40 years later, siblings of South Greensburg girl who disappeared still seek closure
Cathi Rhodes manages a smile remembering how excited her youngest sister, Teresa, was to hang around the kitchen as their family prepared for the holidays in their South Greensburg home during the 1960s and '70s.
“Teri, which is what we all called her, would just love pitching in to help with the traditional Italian main dishes and all the baking before the holidays,” Rhodes said. “It really meant a lot to our entire family.”
But Rhodes' mood quickly changes as she describes how she and her siblings ache over the mystery of Teri's disappearance Sept. 27, 1975, when the “dimpled, vivacious, fun-loving, sweet” 13-year-old Catholic school girl didn't come home after spending a Saturday with friends.
“I've literally cried an ocean over this ... as has the whole family,” Rhodes said. “I go out, and I still look to see if I may recognize her when I see other people. You can never forget about it.”
On Jan. 15, 2016, Teri would be 54.
Teri was the youngest of the family's six children. Parents William and Nellie, and brother Mark, have died; sisters Cathi and Gloria, and brothers William and Joey are left to wonder. Cathi Rhodes admits the family isn't hopeful Teri is alive.
“We just want some sort of closure. Someone has to know something, and we'd like them to finally come forward,” she said.
Police ‘dropped the ball'
It's a cold case that Westmoreland County Detective James Williams said has not had substantial leads in years. Early in the investigation, tips led to searches in St. Clair Park in Greensburg and Schenley Park in Pittsburgh, but digs in those places turned up empty, Williams said.
“It's been a very long time. ... We followed up on every lead we've gotten,” he said. “Unfortunately, we're pretty sure she's deceased. But we don't know for certain. ... Never say never.”
Rhodes' mother saw her daughter for the last time about 11 a.m. on that fateful Saturday as the eighth-grader at the defunct St. Paul's Middle School left for a friend's house.
“Her girlfriend was 16 years old. I remember receiving the call Sunday from my mom, who had worked Saturday night, and she asked me if Teri may have stayed over at my house,” Cathi Rhodes said.
Cathi Rhodes said when her mother called the police chief to report her daughter missing, “he was in the middle of a cookout for his daughter's birthday on Sunday afternoon, and he told us to file a missing persons report the next day.” The family did.
South Greensburg police classified the case as a runaway, Cathi Rhodes said.
Former borough police Chief Jerome Todaro, who went to school with some of the Rhodes children and knew the family well, was a part-time patrolman when Teri disappeared. He believes “law enforcement dropped the ball” in the case.
“Unfortunately, there was not a lot done initially. I never quit investigating it,” said Todaro, who retired in 1989. “Law enforcement failed that family by dropping the ball and not jumping on it right away.”
But the Rhodes family knew something was terribly wrong and didn't accept that Teri was a runaway.
“She didn't run away. What 13-year-old girl would run away and not take their purse containing her lipstick, makeup and compact? And she didn't bother taking any clothes,” Cathi Rhodes said.
The family did its own investigation, passing along tips to police whenever information turned up. One tip sent oldest brother Bill to Florida on an unsuccessful trip to find his sister.
Todaro said police believe on the day of her disappearance, Teri and her friend, Linda Parri, had gone to a party house on Bell Way in Greensburg, where the Westmoreland County Transit Authority station sits. Parri has said little about that night to investigators during the years.
“She wouldn't open up to me,” Todaro said. “I remember a female state trooper spoke to her once and believed (Parri) definitely knew something but was scared to death to say anything.”
Tips lead nowhere
Some linked Teri's disappearance to Leroy Bradford Smith, a former prison guard, South Greensburg police officer and convicted killer-for-hire.
Smith, 64, died in 2012 in his South Greensburg home after serving 17 years in prison for plotting to kill a state Department of Environmental Protection official in 1985.
Cathi Rhodes, who was a baton instructor for the South Greensburg Spinnerettes drill team, of which Teri was a member, said in the 1970s, Smith often would linger at the dance studio to watch the older girls' routines when dropping off his two young daughters.
Teri was seen speaking to Smith in his patrol car, Cathi Rhodes said.
Neither Williams nor Todaro would discuss Smith's possible involvement in the case. But Todaro has thoughts about what might have happened on the day Teri went missing.
“I believe she went to that house; she was young, drinking beer all day and people doing drugs there. ... She had to be feeling it. And I believe three actors took advantage of her,” Todaro said. “One suspect is still alive, and there also is one witness out there who was with her that night. I think they know.”
Based on information from a psychic, authorities searched Schenley Park in Pittsburgh in October 1987. They used cadaver dogs to search St. Clair Park in Greensburg in January 1989 and have searched numerous sites in Salem and Hempfield townships, according to Greensburg Fire Chief Ed Hutchinson.
“We tilled acres on top of a hillside at one farm where police received a tip she may be buried but found nothing. There was one stretch I swear we were going out every weekend, and this was investigators working on their own time searching for her,” Hutchinson said.
The searches have been futile.
“We'd like to get her body back and finally lay her to rest. ... She deserves that,” Cathi Rhodes said.
Paul Peirce is a reporter for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at email@example.com or 724-850-2860.