Was Latrobe woman's disappearance a ploy for drug money? A kidnapping? A murder?
Editor's note: Today, the Tribune-Review begins a monthly series on people from Western Pennsylvania who have gone missing and never been found. The project is being launched in conjunction with a national podcast on missing persons, UnFound, which is the work of former Leechburg resident Ed Dentzel.
On the night of June 9, 2010, Elizabeth “Beth” Pugner received a series of texts about her sister, Amy, that chilled her to the bone.
“Had to wait til dark.
“Plus you are up to something.
“We will see how this goes down.
“Please don't test me.
The sender first used a cellphone that belonged to Amy, then switched to a phone number that was unfamiliar to the older sister.
“They wanted $30,000 or she was dead,” Beth Pugner said.
The text gave specific instructions on where and how to deliver the money.
“I have no intention of harming anyone, but I definitely don't give a (expletive) about this lady, I hope you do. She just ate and I gave her a blast. These are your instructions, please be at drop site at 11. Call then and only then.”
Beth Pugner and her father, John Pugner Jr., also received phone calls that night.
John Pugner was out with his wife when he started getting calls from Amy's cellphone. He couldn't tell whether the person was asking for Amy's dad or saying, “Amy's dead.”
In the last call, it was Amy herself.
“She said, ‘Don't worry, I'll be OK,' ” he recalled.
They weren't able to pay.
That was the last time Pugner, 74, of Latrobe talked to his troubled daughter.
The next day, he was in Washington, Pa., to report to police that she was missing.
Almost eight years later, Amy is still missing.
“It's on my mind every day. I truthfully think that they ended her life,” he said.
Missing, or worse?
The Washington Police Department lists Amy as a missing person on its Facebook page, but family members say the unsolved case seems more like a kidnapping.
They have sought the help of police, the news media and an Allegheny County forensic investigator. They have distributed posters, talked to Amy's friends and entered Amy into the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System ( FindtheMissing.org ) — to no avail.
Now they're making yet another appeal to the public for information that could bring her home.
“My sister has children. She's a daughter, a mother, a sister. She had mental health issues, she had addiction issues, but she's still a person, she's still a valuable member of this family, and we would like to know what happened to her,” said her sister, Kelly O'Barto, 49, of Derry.
Amy Pugner, who was 40 at the time of her disappearance, grew up in Latrobe and went to Latrobe Area High School. She was a teen mom who later worked as a bartender and at the Latrobe Brewing Co., her family said.
Amy suffered from schizophrenia and substance abuse. She had spent time in jail and in treatment, her sisters said. John Pugner had power of attorney for his daughter, who was on disability when she disappeared.
In 2009, O'Barto found a bed for Amy at a treatment facility in Washington. She took her there, but Amy lasted only five days.
“I don't know if she was kicked out or just left, but I know she didn't want to go there,” O'Barto said.
Amy called O'Barto, asking for help in getting her belongings out of storage and to Washington. O'Barto declined.
“I just knew she had no business being down there by herself, but she did end up moving,” she said.
Amy found an apartment and persuaded her dad to bring her stuff. The family estimates that she lived in Washington for at least six months before she disappeared.
Her family brought her back to Latrobe regularly so she could see her children. On Christmas 2009, Amy brought her boyfriend, John Martin, home to meet the family. She met him in Washington, her sisters said.
Martin has not been named by Washington police as a person of interest or suspect in the case, but Amy's family would like to talk to him again. At the time, he was working for a Carnegie-based drilling company, the sisters said.
Case still open
After that terrible night of threatening, cryptic texts and phone calls, John Pugner and Beth Pugner went to Washington to file a missing person report. They have not been happy with the police department's investigation, describing it as perfunctory.
But Washington police Lt. Dan Stanek said the case remains open and continues to attract leads, as recently as a year ago. Those turned out to be a dead end, he said.
Complicating the investigation is the fact Amy likely went missing in an Allegheny County jurisdiction. The cellphone used for the texts was pinged to Mt. Oliver, he said.
“We recommended that the family initiate something in that area, which they did,” Stanek said. “There's no indication that she was abducted from the city (of Washington) or anything like that.”
Anyone with information on Amy should call the Washington Police Department at 724-223-4226.
On their way back to Latrobe from the police department on June 10, 2010, the family got another text.
“Where you at?
“I hope you are ready.
“Do what you have to do.”
The family does not rule out the possibility that the disappearance was a ploy to get drug money — a scheme in which Amy could have cooperated.
“I do not doubt anything. There's nothing that surprises me,” said her sister, Johnna Pugner-Queer, 40, of Latrobe.
But that doesn't change the family's love for Amy or their desire to see her again.
They're doing what they have to do.
Stephen Huba is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 724-850-1280, email@example.com or via Twitter @shuba_trib.