Strange phone calls add to 38-year mystery of missing sister
Kathleen Kelly disappeared at a time when it wasn't unusual for children to walk the streets of a small Pennsylvania borough in the twilight of a late spring day.
Kathleen, whom everyone called Kathy, was walking home alone in Springdale Borough, Allegheny County, when she disappeared on May 22, 1981.
It was the start of Memorial Day weekend, and Kathleen had been skating at the Ches-A-Rena in neighboring Cheswick.
“It was nothing at that time for her to walk from one end of Springdale to another,” said her older sister, Judy Stanko. “It wasn't rare for Kathleen to leave the rink by herself. She would do that.”
Stanko, 73, of Lower Burrell was the last person to see Kathleen and wants the peace of knowing what happened to her little sister.
“My mother always prayed that she would live long enough to see Kathleen again. Now we're at the point where I hope I live long enough to see her again,” she said.
Kathleen was born in California, along with her brother, Robert, who was about five years older. After her father died, her mother, Annabelle Kelly, moved the two of them to Pittsburgh to be closer to family, Stanko said.
Stanko, who already had a family of her own, had remarried and was living on Maxwell Avenue in Springdale, about six blocks from her mother and two siblings.
Much of their free time was spent at the Ches-A-Rena, where Stanko was a floor guard and her husband, John, was an assistant manager. Now slated for demolition, the roller rink was a popular destination in the 1960s, '70s and '80s.
“That was the thing to do on the weekends, to roller skate,” Stanko said. “The kids would skate there and then go bowling all night.”
Kathleen often went to the rink with her brother-in-law, John, and her older nieces and nephews. She was especially close with her niece, Kimberly, who was about four years older.
“Kathy was my aunt, but she was more like my baby sister,” said Kimberly Robertson, Judy Stanko's second-youngest child.
On the night of Kathleen's disappearance, the kids all piled into John Stanko's car and went over to the Ches-A-Rena. At some point, Kathleen left by herself and walked the eight blocks to her sister's house.
Although she was the mother of four teenagers, Stanko was home alone at the time with an infant daughter, Jeannine.
“I said, ‘What are you doing here?' She said, ‘Oh, it's boring down there. I don't want to be down there anymore,' ” Stanko said. “So we talked for awhile. We talked about the baby and the skating rink.”
Kathleen stayed for about an hour and then decided to go home, which was about six blocks away. Stanko can't recall whether it was dark yet.
“I said to her, ‘Are you sure you want to walk home?' She said, ‘Yeah, I'll be fine,' ” Stanko said, noting that she felt Kathleen was being evasive.
“I truly thought she had plans but didn't want me to know what the plans were,” she said.
Robertson believes Kathleen was not abducted but rather left of her own volition because of problems she was having at home.
“My personal opinion is that Kathleen left. She wasn't taken. ... How (she) can leave and survive, I have no idea. She would have needed help,” she said.
Robertson remembers feeling a sense of relief at Kathleen's departure.
“My initial thought was, ‘Thank God she's gone and out of that house,' ” she said. “Then it was, ‘I lost my best friend.' ... I never thought she would never come back.”
Once it was apparent that Kathleen was missing, the Springdale police were called. They questioned friends and family members but, ultimately, treated Kathleen's disappearance as a runaway case.
“They insisted she was a runaway and that she'd be home by Monday at the latest,” Stanko said, noting that there was no organized public campaign to find Kathleen.
Nine or 10 years later, Robertson was at home in Springdale one day and received a mysterious phone call from someone she believes was Kathleen.
“I remember getting a phone call that just said, ‘You know who I am and I'm fine.' That was it. There was nothing else,” she said.
Other times, there would be phone calls but silence on the other end. When Robertson would inquire, “Kathy, is that you?” the person would hang up.
Robertson wants Kathleen to know, if she is still alive, that it's OK to come home.
“I don't feel like she's gone; I just feel like she's far away,” she said.
Her message to Kathleen is something the two of them said to each other when they were younger:
“Love you near and far.”
Stephen Huba is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 724-850-1280, firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @shuba_trib.