" on television, this is a case in which almost everybody who follows it seems to have a theory of what happened.
What are the major possibilities?
Suicide: Nine years ago, the D.A.'s brother, Roy J. Gricar, had just retired from Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio, when he disappeared.
He had told his wife he was going out to buy mulch, and never returned. Two days later, his car was found at a Dayton park near the Great Miami River. His body was later recovered, and Roy Gricar's death was ruled a suicide.
Mental-health experts note that suicide typically runs in families, and some local people - like attorney Bryant - think that with his retirement imminent and with possible symptoms of depression, that Gricar may have met the same fate as his brother.
But others say they Gricar was looking forward to stepping down and was not acting any different from usual right up until the day he vanished. County commissioner Chris Exarchos saw Gricar at a meeting the day before he disappeared and said "there was nothing remarkable about that meeting."
Running away: It's rare but not unheard of for prominent people to simply vanish and start a new life. The case of a Maryland college president who did exactly that became a 1989 best-seller called "Exit the Rainmaker."
In the case of Gricar, a number of personal items have not been recovered - his sunglasses, wallet and car keys, as well as the county-owned laptop. His ATM and credit cards have not been used.
But on April 22, a man in Wilkes-Barre - some two hours east of Bellefonte - called police and said that he had conversed with a man who appeared to be Gricar on April 18, some three days after the D.A. went missing.
After local cops interviewed the man, they found another witness from the same establishment who also ID'd Gricar. Both witnesses said they were 100 percent certain it was the missing D.A.
The thing about the sighting that struck investigators is that the witnesses said the man talked about the Cleveland Indians - and they had been likely unaware when they went to authorities that Gricar indeed was a lifelong Indians fan.
But the Wilkes-Barre witnesses also said the man had been wearing a suit, even though Gricar was wearing jeans when he went missing.
Although Fornicola very much wants to believe that her boyfriend is alive, she said in the interview that "the clothes issue threw me." She said that none of Gricar's suits were missing, adding, "And I do the laundry."
Even before the Wilkes-Barre report, two Lewisburg business owners said they thought they saw Gricar on the day after he vanished - April 16 - in the antique mall. But experts note that reported sightings in such cases are often later debunked, and even if the prosecutor was in Wilkes-Barre, that was 25 days ago now.
Murder: Given the recent rash of violence against judges, the idea that a district attorney could also be the target of an angry convict or suspected criminal has been on some people's minds from Day One.
The police in Bellefonte have said that they're not aware of any specific threats against Gricar. But on March 31, just 15 days before he disappeared, Gricar announced possibly the biggest drug bust of his career - charges against nine suspected heroin dealers doing business in Centre County and also in North Jersey.
Crime writer Bill Keisling, who recently published a book on the apparent murder in Pennsylvania of a federal prosecutor, Jonathan Luna, has been writing articles on a Web site called yardbird.com suggesting a link between the still-unsolved Luna case and the Gricar disappearance.
"There obviously is a question of whether someone may have wanted information presumably contained in the laptop," Keisling wrote. "For example, had Gri-car's laptop contained information on the grand jury proceedings of the alleged 'million-and-a-half-dollar' drug ring, or other cases, or names of informants, or others implicated in the alleged heroin ring centered in the New York City/Newark area?"
But the murder theory is pure conjecture - as are all the other theories about a pillar of a small valley town in central Pennsylvania who seemingly vanished into thin air one April morning.
Down the hill from the courthouse, at the Gamble Mill Restaurant, Heidt-Nixdorf says she doesn't want to talk about a report that Fornicola had stopped by earlier in April to plan a surprise retirement party for Gricar in the fall.
It's not because the cops have told her not to talk about it, she explained. It's just that she doesn't want to ruin the surprise if and when Gricar suddenly turns up.
I wonder if she has trouble being taken seriously?
It's too bad Mr. Gricar isn't an "attractive" bride-to-be from Duluth, GA. Then maybe he'd get some national media attention and some possible leads in this case could be developed. But he's just a male County District Attorney who may have been the victim of foul play due to his job. Big deal. [sarcasm]
i cant believe how quickly this newstory got shuffled under other stories....
Since his body hasn't surfaced in the river after 28 days, it probably is not suicide.
The new suit could have been bought without Patti Fornicola's knowledge.
I think Ray had been planning to "disappear himself" for some time. He is probably on an island somewhere with a new girlfriend (or boyfriend).
Gretta had 2 shows covering this story shortly after Ray Gricar disappeared along with former homicide detective Ted Williams.
After watching the first of the 2, where she visited the mini-mall in Lewisburg near the antique store where his car was parked, and walked down the path to the river, I was left with the impression that there may well be a homosexual link.
No hard evidence, just a feeling I took away from the show.
Riverbanks do tend to attract homosexuals. And the antique store is literally a stone's throw from the Susquehanna.
I live near Lewisburg, the home town of Bucknell U., and yes, it is a favorite hangout for older, affluent gays.
FORNICOLA: He placed the call to me. I happened to be the person, the receptionist that day and answered the phone and it was Ray.
VAN SUSTEREN: Were you expecting this call or were you expecting him in the office, anything unusual about it?
FORNICOLA: No. When I left for work that morning he had indicated that he was going to take the day off and he had fallen back to sleep. I left him a note asking that if he decided to go anywhere to let me know, so that I could go home and take care of the dog.
And he called and said that, he said "I'm on 192. I'm not going to make it home to take care of the dog. Would you be able to go home?" And I said, "Sure." He said, "Thanks. I love you." I said, "I love you too," and that was the last I heard from him.
Bump to PSU Scandal. Gricar chose not to prosecute Sandusky in 1998 even though they had him on tape admitting to a mother that he had molested her son.