- Associated Press - Saturday, June 13, 2015

BEAVER, Pa. (AP) - When Laura Pettler was 17, it would have been easy for someone who didn’t really know her to assume that she didn’t have much of a future ahead of her, that she would be another statistic.

As a teenage mother who struggled to graduate from Beaver Area High School, self-determination kicked in. A lifelong interest in serving her community, along with a love of mysteries and detective work, began to shape her path.

Pettler grew up on Fourth Street in Beaver. Surrounded by family, friends and neighbors, Pettler said she had a wonderful childhood. She remains close to some of her elementary school friends. She loved music and played in musical theater, including a production of “Annie Get Your Gun” at the Brodhead Cultural Center. She also participated in academic games and Girl Scouts.

Another interest was piqued during her younger years: crime.

Pettler grew up fascinated with such shows as “Unsolved Mysteries” and a segment of “3, 2, 1 Contact” on PBS called “The Bloodhound Gang,” about a group of kids who solved mysteries. She also read mystery novels, “Nancy Drew” books among them.

Then, a real-life mystery close to home caught her attention.

In February 1985, 8-year-old Cherrie Mahan got off her school bus in Butler County and was never seen again. What happened to her remains a mystery. Investigators at the time had one vital clue: a blue van with a picture of a skier on the side.

Pettler said she became fascinated with Mahan’s disappearance and the blue van.

She can rattle off a list of the kids she walked to school with each day, some of whom she is still close with. As they walked, she kept a watchful eye on the road.

“I would watch the road for the blue van,” Pettler remembers. If she saw a van she thought looked suspect, she would scream, “Blue van. Hit the deck!”

Even as a young child, the case got under her skin.

“I was always watching. I have looked for that blue van my whole life,” she said.

High school is something Pettler remembers as a dark time in her life. She became a mother and found some of her teachers to be more callous than encouraging.

Despite struggling through school as a young mother, Pettler had strong influences, including her father, Donald Pettler, and an uncle, Leonard Pedreira, who was an FBI agent.

Pettler graduated in 1993, and she knew she needed to change her path. “I did everything I could to support my daughter,” Pettler said.

She went to the Community College of Beaver County, where she earned a 4.0 grade-point average for two semesters, and then she came up with a 20-year plan. Her ultimate goal was to earn a doctorate by the time her daughter, Alexis, graduated from high school.

She would settle for nothing less.

“I’m very OCD. I have to finish something completely,” she said.

Pettler studied psychology at Geneva College and then went to Youngstown State University and eventually went on to get a Ph.D. in public safety from Capella University, just a few months after her daughter graduated.

Pettler’s philosophy is that she is not afraid to fail, she is only afraid to not have an opportunity to try.

“I’ve had to create my own path,” Pettler said. “Everything I’ve ever done was because I went out and created it. I made it happen.”

Initially, Pettler wanted to work in the prison system. “I thought I could rehabilitate violent offenders,” she said. “I no longer believe that. I didn’t know enough about psychology at that time.”

Also, her father and uncle weren’t on board with that plan. “They decided I would not work in prisons. Period,” she said.

She went on to help others, but in a different capacity.

Now living in North Carolina, she became a forensic criminologist and works as an investigator and deputy coroner. She specializes in intimate partner homicide.

She founded Carolina Forensics and is also vice president of the American Investigative Society of Cold Cases. Part of her career takes her around the country consulting with police departments on unsolved homicide cases.

Pettler developed something called the Kaleidoscope system, which uses lasers to help police track the trajectory of bullets. Her product is not only used by police departments in real life, but it has been featured on several popular crime dramas, including “NCIS,” ”CSI: Las Vegas” and “Rizzoli & Isles.”

Pettler has also just written the first book for police about crime scene staging, where a homicide is made to look like a suicide or an accident. She travels around the country teaching investigators what to look for and how to investigate such deaths. She has even taught the class to police in Italy.

Pettler hasn’t forgotten where she came from or some of her other early loves.

In addition to her work in crime, she also sings and has recorded albums. She returns to Beaver County as often as she can to visit family and her childhood friends.

She has also volunteered her time to help the Beaver County Detectives Bureau and other local police departments on some unsolved cases.

“My whole life is dedicated to helping other people,” she said.

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Online:

https://bit.ly/1HUpD8i

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Information from: Beaver County Times, https://www.timesonline.com/

Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC.

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