Beaver County man arrested in 24-year-old Clinton County cold case
The last time anyone saw Kathy Dolan Heckel, she went on a lunch break in July 1991.
She is presumed dead, but her body is missing — a problem that denied investigators access to the type of reliable forensic evidence that often makes it easier to identify and charge a suspect.
That changed Wednesday, when authorities filed first- and third-degree murder charges against Loyd Groves, 65, of Beaver based on a recommendation from a statewide grand jury. Groves was arraigned Thursday before District Magistrate Frank Mills in Clinton County. A preliminary hearing is set for 8:30 a.m. Tuesday.
Legal experts said circumstantial evidence and DNA samples give prosecutors a strong chance of obtaining a conviction despite not having a body.
“The prosecutor has a more formidable task,” said Pittsburgh pathologist Cyril Wecht. “You must develop a scenario that reaches a level of evidentiary proof for a jury to consider… that comes pretty close to leaving no acceptable alternative to explain the disappearance.”
Heckel, 40, was last seen July 15, 1991, as she left her job as a human resource officer at International Paper Co. in Lock Haven, Clinton County, on a lunch break. She didn't return to work. Her car was found two days later near Lock Haven Hospital, but there were no clues as to her whereabouts.
Wecht said prosecutors must rely on clues such as the person with whom the missing individual was last seen, the circumstances surrounding the disappearance and a likely motive.
Groves was supervising asbestos removal work for International Paper at the time. Police focused on him when Heckel disappeared because friends said she had disclosed an affair with him, which she wanted to end. Both were married to others at the time.
According to the grand jury presentment, “Groves did not take this well, and the Grand Jury has heard through other witnesses of the anxiety and fear Kathy expressed about trying to get free of Groves.”
Co-workers testified that on the morning of her disappearance, Groves and Heckel had a “loud and riotous” argument in the office, which caught co-workers' attention. The presentment said they testified that Groves left the building at the same time Heckel left for lunch.
Testimony from co-workers indicated that many were concerned when Heckel did not return from lunch, the presentment said.
Several said Groves acted erratically in the days following Heckel's disappearance. He approached people attempting to establish an alibi, according to the presentment. State police troopers said they found letters Groves had written his wife with instructions on what to do if he was arrested.
Investigators found traces of blood and other bodily fluids in Groves' van. They said tests indicated to a “mathematical certainty” that DNA from the traces belonged to Heckel.
Thomas DiBiase, a former federal homicide prosecutor specializing in “no-body” cases, said about 435 no-body cases have gone to trial in the United States. About 88 percent resulted in convictions.
“No-body cases used to be incredibly rare,” said DiBiase, who consults with police and prosecutors working such cases. “They're becoming less rare, but they're still very rare.”
He said forensic evidence and confessions to police or to family and friends are generally the building blocks of no-body cases.
“Still, the difficulty, of course, is you don't have the best piece of evidence — the body,” he said. “It tells you when, it tells you where, it tells you how. You're starting off with a really large handicap.”
Megan Guza is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-779-6902 or email@example.com.