The Christine Guenther Murder

In 1981, a small Western Pennsylvania suburb mourned the loss of a 15-year-old girl. Thirty years later, her peers speak up, insisting on justice. Learn more about this promising young woman, and help us finally put this mystery to rest.

PPG Article 11/6/11

 

Cold case warms up after billboard, Internet campaign
30 years later, still looking for answers
Sunday, November 06, 2011

In 1985, four years after his cousin Christine Guenther was murdered, Stuart Tomlinson stopped on the side of Cecil-Sturgeon Road in South Fayette, where her mud-spattered body was found beneath a pile of leaves.

As dusk fell, he stood silently and wondered.

"A life wasted, a life taken, and for what?" he said recently, recalling that moment. "It always comes back to that. Why? Why would someone do this? What would possibly motivate someone?"

Despite hundreds of interviews and hours of detective work by multiple agencies, no one has been able to answer that question. Today, three decades after her death, that remains the case.

But a Facebook group formed by Peters Township High School classmates has launched an effort to collect information about the case, plastering her face on fliers and yard signs. Their crowning project, a billboard in Peters, was unveiled Monday, the 30th anniversary of the date her body was found.

The case was also one of a handful selected for a second look by the Allegheny County Police homicide detectives, who received a grant to re-examine unsolved murders in 2009.

Her mother, Carmen Mader, said she was doubtful at first. But with the power of Facebook to gather people and spread information in ways that weren't possible before, she's more optimistic.

"At first I was really skeptical, but you just can't be around all these classmates and not feel hopeful," she said.

When Chris went missing, Peters was mostly a farming community. Strip malls and four-lane thoroughfares were not a dominant part of the landscape. Homicides were unheard of, Mrs. Mader said.

Mrs. Mader and her husband, Harry Guenther, who died in 2002, lived an "idyllic" family life, with two dogs and two children: Chris and Michael.

"Chris was like the perfect child," she said.

Mrs. Mader described her as sharp-tongued and strong-willed with little concern for nice things. She was tomboyish, played tennis well and confided in her mother about everything, Mrs. Mader said.

On Monday, Oct. 26, Chris left Peters High School early to take a bus from Donaldson's Crossroads on Route 19 to Downtown for a doctor's appointment. It was blustery, cold and rainy and Chris had an old bus schedule.

A woman who lived across the street from the bus stop saw the girl standing in the rain and went to fetch an umbrella for her. But when she went out to give it to her, she was already gone.

She never boarded the bus, never made it to her doctor's appointment and never made it back to her home in Peters, where her parents were waiting for her so they could head out to the Steelers game with her best friend, Chrissy Patrizio. When she didn't show, they called police.

Five days later, on Saturday afternoon, a hunter spotted the girl's face peeking out through a pile of leaves not far off of Cecil-Sturgeon Road in South Fayette. There, under a tangle of wet leaves and branches, Allegheny County police homicide detectives found her body, fully clothed, with $3 and an early-dismissal slip from Peters High School in her front pocket. They found what they described as "a hole" in the back of her head.

An autopsy revealed she had suffered a massive head wound, likely caused by "a hatchet, small axe or meat cleaver." There were other injuries on her body, including abrasions and bruises, but none from being bound.

Small circular burns marked her wrist and abdomen. Sanford Edberg, then the Allegheny County Coroner, said in an interview last week that the burns looked like they came from a lit cigarette.

Dr. Edberg concluded that she had been killed elsewhere because there was little blood found at the scene. An autopsy report said the way blood pooled in her body indicated it was moved after she died.

There were no signs of sexual assault, no signs that she had been drugged or robbed. That left police no motive and little evidence about her attacker. She had eaten, but police believed the food in her stomach was from a snack she grabbed while waiting at the bus stop, said Therese Rocco, who was head of the Pittsburgh Police missing persons unit at the time and assisted with the case.

In the autopsy report, Dr. Edberg said her body was "well-preserved" and put her time of death sometime in the 48 hours prior to the discovery of her body. That left at least three days when she was missing but apparently alive.

There were no shoe prints found at the scene, a wooded area blanketed with fallen leaves. County police declined to say if any other evidence had been found there. The discovery set off a frantic search for her killer. Hundreds more were interviewed -- her family, classmates and teachers at the high school, neighbors and businesses at Donaldson's Crossroads. They also interviewed a bevy of potential suspects: sexual offenders in the area, convicts recently released from prison.

Regis Kelly, who as a county homicide detective was part of the original investigation, has worked on the case over the years. He now works for the state attorney general's office. He questioned serial killers in other states, attempting to link them to unsolved homicides in the area, including Chris's, but nothing panned out. Agent Kelly said he looked for links between her killing and the unsolved murders of other young women in the area, but they bore no resemblance.

Investigators believes she probably got into a car with someone at Donaldson's Crossroads that day, perhaps because it was raining and the bus she was waiting for didn't come.

"There's a great possibility she knew the abductor because there's no indication of a witness of a struggle and that was 1:20 in the afternoon," said county police Assistant Superintendent James Morton.

A few people said they spotted the girl in the days after she disappeared, but Agent Kelly believes they were likely mistaken. He believes that after she went missing from the bus stop, whoever took her held her captive and that "her fate was pretty much sealed."

"All we have is her at that bus stop at Donaldson's Crossroads," he said. "The next thing we know for certain is she was in that wooded area on Saturday afternoon. That's what makes it difficult. That time span. And there's nothing concrete in between."

At one point, investigators looked into the possibility that a man gunned down by state troopers in April of 1988, who was later linked to a series of rapes and murders, abducted Chris, but the connection didn't pan out. Agent Kelly said that of the hundreds of people interviewed, some were definitively cleared, but "others were never completely eliminated," he said. Still, there was never enough evidence gathered to charge a particular person.

The tips thinned out over the years. Chief Harry Freucht of the Peters Township Police Department, who started working there in the late 1980s, said his department last followed up on a lead in the mid-1990s.

For her part, Mrs. Mader said living in Peters became unbearable. The squeak of school bus brakes, which once hearkened the return of her daughter from school, "drove me crazy."

The Maders moved to Mount Washington with their son, Michael, where Mrs. Mader went to work for Pittsburgh city Councilwoman Michelle Madoff. She started an organization, Save the Kids, which helped families cope when their children went missing, recalling the torture of those five days. The couple later divorced, and Mrs. Mader remarried, moving to Florida in the late 1980s.

After the 10th anniversary of her daughter's death, she surrendered any hope that her daughter's killer would be found.

"Within the first 24 hours, if anything going to be found that's when it's going to happen," she said. "After 10 years, it was dim."

In 2009, county police received a grant to take a second look at a handful of cold cases. Detective Larry Carpico, lauded by former colleagues as one of the most thorough, was assigned Chris's case. He committed suicide in August of this year.

Before Detective Carpico's death, Superintendent Morton said he was looking for an analyst to re-examine a piece of evidence. He declined to go into detail, saying revealing too much could compromise the case.

The billboard was posted Monday and since media coverage of the anniversary was aired and printed, tips have started to come in again. By Friday, investigators had received about a dozen tips, some from people who thought they spotted the girl around the same time, others from people who overheard acquaintances talking about the incident.

"This individual, this killer, has been out there for the last 30 years and over those years has interacted with hundreds of people," said Agent Kelly. "That's why you always hold that hope."

Anyone with information about the murder or disappearance of Christine Guenther is asked to call Allegheny County Police Homicide at 412-473-3000. For more information about the group, Friends of Christine Guenther, visit www.chrisguenthermurder.com.

 

Moriah Balingit: mbalingit@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2533.

 

Photo's courtesy of PPG.