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Getting away with imaginary murder

September of 1948 got exciting really fast. The headline hit the front page of the Express: “Girl Picked Up Here Tells Of Cal. Murder.”

“There is a girl in Clinton County Jail today who says she knows where police will find the burned body of a murdered woman,” the article read. “Whether her story is true remains for police teletype machines at State Police barracks to verify.”

It began when police picked up a girl trying to hitchhike out of Lock Haven. Their lives would have been easier if they’d just ignored her and let her go, but they didn’t know that at the time. She claimed that her name was Bernadette Paula Kanishka, and that she was 15. Probation officers decided she looked much older, however, and began to question her. This led to 48 hours of confusion, as she began to tell some wild stories.

Sergeant Elbert Lantz spoke to the girl, who said she’d been educated by a private tutor. She was clearly intelligent, knew advanced math, and spoke three languages. She also said that she was from California, where she’d witnessed a murder.

Bernadette told the story of living with her aunt, Olga Ambagga, on a farm outside of El Centro, California. She said that about three years previously, she’d come home to find her aunt dead on the floor. A male acquaintance came downstairs and told her to get a shovel, and she’d fled the house and run away. She’d traveled around, staying in Nevada at one point, and then coming to Sunbury and sleeping in a hotel there before coming to Lock Haven.

Well, you can’t just ignore a story like that. Initially, the only part of this that could be verified was the Sunbury bit. Lock Haven police contacted the state cops, who sent a message out to California, asking them to verify the story. They were told that it could take several days because the internet hadn’t been invented yet.

When the word went out, unexpectedly, Washington DC responded. They had a missing girl who fit the description named Jacqueline Dean. When police asked if she was Jacqueline Dean, the girl broke down crying but refused to answer.

At this point, the police searched her belongings. They found that all of the labels on her clothing had been cut out, which deepened the mystery. They also found an official-looking form on pink paper that had the Bernadette Kanishka name. It also gave her father’s name as Nicholas, but no further information.

Bernadette then admitted to being from Washington. She said her parents were former teachers who now worked for the government, her father working in the War Department. She said she’d run away to protest the racial segregation in the Washington schools, and intended to settle somewhere open-minded, get a job, and re-enter high school.

By this point, it was two days into the incident, and the Express reported, “Her story has more angles than a pentagon; which angles to follow remains the question.”

This was about the moment that California police sent back a message saying that they couldn’t find the farm described, or verify the alleged murder. By this time, local reporters were swarming the jail with requests to speak to the girl. The Express commented, “Her imagination might furnish vast quantities of copy for detective magazines.” The one thing they could actually verify was that she liked ice cream — she requested, and then ate, a whole pint of strawberry.

By Sept. 4, the truth had come out, and it was less dramatic than any of the rest of this. The girl was indeed Jacqueline Dean, aged sixteen, and her father was coming from Washington to pick her up.

The actual reason she’d run away? Her grades. She hadn’t been doing as well in school as usual which worried her. Though I have to say, any kid who can spin this kind of story doesn’t need to worry about future careers.

——

Lou Bernard is a Lock Haven resident with a keen interest in the history of this area. He is adult services coordinator at Ross Library and may be reached at loulhpa@gmail.com or 570-660-4463.

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