TYRONE, Pa. (AP) - Fifty years ago seems like a long time, but when it comes to the disappearance of little Kathy Shea as she was on her way to the Adams Elementary School at West 17th Street and Adams Avenue in Tyrone, the memories and feelings and sadness do not fade.
To those who experienced the traumatic event that began in the afternoon hours of March 18, 1965, Kathy’s pleasant, 6-year-old demeanor reflected in her school photo that has been used thousands of times in relation to her story, the scenarios of what could have happened never end.
“I still have the feeling Kathy is still alive,” said her second cousin, Susan Rhoades, who was in the sixth grade at Adams school and remembers her first thoughts when nobody could find Kathy after school had dismissed for the day, a Thursday.
“I was just very upset and puzzled, not processing it as a sixth-grader. I was very alarmed and confused,” she said.
It’s the lack of closure after so many decades that bothers Rhoades and causes her to think repeatedly about what could have happened.
To Rhoades, it was like the pavement at the intersection of West 15th Street and Garfield Street, near where Kathy was last seen, opened up and Kathy fell in.
Then the pavement closed.
“It would be such a blessing to have closure. It would be wonderful if she is alive,” said Rhoades.
Cary Simpson, who has owned radio station WTRN in Tyrone for the past 60 years, said his recollection of the strange yet emphatic disappearance of a child who was the same age as his daughter Barbara was “almost disbelief.”
His radio station - a childhood dream of his - acted as a “conduit” for police and the town’s civil defense agency as they coordinated the long search that followed the stunning realization that a child of theirs on her way to kindergarten had mysteriously disappeared within a block or two, and within sight, of the school.
“It was horrible,” Simpson said.
“I think all of the citizens of the county were shocked and hurt and concerned, but (after all these years), it came to the point there didn’t seem much more could be done….
“I think the people after a while came to just feel sad,” he said.
State Police Trooper Terry Summers, the lead cold-case investigator in the Kathy Shea case, said despite the fact the Hollidaysburg barracks over the years have had some very seasoned investigators in charge of the case - officers like Fred Leamer, who served 35 years; Thomas Semelsberger, who is in charge of the criminal division; and Trooper David Aiello, who is involved in many local homicide investigations - the disappearance remains unresolved.
Summers, who has recently replaced Trooper Pat Snyder as the lead investigator, is still learning about Kathy Shea, reviewing thousands of pages of reports, tips, interviews and other clues, all contained in a stack of blue-colored notebooks and brown cardboard boxes at the barracks.
“Obviously, she was abducted,” he said.
Then he reported tips keep coming in, including one very recent email referred to state police from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.
It’s been 50 years, Summers said, but the police will not close the file, not at least for another 50 years, not until everyone who possibly could have been connected to the case has passed.
A tragic day
Tyrone in the 1960s was a carefree town of many neighborhoods, each with its own school.
There was Washington, Logan, St. Matthew’s, Oak Ridge, Grazierville and Adams, all elementary schools in the area.
Kathy Shea was a student at Adams, located at West 17th Street and Adams Avenue.
That building has become a Graystone apartment complex, reconstructed by the contractor Jeff Long, but back in 1965 it was the school that educated youngsters who lived in a pleasant neighborhood of well-maintained homes.
There were lots of trees, and Tyrone’s Gray Veterans Memorial Field, the high school football stadium, was located in the Adams school backyard.
Susan Griep, who works in Blair County District Attorney’s office, said Tyrone at the time of Kathy’s disappearance was a town where children could go out and play - get on their bikes and go.
She remembers one person in her neighborhood had a bell, and when it would ring, the kids knew it was dinner time.
Another person from Tyrone said the kids knew it was time to go home and eat when the whistle would sound at the former Westvaco paper mill, a major employer in the borough.
Young mothers at the time were homemakers for the most part.
They readied their children in the morning, or in Kathy’s case, at noon, to attend school, and they watched out of the windows of their homes or from their front porches as the children trudged just a couple of blocks to the school.
The children walked to the school.
And this was a point made by Rhoades, Kathy’s second cousin - their grandmothers were sisters - when she talked about Tyrone and March 18, 1965.
Rhoades was a sixth-grader who walked to school in the morning, then went home for lunch. After lunch, she walked back to the school.
She often saw Kathy along the way. The two would meet up at West 16th Street and North Avenue and travel the last block to the Adams front door.
So on that snowy March day when Kathy disappeared, Mary Alice Shea, Kathy’s mother, dressed her daughter for the cold, wet March weather.
Kathy wore a dark brown hat, a light colored coat with a fur collar, a red sweater, red tights and red gloves and very distinctive yellow boots.
A state police depiction of the boots showed they were bright yellow with coal-black bottoms, sort of a bumblebee design.
Rhoades, whose maiden name was Fern, said the family knew Kathy was excited that day because she had just had her tonsils out and experienced the chicken pox.
Kathy’s first day back was the day before.
Rhoades said her sister Val and brother Doug had been in the hospital with Kathy, and the trio had fun together. They would peek under the hospital doors at each other and laugh. The three planned a sleepover at the home of Kathy’s grandparents, Simon and Anna Harpster.
The sleepover was to occur on Friday night, March 19, and Kathy, Rhoades knew, was looking forward to her weekend.
Kathy lived with her two brothers, Todd and Kevin, her mother, Mary Alice, and father, James, a papermill foreman, at 513 W. 14th St., a relatively new home. It was less than half a mile from the school.
In an interview with the Mirror in 2005, James Shea, who has since died, said he arrived home for lunch just after noon on March 18. He offered to drive his daughter to Adams, but in his last conversation with her father, Kathy told him, “No, Dad, I like walking in the snow.”
Rhoades that day had gone to school in the morning, but as fate would have it, she did not meet up with Kathy on the way back for the afternoon session.
It was a typical kid’s problem, Rhoades said. She was smitten with a patrol boy who was on duty that day at West 17th Street and Adams Avenue, and she was upset at the way he had talked to her that morning, so instead of venturing home at noon through the front door of the school, she left by way of the back door.
She followed the same route on the way back to school, which meant she was a block away from the usual spot where she would often meet up with her cousin.
“What if..,” Rhoades posed when she talked about Kathy’s disappearance several years ago during a “Sing Out” for homicide victims held by Blair County’s Victim-Witness office.
Kathy can’t be found
Judy Norris, who was in her first year of a 34-year career as a school teacher, wasn’t concerned when Kathy didn’t appear for afternoon roll call in her kindergarten class.
“She’d been ill that week. … There was no reason to wonder why she was not there,” Norris explained.
On the other end, Kathy’s mother, Mary Alice, left the two boys with their grandmother, and she went on errands.
She was not aware Kathy had not arrived at Adams.
When Kathy was late coming home, Mary Alice began to call around. Rhoades said the first place she called was her home, knowing of course the kids were planning a sleepover and that they were friends.
It didn’t take long for Mary Alice’s ensuing desperation and panic to spread throughout the community.
Norris said she had just gotten home when she received a call asking if Kathy had been in school that day.
The first-year teacher went back to the school with others, and they searched everywhere, she said, from the basement to crawl spaces, the upstairs and the bathrooms and closets.
“We knew we had a problem,” she said.
But, by evening, the problem didn’t just belong to the school. It was a community problem.
State and local police became involved. The local Civil Defense Agency under the leadership of Robert K. “Spike” Merrits was activated, and citizens young and old responded.
A massive town-wide search began.
Vergie Werner, a longtime reporter for the Mirror and the Tyrone Daily Herald, was the Sheas’ next door neighbor and a lifelong friend of Mary Alice. She was present in the Shea’s living room that night as people arrived to offer their help.
Werner participated in one of the largest manhunt’s in the state’s history up to that point.
It carried on for the next 11 days and reportedly involved thousands of searchers.
Werner, in the dual role as community member and reporter, said she was among those who searched streams and holes, and backyards, and the woods.
People “went this place and that place,” Werner said.
She said she wanted Kathy found, but she didn’t want Kathy to be found in the water or some place and not be alive.
“I wanted her to be found and she was going to be OK,” Werner said.
One of the bristling searchers that horrible night was Mary Michaels-Wilcox.
She was a senior in high school and was scheduled to attend a club meeting, but then she and a friend heard there was a little girl missing.
They joined the search.
Her friend lived on West 16th Street, Kathy’s neighborhood, and they were told to go through the block, look in the bushes, in garbage cans, anywhere they could, and that’s what they did.
Michaels-Wilcox felt much like Werner as she was opening the tops of garbage cans. She was frightened by what she might find as she pulled off the tops of the cans.
She and her friend used flashlights on that cold night to do their part, but in looking back, as a searcher she didn’t know what they were looking for - only a young girl.
She received no information about Kathy’s was wardrobe, the distinctive yellow boots.
There could have been something in all those garbage cans, but, given the situation, she said, “Nobody would have noticed.”
She said the whistle at the mill was supposed to go off if Kathy was found. The whistle went off that night, giving everybody a sense of relief, only it was a mistake. Kathy had not been located.
Today, Wilcox expresses disbelief at what the community went through that night and in the days following.
“We were so used to walking back and forth to school. I walked to Adams all my life, and we never thought of this happening,” she said.
School was not called off. It continued as usual, said Norris, who spent several days working with state police and other authorities as the investigation widened. A substitute teacher filled in for her.
“We tried to keep things as usual as we could,” said Norris, who these days remains active as a businesswoman.
Norris said a block parent program was eventually started for students in Tyrone under which certain safe homes were identified as places of refuge if students were frightened by strangers.
The Kathy Shea disappearance made Norris more aware and certainly cognizant that Tyrone, although a small community, was not immune to such horrific events.
There hasn’t been a year go by that Norris doesn’t remember Kathy.
“I don’t think that anyone in this community (and the whole area) that was living here doesn’t think about it,” Norris said.
Simpson said the ongoing investigation was being led by Tyrone attorney Ben Jones, who has since died.
He said Jones, the deputy director of civil defense, worked from a command center in the basement of the Adams school, and WTRN was available at all times to publish bulletins or news of the search.
He said the community has changed a good bit since 1965, with many of the workers transferring to other Westvaco facilities when Westvaco closed the paper mill (the mill remains open today under different ownership).
Many newcomers have moved to Tyrone, but those who have remained in Tyrone remember.
“It was just horrible, just dreading the fact that nothing at all developed, everybody just feeling so sorry for the family,” he said.
The story of the ongoing search was told day-by-day in the news media.
“Kathy Ann Shea Disappears on Way to School,” stated the Mirror in its March 19 headline.
“Snow Covering Clues to Trail of Tyrone Girl,” said the Mirror on March 20.
“The shocking impact surrounding the disappearance of 6-year-old Kathy Ann Shea continued to shake this community today as the search for the missing kindergartner entered its second week without success,” stated the Harrisburg Evening News on March 26.
On March 26, a body allegedly was floating in the Juniata River.
“Another Tip Backfires in Kathy Ann Case,” the Mirror reported.
Gov. William Scranton activated the National Guard.
On March 29, the headline read: “Massive Search for Kathy Ann Called off.”
Ten full days failed to turn up a clue.
State Police Trooper Fred L. Leamer had a sterling 35-year career in law enforcement, but despite his many accolades, he was frustrated by the Kathy Shea case.
Leamer was among the original investigators who arrived in Tyrone during those first days, and he stayed with the case even after retiring 17 years later.
“Fred Leamer. He worked diligently,” Norris said as she remembered one of his goals was to solve the Kathy Shea mystery.
Werner said Leamer used to re-visit Tyrone on occasion and came to know the town and its people and vice versa.
During the initial year of the investigation of Kathy’s disappearance, it was reported by United Press International that Leamer and other officers had put 13,000 hours into the investigation and that more than 2,000 individuals had been interviewed.
While the child’s disappearance keyed one of the largest investigations ever in Pennsylvania, the very next year an even larger manhunt occurred when the “Mountain Man,” also known as “Bicycle Pete” (William Hollenbaugh), kidnapped a 17-year-old high school student, Peggy Ann Bradnick, from a bus in Shade Gap, just 30 miles south of Tyrone.
Residents turned their attention to the massive, weeklong manhunt for Hollenbaugh, who killed an FBI agent, Terry Anderson, as he and his young victim stormed through the mountains of south-central Pennsylvania.
Leamer quickly dismissed Hollenbaugh as a culprit in the Kathy Shea case, noting Hollenbaugh didn’t drive but was known for traveling through the community on a bike.
Hollenbaugh was eventually killed by a trooper during the Peggy Bradnick rescue operation.
Leamer throughout the years traveled the country pursuing leads.
The case has recently been turned over to Trooper Terry Summers, and he said tips are still coming into the barracks and are being pursued.
He mentioned police at one point dug into an abandoned well because of a tip.
What he revealed about Kathy’s disappearance indicated at least one promising lead that never panned out.
Reviewing the files Summers said a patrol boy named James related that back in November or December of 1964, he was approached by a man in dark car. He wanted the boy to point out Kathy Shea. The 11-year-old pointed her out as she was walking with two other children.
Then on March 17, 1965, the day before Kathy disappeared, a man of similar appearance (between 45-50, needing to shave) was seen in the area of the school, not by one but by two patrol boys.
The next day, a neighborhood parent, Beth Ann Fuoss, 31, was escorting her daughter to school, and she noticed a man in an worn car, but she didn’t pay much attention to him after he sped by her along the water-covered street.
Kathy Shea in her trip to school was to have walked from her home on West 14th Street to North Avenue and then continued on a straight shot toward the school, passing West 15th Street, where a retired railroad worker and school guard, Octave Long, talked to Kathy.
Fuoss also talked to Kathy.
As Kathy was proceeding toward the school, police said twins girls named Sylvia and Martha looked around and saw Kathy. This was in the area of North Avenue and West 16th Street. When the twins again looked behind them, she had disappeared.
Bloodhounds tracked Kathy to that area, Garfield Street and North Avenue, leading investigators to believe she may have entered a vehicle at that point.
Summers said, “Nobody could ever give a detailed description of that car.”
He said police searched Blair County, Cambria County and other surrounding cities and locations for the car. They even sent a letter to PennDOT in Harrisburg, where a hand search of records was performed, hopefully leading to the suspect vehicle.
The state police had a composite drawing of the man prepared, showing him bareheaded and with a hat.
“We searched high and low for that car. Nobody was able to put a name to the man or give a better description,” Trooper Summers stated.
Each state police station has a criminal investigative unit that reviews cold cases. Each cold-case investigator must periodically show he is doing something concerning the investigation, said Summers.
Seasoned investigators also review the cold cases and offer suggestions where to go next, the Trooper said.
Summers said police will not give up in their attempt to discover what happened to Kathy Shea.
Information from: Altoona Mirror, https://www.altoonamirror.com
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