Judge declares missing Unity woman Cassandra Gross legally dead
Cassandra Gross hasn’t used her credit card since April.
There have been no withdrawals in the last nine months from the Unity woman’s bank account other than automatic transactions. Her 401k account has remained untouched.
“There’s no doubt in your mind, sir, that your mother’s subject to peril?” Westmoreland County Common Pleas Judge Chris Scherer asked Gross’ son during a hearing Tuesday.
“Unfortunately, no,” Brandon Diebold replied.
Scherer ruled that Gross is the victim of a homicide and declared her legally dead as of April 7. A death certificate now can be issued, and her son has access to the assets left behind and other rights, such as resolving a car loan and insurance.
Gross does not have enough assets to cover her liabilities, family said. She did not have a will.
Gross, who would have turned 52 in May, was reported missing by her parents April 9 — the same day her blind and diabetic dog, Baxter, was found alone and covered in mud in the Beatty Crossroads area. The next day, her burned red 2016 Mitsubishi Outlander was spotted by Norfolk Southern employees in a wooded area along train tracks near Twin Lakes Park.
Gross talked to her son and mother multiple times a day and was a frequent shopper before her disappearance, according to testimony. Neither her son nor Kathe Gross, her mother, have heard from Gross since April 7 after she had lunch with a friend. They believe Gross was killed by Thomas G. Stanko, 48, a Unity man who worked as a landscaper at her condominium complex.
Both described for the judge occasions when Stanko stalked, harassed and abused Gross.
“They were dating on and off, and towards the end it became pretty volatile,” Diebold said.
Authorities have been seen this year searching near Unity Cemetery and on two Unity properties owned by Stanko, who is in jail on unrelated federal and state charges. Cases in Westmoreland County have been delayed indefinitely while federal allegations of weapons violations are resolved.
Stanko has maintained his innocence. No charges have been filed in connection with Gross’ disappearance.
Members of the news media and Gross’ family were barred from the courtroom Tuesday while state Trooper James McKenzie testified about the investigation into Gross’ disappearance. Some of McKenzie’s testimony could reveal evidence that has not been made public and jeopardize the case, Scherer said in closing court and sealing the trooper’s testimony.
Stanko’s attorney, Dante Bertani, said he thinks investigators may file a homicide charge based on the judge’s decision.
“I think that’s the only reason why they are doing it,” Bertani said after the hearing.
The decision would not help or hurt any possible criminal prosecution, Saint Vincent College law professor Bruce Antkowiak said.
“It is entirely possible to prosecute a murder without a body,” Antkowiak said. “You have to prove a death, and you can prove it circumstantially and by criminal means. You don’t have to have a body to do it.”
The judge’s determination is essentially a civil remedy and likely cannot be used to prove an element of homicide. It might not be admissible, he said.
“The concern is more in proving somebody did it,” he said. “If they are confident they can do it, they can prosecute without a body.”
Gross’ family declined to comment.
Kathe Gross testified that Stanko’s stalking and threats were constant — he’d show up at her gym, peer in her windows, ring her doorbell incessantly, chase her in his car and threaten to kill her and her parents. Cassandra Gross was too afraid to get a protection-from-abuse order. She sent her building maintenance man a text message: “If anything happens to me, Tom did it,” Kathe Gross testified.
“Tom Stanko killed my daughter,” she said in court.
Renatta Signorini is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Renatta at 724-837-5374, [email protected] or via Twitter .