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The hunt for Ray Gricar: 15 years of clues, theories and the search for answers

PHOTOS PROVIDED Bellefonte Police Chief Shawn Weaver.

AVONDALE, Ariz. — Duane Dixon rises early so he can spend time doting on his granddaughter before heading off to work in the evidence locker of a suburban Phoenix police station.

He invites me into his Spanish-Colonial tract house and immediately starts apologizing: for his two dogs constantly underfoot, for the chirping TV anchors on the morning news, for not quite being ready to be interviewed.

Oh, and would I like coffee? OJ? Water?

Dixon, now 62, has an obliging, plainspoken manner familiar to anyone who’s watched him field questions from the likes of Greta Van Susteren during his 15 minutes of fame 15 years ago after Centre County District Attorney Ray Gricar went missing.

“I’ll be honest with you,” he whispers a confession, “she’s kind of intimidating.”

Every law enforcement officer has a case that defines their career.

Gricar is that case for Dixon.

Former Bellefonte police chief Duane Dixon at work in the evidence locker of a suburban Phoenix police station.

Fifteen years ago this week, sometime around midnight back in Pennsylvania, a patrolman knocked on the former Bellefonte police chief’s door to tell him the county prosecutor hadn’t come home. That porch-light briefing would set off days, weeks and ultimately years of searching.

Such mysteries exert their own gravity, ever more so in an era of “Serial” and Netflix. It was Dixon’s last big case before retiring to Arizona, and he feels a responsibility to keep it going. And it was the biggest challenge of Dixon’s career, and not only from a public relations standpoint.

Being police chief in a small town like Bellefonte means being something of a player-coach. Dixon joined his officers responding to calls, everything from bar fights to domestic violence.

And bears.

“It came in as a possible burglary call, somebody up a tree looking into a house,” he recalls. “I get there. It wasn’t a person. It was a black bear.”

When animal control arrived, the two men walked behind the bear, shooing it up East High Street, past the old courthouse, and into the woods at the edge of town.

“We’re so close to it the Game Commission guy told me to smack it on the butt,” Dixon says, his voice taking on a giddy charge. “I said, ‘I ain’t smacking no bear on the butt. It’s moving fast enough for me.'”

The whimsy drains from his voice as our conversation turns to Ray Gricar.

“All I know is we gave it the best job we could.”

On a sunny day in April 2005, Centre County District Attorney Ray Gricar called his girlfriend and told her he was playing hooky.

He never came home.

The basic gist of Ray Gricar’s disappearance is so familiar I can recount it in my sleep.

One sunny Friday on April 15, 2005 — Tax Day, eight months before his retirement — the Centre County district attorney called his live-in girlfriend, Patty Fornicola, to tell her he was playing hooky and not to expect him home until later.

He drove his distinctive red Mini Cooper east along rural Route 192 past rolling hillsides and an Amish schoolhouse and through a state forest. Witnesses saw him strolling the Street of Shops, a kitschy antiques mall in Lewisburg where vendors sell Beanie Babies and scented candles in false-fronted stalls dressed up like the kind of Main Street you see in a Thomas Kinkade painting.

Investigators found the Mini Cooper parked in the lot there. His cell phone, turned off, was locked inside but the keys were missing. Forensic technicians detected an obvious cigarette smell and found ash on the passenger’s side floor mat. Not only was Gricar not a smoker, but the people who knew him knew he abhorred cigarettes.

It soon became apparent that Ray’s laptop was missing. It wasn’t in his office and it wasn’t in the modest white bungalow he shared with Patty in Bellefonte, the county seat. There was no recent activity on his email. Nor his bank account. Nor his credit cards.

In the first days after his disappearance, local police and half a dozen state and federal agencies chased down a cascade of leads. There were sightings across the state and around the country, including one caller who claimed to have seen him at a taping of “The Oprah Winfrey Show” in Chicago.

Investigators mulled whether Gricar left voluntarily or was the victim of foul play. As years passed, the leads dried up and, eventually, the case was taken out of the hands of the Bellefonte police and given to the Pennsylvania State Police’s cold case unit. Gricar was declared dead in 2011.

Each year, like clockwork, a state police spokesman says the case is still open.

The investigators who worked the case prior to the state police takeover in 2014 say they were stuck in a bind. Once the leads were exhausted, what they had in essence was a missing persons case with virtually no physical evidence. It was a locked-car mystery with no body.

“You have the look,” Bellefonte Police Chief Shawn Weaver quipped the second time I met him to discuss the case.

That’s the kind dialogue you read in a Raymond Chandler novel or hear in a political thriller from the ’70s. This ain’t exactly All the President’s Men, but the case has taken on that kind of import in Centre County and on Internet message boards where sleuths and trolls proffer their own theories.

Even so, I knew what Weaver meant.

Over the course of nearly two years — longer if you include an earlier foray into the Gricar mystery for the 10th anniversary in 2015 — I’ve spoken with two dozen people in Gricar’s orbit and quite a few outside of it in an effort to figure out how a prominent district attorney could simply vanish.

I uncovered strands of evidence that, best as I can tell, were never fully explored during previous investigations. The process would take me across the country to meet others who had the look: heavy brow, tired eyes and a wry sense of humor about what they’d endured.

“You and your people need to know what you’re getting into.”

The informant met me at a greasy spoon off the interstate.

I was a mediocre Boy Scout but I still live the motto: “Be prepared.” I arrived 15 minutes early and asked the hostess for a table at the far end of the restaurant, away from other patrons, where we could talk discreetly with a clear line of sight to the entrance.

He arrived minutes later — another man who looks before he leaps — and settled in across from me. I had my notebook out with two pens at the ready but, initially, he waved them off.

“Listen,” he said. “Don’t start writing. I have something you need to hear. I mean, really hear.”

I set the ballpoint down and gave him my undivided attention.

“You and your people” — it amused me that he thought I had people but I made a point not to smile — “need to know what you’re getting into.”

Then the waitress arrived, a chipper middle-aged woman with chestnut hair. We ordered coffee. He hesitated, making vague complaints about his health while we awaited her return. Then he unloaded two creams and a packet of sugar into his. I sipped mine black.

“Your people need to know,” he continued, after some prodding, “that what you’re doing could be dangerous.”

He paused.

“Are you ready for that?”

“I don’t know if I would have taken the case if it was my decision.”

Speculation and innuendo fill the vacuum, Weaver and other investigators say, in the absence of any DNA to test or fingerprints to lift.

Uncertainty led to conspiracy theories. Some of Ray’s closest colleagues flamed out, publicly espousing such theories, running ill-considered campaigns for public office or, in one case, getting arrested for DUI and drug possession.

And Gricar’s office, which he led for 20 years with a kind of steady competence that earned the respect of his most ardent courtroom adversaries and political opponents, became a revolving door of “characters,” as a local judge described them.

One such character, Stacy Parks Miller, leveraged dissatisfaction over the Gricar investigation in her political campaign. Then her law license was suspended amid a scandal over, among other things, her use of a fake Facebook page to snoop on suspects and witnesses. Today, she advertises her services — on Facebook — as a media analyst.

In 2015, I ambushed Weaver at his office when my calls went unreturned. He was more receptive the second time around, although he was also more deflated in both the physical and metaphorical senses of the word. He, like me, lost weight. He also lost his filter. He was no longer interested in sugarcoating the absurdity of a small-town police department of 11 officers running such a massive investigation for so long.

Weaver took over in 2006 after Dixon retired. He immediately felt the pressure of what his predecessor dove headlong into.

“It’s a big undertaking for a small but professional police department to take on by itself and still do day-to-day calls,” he said. “I don’t know if I would have taken the case if it was my decision. I struggle with that now: Why the Bellefonte Borough police when, most likely, if there were a crime scene it would be out of our jurisdiction?”

I repeatedly pressed Dixon on this question but his answers were less than satisfying. The closest I got to an answer was that Bellefonte took jurisdiction because that’s where Gricar lived.

“I understood that if the car was found outside of Bellefonte, the state police were going to do the investigation,” he said. “But once the car was found, the detectives from the state police told my officers … they would assist in the investigation.”

Perhaps Weaver’s candor explains why, after our second interview, Weaver referred my calls to the current district attorney, Bernie Cantorna, who ignored them wholesale.

By the time I interviewed Weaver that second time, I had met enough people caught in the slipstream of the Ray Gricar case to know what the police chief meant by “the look.” Many of them, Weaver included, have “the look.”

As he leapfrogged from one clue, one letdown, one missed opportunity, to the next over the course of nearly four hours with me, he repeatedly shook his head and looked down at his patent leather shoes, bemused by it all.

There’s the walkaway theory, that Ray — 59 years old and nearing retirement — figured enough was enough, staged a mysterious trip to Lewisburg and fled for points unknown. But would he really abandon his girlfriend and, more importantly, his daughter Lara, whom friends say he was deeply committed to? What motive did he have to make his departure a big mystery when he was retiring anyway? And wouldn’t someone have heard from him in 15 years?

There’s the homicide theory, that someone Ray had prosecuted, was prosecuting or would prosecute took it upon themselves to knock him off. A lot of Sandusky conspiracy theories fall under this umbrella. But investigators can rattle off a number of leads they followed where the subjects had compelling alibis. And Ray’s body was never found.

And, finally, the suicide theory, that Ray — suffering from some mental anguish and unable to swim — jumped into the Susquehanna and his body was churned up by the inflatable dam downstream in Sunbury. Or maybe he found some other way to shuffle off this mortal coil while leaving no evidence of foul play.

Investigators eventually found Ray’s laptop, with its hard drive conspicuously removed, in the river near the Route 192 bridge in Lewisburg. A few months later, the hard drive was found upstream under an abandoned railroad trestle. No data could be recovered and, so, the discoveries only yielded more questions: Did Ray himself ditch them, as his final act before leaving town or killing himself? Or did somebody kill Ray in order to destroy whatever evidence was on his computer?

“What’s very frustrating about this case is that, like you and I are sitting talking about it now, I can’t just stay focused on one avenue because there’s no end to it,” Weaver said. “There’s a beginning. There’s a whole bunch of middle. And even within the middle, there’s so much ambiguity and what if’s and theories.”

It’s enough to drive anyone a little crazy.

“Just about anytime someone finds a body, it makes me think about Ray. I wonder if it’s him.”

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