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Arrest made in 1991 murder of St. Petersburg woman

For years after her daughter's murder, Pat Gicking would travel to a small town in northeastern Pennsylvania to prod officials to find the killer. Each year she would return empty-handed.

"I did it for five years, then I stopped," Gicking, 62, said. "Just too much stress."

This week, 18 years and one day after the killing, officials from that small town came to Pat Gicking's door in St. Petersburg. They brought news.

On Thursday, Pennsylvania authorities charged Jeffrey J. Plishka, 46, with the murder and attempted rape of Laura Ronning, who was 24 when her body was found near a small waterfall where she had gone to relax on her day off as a camp counselor.

"They got someone, so that's good," Gicking said Friday. "That's good for Laura."

Ronning's murder was for many years the only unsolved killing in the town of Honesdale, a popular summering spot in the Pocono Mountains. On the morning of July 27, 1991, she had set off alone through the woods from Camp Cayuga, headed for Tanners Falls, two miles away.

She didn't return and the next day, a bloodhound on a search team found her body in the woods about 35 feet off the road leading to the falls.

Only one person ever told investigators that he had seen Ronning that day at the falls — Jeffrey Plishka. Plishka, then 28, lived nearby in a home owned by his father, Paul, an acclaimed bass for the Metropolitan Opera in New York.

Jeffrey Plishka had come to the scene of the search and asked a State Police lieutenant for a description of the person they were looking for. He returned hours later — after Ronning's body had been found — and said he had seen her the day before sitting on a rock by the falls.

This was the beginning of a series of interviews with Plishka over the next three days in which investigators say he made vague, contradictory or implausible comments.

Plishka said he had seen Ronning from his Ford Bronco as he drove across the bridge at the falls. But investigators later showed that it would have been almost impossible for Plishka to have noticed some of the details that he claimed — that Ronning was not smiling, that she wasn't wearing makeup and that she was reading a book — from 120 feet away in a moving vehicle.

Plishka couldn't account for the roughly six hours between when he had seen Ronning and the time a guest at his home said he returned that evening.

And he couldn't explain a fresh scratch on his cheek.

A search of his home — 15 months after the killing — produced .22 caliber rifles and ammunition, the same kind that was used to kill Ronning with one shot to the left side of her head. But an exact match couldn't be made.

Plishka never was charged.

On the first anniversary of Laura's death, Pat Gicking went to Honesdale and put up a cross. In the years after, she would make a familiar circuit — the district attorney, interviews with the local media, local businesses to pass out fliers and finally a stop to tidy up around the cross before the long drive home.

She, of course, would think about Laura constantly. She tried to put the case and the frustrating lack of progress out of her mind.

"If you don't, you're always being dragged back to the beginning," she said.

With the reassignment of the case in 2006, new energy was pumped into the long dormant investigation.

Forensics experts looked again at the blood that had been found on the barrel of one of the guns taken from Plishka's home. They hoped that advances in DNA testing might enable them to match it to Ronning. They couldn't make an exact match, but "Laura Ronning cannot be excluded as the source of that blood," according to District Attorney Michael Lehutsky.

In May, investigators went to Virginia, where Plishka was living, to take a sample of his blood for comparison. The tests concluded that it was not his or his immediate relatives.

Without a piece of evidence that conclusively links Plishka to the crime, prosecutors will rely heavily on a number of curious statements Plishka made during an interview in May.

Twice, investigators said, Plishka said, "I hope I didn't kill that girl."

He denied killing her, but when he was asked if his DNA would be found on Ronning, Plishka said: "I sure hope not" and "It shouldn't be."

At one point in the interview he blurted out: "I remember that f------ b---- never waved to me."

For now, Pat Gicking and her husband, John, are not probing for details about the case.

"We don't want to do anything to screw this up," she said. When two of the investigators and the district attorney came to the house on Tuesday to tell the Gickings of the impending arrest, the couple, out of deference, didn't even ask the name of the suspect.

Pat served them roast beef sandwiches, cole slaw, sweet tea and chocolate cupcakes left over from Laura's sister's birthday party. After lunch the men flew back home to the town.

Now, for the first time in many years, Pat Gicking can envisage the day when she will go back to Pennsylvania, too.

"We'll be there," she said. "We'll be there in the court."

Times researcher Will Gorham contributed to this report. Bill Duryea can be reached at duryea@sptimes.com.

Arrest made in 1991 murder of St. Petersburg woman 07/31/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, August 4, 2009 3:11pm]
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