Ray Gricar & The Pam West Connection

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On April 15, 2005, Ray Gricar, the district attorney for Centre County, Pennsylvania, vanished under mysterious circumstances. He had skipped work that day to drive through the country  in a red mini cooper – he often played hooky to go looking for antiques. His Mini Cooper was found the next day, next to an antique shop in Lewisburg. His cell phone was inside.  The car stank like cigarette smoke, and Ray Gricar was known to despise the smell of cigarettes. The parking lot was very close to the Susquehanna River and a search was done there, but no body was ever found. There were no signs of foul play.

Centre County has their secrets and they protect their own. I want to point out that Karen Arnold was Assistant District Attorney at the time. She was known to smoke Marlboro light 100 cigarettes. It’s well known that she even smoked them in her office inside of the Centre County Courthouse in Bellefonte. Can you even imagine the heart attack people would have if you lit a cigarette (in this day and age) within a courthouse? It was a different era. It has been said that she was one of the first county actors to be alerted by law enforcement that Gricar had been missing, and she flew up to Lewistown in a hot fury, rifling through his car even before law enforcement got there. There is a lot of speculation in Centre County. It’s often hard to put the rumor and speculation together with the facts, but what I have found, is there is generally a piece of fact in every rumor, and nothing – nothing – that comes out of Centre County ever surprises me. It’s a twisted web of nepotism intermingled with an image conscious, market-driven and highly discretionary spending society. There are rules to the game: 1. Pride (as in “lion’s pride), always maintain an image; 2. Give people the benefit of the doubt so long as they fit under the category of “local.”; 3. Keep the secrets safe inside the walls of local water coolers and gossip chains, particularly if it involves a “local.”

Investigators discovered that Gricar’s work laptop was missing and someone had done a search on his home computer for “how to wreck a hard drive.” Fishermen later discovered the laptop under bridge. The hard drive had been removed. It was found on the shore of the river two months later. They were not able to recover any data from it, despited rumored attempts that authorities had even sent the hard drive to NASA.

There are varying accounts of the Ray Gricar disappearance, depending on who you talk to. Interestingly enough, there was a novel written by Pamela West in 1990. West, without using any names, seems to writing about another notorious event in Centre County. It is another unsolved crime, the stuff of legends and fireside horror stories repeated. It’s been a subject of fascination, horror and mythology in Centre County for years. The case remains unsolved, but these “internet armchair” investigators out there in this day in age have a viable theory on who killed Betsy and why. The suspected perpetrator is now dead, and the truth will likely never be learned.

Certainly murders in Centre County are extremely rare. Unfortunately, murders are less rare now in Centre County than they were during the Gricar era. West’s book, covering the murder in the stacks at Patee Library has an odd mixture of science fiction, and theory of the crime in the stacks. It’s to no ironical twist that West had investigated the Betsy stabbing in the 1980s. Word in the literary community is that she decided not to publish the exact account of her findings for fear of literary libal. But if your from Centre County, you might also be aware – there is tremendous fear of – you guessed it, before I said it, retaliation. People in this little valley hold grudges and secrets, which makes for interesting cocktail party conversations and a volatile political atmosphere.

Given all this, and as could reasonably expected under the facade of “Lion’s Pride”, Penn State was also very guarded with the horrific nature of the crime and details surrounding the death of Betsy in the stacks of Patee library. In the early 2000s, a producer from the show Paranormal Activity approached Penn State administration. They wanted to go into Pattee Library and conduct their voodoo experiments. As in typical Penn State fashion, the BOT or upper admin (both traditionally excessively over infused with image conscious fat cats and truth buriyng bureaucrats, whose salary is triple – or even quadruple their intellectual worthwhile or contribution); they refused to allow any screening of paranormal activity in the stacks. This was a very interesting move, because for years Penn State Students have been going to Betsy’s exact spot of murder each year on the anniversary of her death. Penn State – ever concerned about their reputation – wanted none of the bad press coverage associated with a decades old murder, a murder that contradicted the everything is happy image of happy valley.

Even the most terrible skeptic must admit that certainly when the book was published in 1990, Ray Gricar would have been well aware of it, and likely read it, possibly searching for hidden answers himself in a mystery that has puzzled – and flat out mystified – the population – transient or permanent – of Centre County for years.

This writer’s source next explained a little known fact. “In the late 1990s a woman named Pamela West approached Gricar with information relating to the infamous 1969 murder of Penn State student Betsy Aardsma in the university’s campus library. With Gricar’s encouragement, West proceeded to write a fictionalized science-fiction novel entitled 20/20 Vision.”

What makes this book important are striking similarities to Gricar’s disappearance. The source continued, “Gricar and West’s main character both disappeared on nearly the same dates of April 14 and April 15. The setting for each was State College, Pa. Both Gricar and her detective drove sporty cars with personalized license plates. Both Gricar and West’s protagonist were soon about to retire, and ashes were found in both vehicles. Lastly, West’s detective proceeded to fake his own death. The way I see it, there are no coincidences. What are the chances that so many things lined up in this way? Pam West was so freaked out that she contacted the authorities with this information.”

The source picked up the story from here. “After Gricar vanished, Pamela West came forward and said that Gricar knew about her book. A state police trooper confirmed that Gricar had read it. West was startled by how closely Gricar’s case mimicked details in her novel. On top of that, West theorized that a policeman or an influential member of the Penn State community had murdered Aardsma. So, Gricar told her to write the book, but suggested that she fictionalize it and not name any names.”

All of these armchair internet investigators have likely conducted more thorough investigation than Centre County police have into the murder of Betsy in the stacks. If you scroll through reddit, and hidden chat fields on the internet, the information can that can be gleaned is – at initial glance – speculative but laced (like a tasteless Bill Cosby cocktail) in fragments of the truth, naturally with characteristic embellishments and fable that only people “from” State College can really begin to conceive. Crooked, right?

Oddly enough, Ray Gricar is said to have borrowed the novel in 1991 from a state trooper. The book has many similarities to the details in this case; the major one is that all the action takes place on April 14 and 15 (of different years). One plot point is that a character fakes his own death.

 Virtually almost no one has made the connection with the disappearance of Ray Gricar, and the author Pamela West. It was said that Ray Gricar was so fascinated by the unsolved murder of Betsy, that it consumed a number of hours and though it had for years been a cold case, Gricar reopened it launching his own investigation. Even lesser known, is that West sought a consult from Gricar while she was writing the fiction novel, and the similarities between the actual crime and the fictional crime depicted in the book are too numerous to miss. There are a limited number of people that knew or could have known that Mr. Gricar read the book; even Ms. West did not know when she made the connection.

In 20/20 vision, West depicts a man who walked away and disappeared without a trace. The likelihoods are too much to ignore, when put in the conjunctive context of Ray Gricar’s fascination with the murder in the stacks. One coincidence is just that, a crazy coincidence. But multiple coincidences form a pattern. Like the flourish on the end of a flamboyant looking attorney signature, this was – perhaps and possibly – his final and ultimate act of symbolism.

A classic move of law enforcement is to “follow the money,” and sure, many have pointed out that Ray didn’t have a lot of money… Particularly after his divorce. It is also well known that Ray way was putting his assets into Patty Fornicola’s name. About a year before he disappeared, he purchased the mini cooper, and immediately put it in Fornicola’s name. While this might be a popular move for long married doctors or men of means to avoid liability, I think there was more to it.

I want to propose to you that while it did not look like Gricar had a lot of liquid cash, that over the course of his tenure making over $100k a year, he had ample time to withdraw small amounts of cash at a time, and save it up. He was known not to be a big spender, once getting furious at Fornicola for buying expensive new furniture for their Bellefonte home.

Ray was a quiet guy, he had a daughter in college whom he loved and was very proud of. This isn’t a suicide case, sure it’s a mysterious case. But where’s the body? Some say it was ground up by the dam in the Susequehanna valley. This seems unlikely because dead bodys float in the water. Some point out Gricar’s family history of depression and the suicide of Gricar’s brother. Gricar’s brother was an alcoholic with a number of problems and by all accounts, a rather tough life.

“Here’s the interesting thing,” said Buehner, recalling a dinner he’d had with Gricar and a few other prosecutors. “Ray never believed his brother committed suicide. The most important reason was that he thought his brother would never orphan his two sons, Ray’s nephews.”

The issue came up, Buehner said, because the normally tight-lipped Gricar had mentioned a trip back home. Every time he returned, Gricar told his friends that he would check in with police to see if there were new leads.

Buehner said he has always discounted the suicide theory because, in his experience as a district attorney, most people who kill themselves want their body to be found. Their final act might be used to make a statement about their lives or, by ensuring their body is found, allow closure to loved ones.

What fascinates me about the Pamela West connection is the intersection between fact and fiction, between science fiction and actual real life murder. Gricar purportedly was curiously obsessed with the case about the murder in the stacks, and West had consulted him while writing this “fictional story.” Is there any irony lost between the antagonist of the novel disappearing without a trace, combined with Gricar’s fascination of the case, and his subsequent disappearance?

I’ve noticed many lawyers are quite good at subtle parrallels, or implanting ideas without saying so much. I’ve reached out to Pam West to garnish her thoughts on this. I’m sure I’m not the first to draw this parallel, but maybe among the first from Centre County. Was the West book a blue print for his future escape? Did it plant the idea?

If you are from Centre County, 20/20 Vision is essential reading.

I’ll keep you posted on West’s response. With all the twists and turns and tangles and secrets in Centre County, I know one thing as a “local” – The truth eventually comes to light. And if I could take a gander out of all the little pieces of information and rumor and speculation I have heard circling through the years, a perspective only and insider could really obtain if they are from that confusing little valley: I’d put money on it. Gricar disappeared intentionally, and is alive. Maybe NASA will be able to get the secrets from his hard drive in ten years. It’s amazing how much crime investigations have progressed with technology. Or maybe all the secrets are sitting on a county server somewhere in an encrypted file. This would surprise me not the least bit, Centre County is known for their secrets.

The biggest questions to me are: who was the woman at the antiques store? who was smoking by/in Ray’s car? was the trip down Route 192 an just impulsive drive, as he had been known to do, or did he head out with at least one destination in mind?

With regards to his daughter’s fears about going to Pennsylvania, I think that could be totally benign. Her father was a prosecutor in many well-known cases with violent perpetrators. At one point there was some guy who was in Hell’s Angels who told law enforcement that Ray had his “knee caps spun” and throat slit by a member of Hell’s Angels he had put in prison for aggravated assault, and his body was thrown down a mine shaft. Apparently the guy even led LE to where he claimed the body was but stopped at the last minute because he wanted an immunity deal hammered out. I think the guy has been written off but I am sure there were dozens and dozens of guys like him sharing similar awful stories who just wanted deals or attention; all of that had to be frightening to Ray’s daughter, and I wouldn’t fault her for being fearful or careful about what she did.

 

And if he is alive, I hope he is sitting on a beach drinking corona, with a tan, wearing a linen suit, and one of those black and white cuban hats. All the while, and  him his feet up – hopefully on some white sanded Mexican beach somewhere. I hope he is laughing at all the uproar in Centre County and laughing at us, all the while enjoying retirement.

God forbid he surfaces again. He’d cause a medical emergency for most of these judges.

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