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Vandergrift family regroups from loss of business, patriarch

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'American Coyotes' Series

Traveling by Jeep, boat and foot, Tribune-Review investigative reporter Carl Prine and photojournalist Justin Merriman covered nearly 2,000 miles over two months along the border with Mexico to report on coyotes — the human traffickers who bring illegal immigrants into the United States. Most are Americans working for money and/or drugs. This series reports how their operations have a major impact on life for residents and the environment along the border — and beyond.

Tuesday, Dec. 25, 2012, 11:23 p.m.

Editor's note: Beginning today,the Valley News Dispatch will update some of the stories we covered in 2012. The series, “Whatever happened to...?” will appear through the end of the year.

In the months following a suspected arson that gutted Vandergrift's Kochka Towing and Car Care Service, the Kochka family suffered another loss, that of longtime owner and patriarch, Paul Kochka.

The Vandergrift resident, who led the family business for more than 50 years, died on Dec. 11. According to family, the cause of death was a heart attack. Some, like Kochka's granddaughter, Lyndsey Bigley, feel the fire was a contributing factor.

“It had to do with all this, the stress,” she said.

About a week after the funeral, flowers and memorials amassed in the parking lot of the towing business that sits across from the Vandergrift Bridge, on the corner of Sherman and Farragut avenues.

Rebuilding continued inside.

Based on what officials told the family, the blaze, which occurred in the early hours of Sept. 23, was started in one of four garage bays. Money was stolen from the business, as well, said Kochka's wife, Joyce Kochka.

While rebuilding may seem even more of a challenge now, family members anticipate Kochka's will reopen as soon as mid-January. Bigley, who works at the family business, describes the reconstruction as one that involves “every single room.”

“It's hard when a place was completely gutted,” she said. “We had to re-do everything.”

“They've pretty much taken us down to nothing, and we've built from the ground up. Everybody's been working real hard to get us back open.”

“Everybody knows how strong of a family we are and we wanted to get it open as quickly as possible to give back to the community,” she added. “Nobody really questioned us, we're pretty tough.”

According to Joyce Kochka, customers are looking forward to the reopening.

“It's really going to be nice. It's really going to be different,” she said.

With one loss and then another, customers, neighbors and friends have reached out to support the family.

“A lot of the community had come together during our time of need then, and now, with the passing of my grandfather,” Bigley said.

“We've had a lot of support.”

The Kochkas hope someone, perhaps in the community, can help in another way: by providing any information possible about the suspected arson.

The family plans to advertise a $1,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of whoever started the fire, Joyce Kochka said.

“We haven't found justice yet,” Bigley said. “And my pap had said before he passed that they took his baby, they took his heart and he'd never see it opened again.”

“It's hard, because they took his heart. I just want justice.”

Julie E. Martin is a freelance writer for Trib Total Media.

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