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In the name of the daughter

published August 28, 1994


Times Staff Writer

HONESDALE, Pa. — Summer is good to Honesdale.

Here in the southern edge of the Pocono Mountains, sweet corn is chest high by late July. Fields and woods are lush and swollen, unassailably verdant.

Between June and September, kids at summer camps, tourists and seasonal residents from New York City swell the area's population by three times. Merchants do brisk trade and the ice cream stands are open past dark.

Volunteer firefighters lean chairs against the firehouse wall, tell stories about fishing trips on Lake Wallenpaupack and watch the teenagers flirt with each other along Main Street.

Here, murders make better gossip than mysteries.

A boyfriend will take an ax to his lover. A man will hack his sleeping mother with a machete. A lovers' quarrel with one suitor too many will end with one man dead upstairs from a bar.

Such killings, whose suspects and motives reveal themselves quickly to police, do not linger long unsolved. Disposed of quickly, they are unlikely to prick the conscience of the townspeople with questions of collective shame.

Perhaps then it makes sense that the only unsolved murder in Wayne County involves a young woman who came from somewhere else.

On July 27, three years ago, Laura Lynne Ronning, a 24-year-old camp counselor from St. Petersburg, left camp for a two-mile hike through through the woods to a small waterfall several miles north of Honesdale.

She was raped and murdered somewhere near the falls and her partially clothed body was found a day later. She had been shot in the head.

There was a burst of activity in the first days and weeks, but that has subsided with the dwindling stream of leads.

Now, at times, it appears Laura's family stands its vigil alone.

Each year, the family comes to Honesdale on the anniversary of her murder. In the beginning they came to mourn Laura. Now, precisely because of what hasn't happened in the past three years, they come to challenge the authorities.

The visits create a palpable tension. The family's presence is an intentional reminder that everything is not right in a small town whose residents describe themselves as "hometown people that you know."

Once a year, investigators have to look Laura's parents in the face and explain what they are doing to catch the killer.

They squirm as stories appear in the local papers and on the television news about the anniversary and the failure to close the case. They become defensive when longtime political foes accuse them of amateurishly botching the investigation.

The townspeople, too, must reckon with the murder. They cannot avoid the bright pink fliers bearing Laura's picture that adorn shop windows along Main Street.

Some, particularly the owners of the camp where Laura worked, seem perturbed that her family refuses to let the case, and their daughter, rest.

Others mourn for the family, but they know also that one of their own may be responsible. It is possible that the killer came and went, but the only named suspect lived in town and his family is still there.

In the middle, Pat and John Gicking, Laura's mother and stepfather, yearn to bring an end to the story. Until an arrest is made, until a conviction is won, they will be inextricably linked to a town they would rather leave behind them.

"I shouldn't have to keep coming up here," Pat, 47, says in a soft voice that has held onto a little bit of Brooklyn all these years. There's no money just lying around to pay for these 1,200-mile trips.

"The commitment was that I would do it until her murder was solved," she says. "But there may come a day when you say, "I can't do it anymore.' "

At this point, her voice trails off and she reaches for a pack of cigarettes on the table. But in the time it takes to light it, she has already dismissed that thought as impracticable.

"Right now, I don't see where I have any choice."

A passion for children

In the family's sun-splashed home movies, Laura is always in motion.

She's a toddler running away with her mom in pursuit. She's a pigtailed 11-year-old cavorting with her uncle in the backyard pool. She's a teenager leaping across the lens like a ballerina.

"She was always in a hurry," Pat Gicking says.

At 15, Laura, a devout Lutheran, helped her mother, who was leading a Girl Scout troop. After a stint working at McDonald's, she took over a troop of her own for four years.

Even at a young age, she had a preternatural gift for organization. If there were Christmas caroling to be planned, Laura did it. If there were wedding photographs to be taken, Laura would handle it.

She planned carefully, keeping all her receipts, even marking down the mileage she drove. She had a picture of the wedding dress she wanted, even though she had no plans to be married soon.

Children were her passion. She laughed easily with them, and coaxed them gently to try new experiences. People felt she was destined to be a teacher.

The only thing getting in her way was money. There wasn't any to pay for college, so Laura took a job working as an assistant accountant at Allstate Insurance. There she befriended Judy McCain.

To McCain's way of thinking, paper pushing was a terrible waste of Laura's "natural warmth" with children. Laura babysat for McCain's twins, Katie and Steven, now 9{, and many nights after the children were in bed Laura and Judy would talk for a couple of hours in the kitchen.

McCain pushed her to give up the full-time job in favor of a part-time one at a local church preschool. The money was enough to help her through junior college and from there she earned a scholarship to study education at Florida State University.

Tamara Meese remembers meeting Laura at a fraternity party at FSU. They were both dating men in the frat. The men didn't last, but their friendship did.

"There was always crayons and paste and paper and scissors all over her room," Meese says. "I always wondered where her creativity came from."

Meese had planned to work as a counselor with Laura at Camp Cayuga, but she decided instead to go to summer school to get a jump on her course work. All that summer, she and Laura wrote to each other. Laura's letters came in elaborately colored envelopes and she talked about how they would decorate their room with curtains to match the paint.

At camp, Rhonda Parr was waiting to reunite with her newest best friend from the summer before. She and Laura had been co-counselors in a cabin of 6- and 7-year-old girls the year before, but this summer they decided to break up the team so that they could have the same days off.

"We'd just throw bubblegum at the map and go," Parr says. They headed to the shore, rafted through whitewater rapids, rode horses, or just drove aimlessly, in search of something they'd never seen before.

The weekend Laura was killed, Rhonda and she had planned to go to Tanners Falls. Rhonda suggested they go by horse, but at the last minute Rhonda decided to join a group of other counselors who were going to make the last trip of the summer to the Jersey shore.

"Maybe if I had pressed her a little harder I could have convinced her to go to the shore," Parr says. "That kind of stuff can eat you up."

About 11 a.m., Laura walked into the camp office to sign out. Then she headed across the field to the narrow, grassy path that would take her to the falls.

Then the trees swallowed up the forest green of her favorite shirt and she was gone.

Fearing the worst

Jim Howley's bloodhound, Sherlock, was all eager muscle straining at the end of the leash.

In the ripening hours of dawn, Howley felt nothing but confidence. Laura Ronning would be found and quickly. Everything told him so.

They had a good scent off her pillow case. They knew exactly where she entered the woods, they had a path to follow and they knew she was going to Tanners Falls.

"They were certain something was wrong," Howley says. "But I said, "Hey, we've found people alive after three days.' "

On the morning of July 28, 1991, he believed Sherlock would deliver.

Sherlock soon lost a strong scent and it took several hours to make it to the edge of the falls. Once there, however, he picked up a strong scent again; Howley had to yank back hard on the 20-foot leash to keep the dog from diving off the rock.

Howley recommended that volunteers begin combing the woods around. Local firefighters, as many as 20 or more of them, massed at the falls.

That morning, while John was in the shower and Pat was still in bed, the camp director called to tell them that Laura was missing. Pat says now that she already knew Laura was dead.

Pat has recollected often since then that, for a reason she cannot explain, she had had urged Laura not to return to Camp Cayuga for the second summer. She looked into a lifeguard job for Laura in Pinellas County that would have paid $3,000.

Laura was adamant, though. Florida was too hot and besides, she loved the rolling countryside of northeastern Pennsylvania.

"You can't stop your children from wanting to live," Gicking says.

At 11:30 a.m., just over 24 hours after Laura signed out from camp, one of the searchers looking up the hill glimpsed white skin amid the unbroken green and brown of the forest.

The autopsy and ballistics tests would show she had been shot once in the left temple with a .22-caliber bullet, probably from a long-barreled rifle with a rectangular firing pin. She had been raped and there were marks on her arms that indicated she had tried to defend herself.

Worry from afar

In the beginning, the Gickings trusted implicitly what the troopers from the Pennsylvania State Police told them. They were so deferential right after the murder that they chose not to go to the place where Laura's body was found.

"I figured, let them do their job, let's not interfere," John Gicking says.

On the first anniversary, they came back with other members of the family to erect a cross of white-painted redwood that John had made in the family's garage in their Pinellas Point neighborhood. They asked a local minister in Honesdale to attend the ceremony, but he refused on scriptural grounds.

Pat Gicking, who does not daunt easily, stood next to the cross, which reads: "Laura Lynne Ronning. Murdered July 27, 1991," and explained why they had come:

"We do not come here to curse the land or to build an altar." She borrowed the words from the minister and jabbed at his piousness.

But on the second anniversary, they acceded to officials' request that they keep a low profile when they were in Honesdale. They were told publicity could harm the investigation, which was at a sensitive stage.

But months passed and the Gickings heard little from the state police to encourage them. Once, several months after the murder, they were asked what color Laura's knapsack was. By then it was too late to find out, because the store had purged its records, Pat says.

They had a growing sense that because they were not in Honesdale, the investigation was not being pursued diligently. With financial help from a family friend, a private investigator was hired.

Bob Horan is a white-haired cheroot-smoking former FBI investigator who retired out of the Scranton bureau. Horan said he only wanted to cooperate with the police and he forwarded names and leads to them. He isn't sure whether investigators did anything with the information.

But the thing that really tested the relationship between the Gickings and the investigators happened about 10 months after the murder and it had to do with two rings Laura had been wearing.

From the beginning, say the Gickings, the State Police assured them that the rings, a high school ring and a blue-sapphire family ring, had been taken into evidence with her other belongings.

Then they got a call from a trooper. He said he didn't know where the rings were and wanted to know the name of the funeral home where Laura's body had been taken so he could ask the funeral director if he remembered seeing the rings.

Now the state police deny ever having had the rings but the jewelry is indisputably missing.

"What do I have to do?" Pat Gicking asks. "Dig her up out of the ground to find out if the rings are still on her? That's ridiculous."

To Bob Jennings, a former coroner in Honesdale who has made a career of dressing down the state police, there is meaning to the rings beyond their emotional significance to the family. They are lost evidence and lost evidence means a bungled investigation, he says.

He reels off a list of stinging criticism: the crime scene was trampled, the autopsy was needlessly delayed a day, responsibility for the investigation passed through too many hands, outside expertise was rejected, and a search warrant was executed 15 months after the murder.

"In my opinion it'll never be solved with the police work that was done," Jennings says.

Nonsense, authorities reply.

Mark Zimmer, the Wayne County District Attorney who inherited this case, despises Jennings so much that he won't even refer to him by name. He says Jennings is just bitter that he was voted out of office and can't get back in.

"I'll tell you what aggravates me," Zimmer says, kicking into a well-practiced speech. "What aggravates me is that three years ago, a 24-year-old woman was murdered and I don't have somebody to prosecute.

"Every stinking day I know he's out there and I don't have him."

The reason authorities don't have him, Zimmer says, is not because of incompetence, but because of the difficulties of the case: a crime scene in the middle of 9,000 acres of state gamelands, the killer's 24-hour head start and the lack of an obvious motive.

Everything was done by the book, says Trooper Herman Todd, the lead investigator on the case. The area was protected, he says, and "even so, nobody was allowed up here anyway."

Tests for clothing fibers and hair and bodily fluids are "automatic," he says, but he won't say whether any such evidence had been recovered.

"After three years, I have no idea who's telling the truth," Pat Gicking says. "Isn't that sad?"

Making Laura "real'

Just like the last few years, there is no family vacation for the Gickings.

Instead, on Tuesday, July 26, Pat Gicking and her close friend and traveling companion Karen Liniewicz are sitting in a diner in Honesdale. Pat is picking slowly over her breakfast, contemplating why she has come and what she will do in the next four days.

She wants to retrace Laura's steps around town using her letters and scrupulous record-keeping to guide her. Pat hopes that she might jog someone's memory and unearth a piece of information that might solve the crime.

But also, she wanted to "just kind of make Laura more real."

Pat spends the first day speaking with people like Zimmer and the lead investigators. Armed with a list of questions, she is with them behind closed doors for more than an hour, rarely getting an answer more substantial than "We can't say. It's an ongoing investigation."

She is pleased, however, that they have agreed to look at information she has compiled from Horan and others.

Outside the courthouse, she is interviewed by a television reporter. She's composed until the reporter baits her with a question guaranteed to produce tears for the camera: what's it like to lose your daughter?

"How do you tell someone what it's like to live without your daughter?" Pat says, turning away and waving her hand as if to shut off the camera.

Still, she permits the interview to continue, because she wants them to show the pink flier she has made and include the phone number people should use to call in leads. Watching the evening news later, she is disappointed that they do neither.

That night she and Karen go to the Wayne Hotel for dinner. The Wayne is a popular hangout for the camp counselors and Laura came there often on her nights off. It's the first time Pat has been inside the place though she has driven by many times.

There's no one else in the dining room. After they finish their steaks, they give the bartender a pink flier.

"Who's Laura's mom?" the young woman asks and Pat nods. "I'm so sorry.

"I remember the summer she was in here. I really liked her. But I thought they solved that last year. They had a suspect."

"They couldn't pin it on him," Pat says.

The next morning she is picking out plants she will place at the cross at midday, which is about the time that officials believe Laura may have been killed. Because nothing she has done since Laura's death has been accidental, Pat chose the plants with care and with wry humor.


At the cross, by the side of a dirt road leading to the falls, Pat turns on a tape recording of Laura's Girl Scout troop singing. The only people there are Pat and Karen, four members of the media and a state game official.

"Guess it's just us guys this year," Pat says.

She reads haltingly from a prepared statement and then hugs Karen.

After a few minutes, Pat descends the steep slope to get to the place, 32 feet below, where Laura's body was found.

It's strange, she says later, but she didn't feel anything while she was down there. Other places around town, such as the road leading to the camp and the Kmart where Laura shopped, cause such strong reactions in Pat that she will not go there. Even the soothing drone of monks singing hymns cannot counteract the anxiety.

Thursday, she and Karen walk the length of Main Street, stopping in stores to hand out fliers. They don't see any of the plain white fliers that officials say they have distributed.

One woman in a bakery begins to cry.

"I didn't have one person say to me, "No, I won't put this in the window.' " Pat says. "The people in town want this solved. Maybe the people in charge want this to go away, but the people in town want this solved."

On the next to last day of her four-day trip to Honesdale, she and Karen are standing outside the courthouse. It begins to rain and a woman in her 50s offered them an umbrella.

The three began to talk and the older woman asked what brought them to Honesdale. Pat told her and the woman offered her sympathy. She said she was grieving, too; her fiance had died of a heart attack four days before.

Then the woman asked if she could say a Hail Mary with them. The three women hugged and recited the prayer in the rain.

"Isn't that strange?" Pat says.

One man in focus

For Pat to think about the next anniversary and what she will do to commemorate it, is to concede that there is a chance the murder will not have been solved by then.

"The next time I go up, I'd like to be going to a trial," she says confidently.

The probability of that appears slim right now.

Officials claim to have ruled out 50 suspects, but there are some avenues they seem to have ignored. Like the two men that Rhonda Parr says stalked her and Laura from town four nights before the murder. Parr says police never showed her any pictures of suspects.

Instead, they appear to have focused on the son of a New York City opera singer.

Jeffrey Plishka, whose parents live in a home several miles north of Tanners Falls, lingered around the falls on the day Laura's body was found. This attracted the attention of investigators, who asked him if he'd seen her the day before.

He said yes _ he had seen her as he passed by the falls in a truck. To this day, he is the only person to tell investigators he saw Laura there.

But it was something he told detectives two days later, that interested them even more. Shown a picture of Laura, Plishka said that was the woman he saw sitting on the rock by the falls, but he told investigators she wasn't wearing makeup like in the photograph.

How could he tell that, investigators wondered, while looking out the window of a moving vehicle 120 feet away?

Still, 15 months passed before the search warrant was applied for and granted. They seized eight guns and miscellaneous ammunition from Plishka's home, but ballistics tests couldn't make a match.

Recently, Plishka has been living on Marco Island at a home listed in his parents' names.

A man named John Plishka who answered the phone there said, "Jeffrey's not involved with that. Please leave us alone."

No peace, yet

Just off I-275, not far from Northeast High School, Laura is buried in a grave without a headstone.

This is partly financial, but mostly it's symbolic.

"I don't want to put a stone there until I put this guy away," Pat Gicking says. "Maybe it's a completion thing.

"I'd feel pretty good putting that stone down and saying, "Okay, Laura. We got him.' '

In the name of the daughter 07/31/09 [Last modified: Friday, July 31, 2009 6:09pm]
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