Cassandra Gross family grapples with one-year mark of her disappearance
There is little joy left at Kathe Gross’ home.
She’s gotten rid of most of her Christmas decorations. Mother’s and Father’s Day aren’t the same.
“I refuse to do holidays,” she said. “There’s no holidays left in this house.”
But there are still anniversaries — of the worst kind.
Kathe and Harry Gross grapple with the one-year mark of the apparent death of their daughter, Cassandra, who was last seen April 7, 2018. Somehow, today is harder than the years that have passed since their son, Randy, died of a drug overdose in March 2002.
“I really wish I wouldn’t be here,” said Gross, seated in her Derry Township living room. “I’ve faced 17 of these with Randy, but I don’t want to face this one.”
Their nightmare has lived 365 days, and counting.
Cassandra Edlyn Gross of Unity called her mom at 3:35 p.m. April 7 while driving on Route 30, headed to her Unity apartment. She’d just finished a long lunch with a high school friend at the Parkwood Inn in Southwest Greensburg. Mother and daughter made plans to see each other the next day.
“I love you.”
Those words would be the last Cassandra ever said to her mother.
She has never been seen or heard from again. Her credit cards have not been used since. The only withdrawals from her bank account have been automatic transactions.
Baxter, her blind, diabetic dog, was found April 9 wandering alone in the Beatty Crossroads area. On April 10, her Mitsubishi Outlander was found burned along a rail line near Twin Lakes Park. State police opened a missing persons investigation. They’ve conducted several searches, but Gross’ whereabouts have been elusive.
Kathe Gross began meticulously detailing every conversation she had — even the outlandish ones — about where her daughter might be. Her hand-scrawled notes are collected on hundreds of pages in a pink organizer, black-and-white speckled composition book and other scraps of paper. She has calendar pages marked with days she called police to check on the investigation. Those notes are sprinkled between doctor’s appointments and tidbits about spots she and her husband have searched.
Every waking hour is devoted to finding Cassandra. May 17 would be her 53rd birthday — the second to pass without celebration since she vanished.
Her mother wakes up and turns on the computer, checking messages or exploring a new idea. Afternoons are spent on the phone.
“She won’t let it go,” Harry Gross said.
She can’t, even as she believes her daughter is dead.
‘Living in hell’
State police now classify Cassandra Gross’ case as a homicide.
“We are focusing all available resources toward bringing this case to a successful resolution,” said state Trooper Steve Limani, spokesman of the Greensburg station in charge of finding her. “A substantial amount of evidence has been obtained and continues to further narrow the focus of this investigation.”
A Westmoreland County judge in January ruled Cassandra Gross legally dead, determining she was the victim of a homicide, at the request of her adult son, Brandon Diebold. The lead investigator on the case testified behind closed doors during the hearing.
No arrests have been made. Gross’ on-and-off boyfriend, Thomas Stanko, 48, of Unity — who has repeatedly maintained his innocence — has been jailed for the past year on unrelated charges. Gross’ family members have testified about stalking, harassment and abuse the woman suffered during her relationship with Stanko.
“I don’t think words can explain it,” Kathe Gross said. “It’s like living in hell. I know she’s out there, but I don’t know how to find her.”
Investigators have been seen searching a couple times in and around Unity Cemetery, which is near a property Stanko owns. In the days after Cassandra was reported missing, state police descended on Stanko’s Macey Road home and a White Fence Lane property where his mother lives.
Kathe Gross is frustrated that investigators have yet to find her daughter. Signs with Cassandra’s face stand near Unity Cemetery. A $10,000 reward is still being offered. Stickers that say “Bring Cassie Home” adorn her parents’ car.
Harry and Kathe Gross drive around daily, visiting spots they think might hold clues.
“I put 100 miles a day on the car just going from here to (the Unity Cemetery area) and back,” Harry Gross said. “I’ll go up four or five times.”
“And then you have to check other places where maybe she could be,” Kathe Gross said.
The ritual is all-consuming, painful.
But still, the couple smiles and laughs when recalling their daughter’s generosity, love of shopping and intelligence. Once, Harry Gross mentioned to his daughter he was thinking about getting a snow blower.
“Next thing you know, there’s a snow blower out there,” Kathe Gross said.
She cleaned out Cassandra’s Edgewater Village apartment and storage units, donating piles of clothes and shoes — many never worn — to places she thought Cassandra would like. Some things, like two glass cabinets and a television stand, have found a home in the Gross’ tidy living room.
“I just couldn’t get rid of them, so I got rid of my stuff,” Kathe Gross said.
A sign hangs on the living room wall: “A mother is her daughter’s first friend. I love you! Cassandra.”
A few knickknacks belonging to her are mixed in with their own inside the cabinets, as is a white toy dog that resembles Baxter. Harry Gross saw it at a store one day and just had to get it. A switch sends the toy dog spinning counter-clockwise, just like the real Baxter — who now lives with a family friend.
On top of their heartbreak, both Harry and Kathe Gross have been diagnosed with cancer. Still, they aren’t giving up on finding their girl or remembering, for the second time, a child they’ve lost.
They plan to celebrate Cassandra’s life on May 18 — the day after her birthday. Kathe Gross hopes a break in the case comes in time for the gathering.
“I’m hoping she’s found before then,” she said. “But if not, it’s a little bit of closure.”
Full closure, though, will only come when she is found.
“I want her found before I die. That’s the end of the story, and that’s the whole story,” Kathe Gross said. “How I have to do it, I don’t care.”
Renatta Signorini is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Renatta at 724-837-5374, [email protected] or via Twitter .