Clairton girl's disappearance still haunts family 36 years later
Toni Lynn McNatt was the kind of girl who would rather shoot hoops than chase boys.
At 14, she liked to climb trees and play sports. She wanted to be a majorette.
Although her home life in Clairton was not perfect, she was not the kind of girl to get into trouble or run away, her older sisters said.
Neither Roxanne Paolicelli nor Lea Rae Keeney has seen Toni since Nov. 5, 1981.
On that day, Toni was on her way to a friend's house after agreeing to baby-sit a neighbor child. She wanted the friend to help her baby-sit but apparently never made it to her house.
She was last seen by some students hanging out at the Clairton High School football stadium. Paolicelli, who shared a bedroom with Toni, last saw her younger sister as she walked out the front door, baton in hand.
“When she left the house that day, she was in a really good mood. She was happy,” said Paolicelli, 53, of Clairton.
Toni would be 50 today. Those closest to her believe she is no longer alive, but they still want to know what happened to her. They want the closure that would come with finding and burying her remains.
Investigation remains active
“I believe she's long gone,” said William “Bill” Scully, a retired Clairton police detective. “I believe she was killed that night. Where she was put — that's the mystery.”
Scully, the original investigator in Toni's disappearance, has continued to stay in touch with the family and to take an interest in the cold case — even years after passing it on to the Pennsylvania State Police.
Trooper James Petrosky of the Belle Vernon barracks declined to comment on the case but said it remains an active investigation.
“It's a mystery … but I believe it's solvable,” said Scully, 70, of Clairton. “I think I have this thing figured out. I just don't have the proof.”
Paolicelli, who asked her younger sister to babysit for her so she could go to a concert at the Civic Arena, said she made sure the house was clean before she left. The dinner table chairs had to be pushed in and the table cleared, or her father, Henry Sam Chiapetta, would get upset, she said.
As she said goodbye to Toni, she told her to be back by 6 p.m. Toni was running late, so Paolicelli decided to leave for the show.
“Something kind of bugged me because it wasn't like Toni,” she said.
Although there were signs that Toni had returned later that evening — a wet blouse in the basement, food on the dinner table — Paolicelli never saw her again. By the time she returned home from the concert, the Clairton police were already involved and a search was under way.
“Nobody knows what happened to her. She just disappeared off the face of the earth, and that's impossible. Somebody's got to know something,” Paolicelli said.
Paolicelli believes Toni was abducted from the home by someone she knew, possibly after an assault. Keeney, 58, of Glassport, believes Toni was abducted by someone she knew while walking to her friend's house.
Although the half sisters have their suspicions about a man who was an associate of Chiapetta, a truck driver, the man has never been identified as a suspect.
“I think he maybe saw her in the rain, offered her a ride and she went with him,” Keeney said. “I believe it was somebody she knew and she trusted.”
The search for Toni involved police dogs and a psychic from New York, who directed the family to Peter's Creek in Clairton. A call to the police department not long after Toni's disappearance also directed them to Peter's Creek.
But the search languished for months, then years, and the case went cold.
Family members and friends were questioned. A polygraph examiner noted some deception on Chiapetta's part, but he was never identified as a suspect, Scully said. He died in 1995.
In 1989, Scully returned to Clairton as public safety director — the police department had been disbanded in 1985 for budgetary reasons — and he got a call from Toni's mother, Audrey McNatt. She admitted to withholding information in 1981.
McNatt told Scully she had discovered Toni's wet blouse in the basement the night of her disappearance, which meant she had been home.
“I don't think it was planned, but I think something happened at the home that night,” Scully said.
McNatt died in 2006.
The sisters have soldiered on in their search for information. Two years ago, they met with Scully, the state police and representatives from the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children in the hopes of a renewed search effort, Keeney said.
But nothing ever developed from the meeting.
“I don't want to bash the state police, but they dropped the ball,” Keeney said.
Paolicelli said Toni's disappearance forever changed the family. Her mother refused to put up a Christmas tree in the years following, and her father began drinking more.
“After a few years, I realized she was not coming back,” she said. “I'd like to know where she's at. I believe her remains are around this area. Somebody in this town knows something.”
Stephen Huba is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 724-850-1280, firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @shuba_trib.