SUNBURY — After 28 years of searching for answers in the disappearance of Barbara Miller, the case seems to be creeping closer to a conclusion.
There are, however, remaining pieces of the puzzle to be found, Sunbury Police Chief Tim Miller said. Linking those pieces to others collected over nearly three decades remains a difficult task, but one Sunbury police are determined to complete.
“We continue to attack this case with the ferociousness of a lion,” Chief Miller said of the Sunbury police department.
Beginning with the first piece — the report of Barbara Miller going missing in July 1989 — through a recent discovery of wood chips found inside a cement wall removed from a Milton home, law enforcement personnel continue to collect and analyze evidence and investigate leads, both new and old.
“For 28 years this has been a mystery and every day we find something new,” Chief Miller said. “It is complex and there are different parts to this that pop up daily. That is why I have pulled Cpl. Travis Bremigen full-time to work beside me and he is like a pit bull. He brings enthusiasm and perspective to this case and is much needed. Travis (Bremigen) isn’t afraid to rattle cages and I respect him for that.”
1989-1990: The initial investigation
Barbara Miller was 30 years old when she was reported missing by her estranged ex-boyfriend on July 5, 1989, after attending the wedding of her best friend, Lori Wand, in Mifflinburg on June 30. Joseph Walter “Mike” Egan reported his ex-girlfriend missing to former Sunbury officer and now current Selinsgrove Police Chief Tom Garlock. Egan told Garlock she left after the wedding in her car and never returned home.
Original reports from police said they were searching for the city woman but they did not suspect foul play — despite at least seven police reports ranging from stalking to ongoing harassment made by Barbara Miller in the months leading up to her disappearance stating she was fearful of Egan.
A year later — in 1990 — Sunbury police first reported they believed Barbara Miller may have been murdered. Police began interviewing potential witnesses, including Egan, a former Sunbury police detective who spent time in the mid-1980s in state prison for extortion. Egan met Barbara Miller while he was incarcerated and the two began to date after he was released in the late 1980s, according to police.
Police reports from 1989 and 1990 are still sealed as part of the ongoing investigation but Chief Miller said in a search warrant that Barbara Miller began to report to Garlock she was being stalked by her ex-boyfriend.
Barbara Miller later pulled those complaints and said the two worked out their differences.
Egan told police he had nothing to do with her disappearance. He said the last time he saw Barbara Miller, she left with two men to go to a motorcycle event after returning home from the wedding.
Egan has said in recent months he wants to talk about the case but has been advised not to by his attorneys. Egan has never been charged with any crimes concerning the case and he has maintained his innocence throughout the last 28 years, he said.
“I wish I knew what happened,” Egan told a Harrisburg newspaper years ago. “It’s a hell of a puzzle.”
Other reports where discovered by authorities that said Barbara Miller called the fiancee of Scott Schaeffer, who was wrongfully convicted of the killing of Ricky Wolfe, of Mifflinburg, just years before in 1986.
Babrara Miller called Schaeffer’s then fiancée and left a message that if police didn’t drop the charges against Schaeffer, she would be going to police to clear his name, according to police. Barbara Miller and Schaeffer never met, but Schaeffer said he heard about the message she left and always wanted to thank her for her efforts in helping clear his name.
Schaeffer pleaded no contest to third-degree murder in 2006 because he had already spent 17 years in state prison for the crime he continues to claim he did not commit.
Schaeffer was let out of prison shortly after the plea. Schaeffer was a driving force in helping re-open the Barbara Miller case and Chief Miller said he believes Schaeffer was innocent of the 1986 homicide.
Chief Miller would not comment on whether or not any reports contained police statements stating Barbara Miller knew about the Wolfe homicide or that she had information Schaeffer was not present for the crime. Wolfe was found murdered at a boat dock near Montandon on Dec. 12 1986.
1990-2002: Case cold for more than a decade
The case went cold in 1990 and was not brought back to light until 2002. At that point, then-Sunbury police officer Degg Stark dove into the Miller case and began to investigate tips given by potential witnesses. Stark visited several locations in and around Sunbury, including a water-filled strip mine near Trevorton called “The Canyon” in 2005. Stark also visited 239 Penn St., the former city residence of Barbara Miller, and the caves located outside of Sunbury, along Route 147.
Stark brought in Kim Zellers, who operated White Deer Search and Rescue with her husband from 1990 to 2006, and her cadaver dog, Bullet, after investigators received tips Barbara Miller’s remains may have been buried in or around the site. The dog indicated there was an odor of human decomposition in the caves and recovered potential evidence.
Zellers said Stark, herself and about seven other investigators had to crawl on their hands and knees for nearly 15 feet before entering a huge room inside the cave.
The caves were 50 to 60 feet long once they entered. The ceiling was high enough for everyone to stand up comfortably, Zellers said.
“When we went into the caves we did not know who or what we were called to look for,” Zellers said. “Then police asked if the dog could locate someone who was missing for 12 years, and I assumed it was the Barbara Miller case. When we got inside, the dog began to alert on various areas.”
Zellers said the cave had two levels and the cadaver dog then began to alert aggressively in one spot.
“He kept showing me ‘it is right here,’ ‘it is right here,’” Zellers said. “The cave was pretty rocky and clay covered, but it wasn’t deep. The whole cave was rock. It was a big cave with two levels like floors. We could see two and the dog went on the lower level.”
Zellers said the dog then came back to the main level with a piece of material in his mouth.
“The dog found a scarf intact and another area of the cave with various pieces of materials with newspaper partially burned. We thought it was a blouse,” Zellers said. “We had located the material, and it was brought to the Sunbury Police Department, and all I was told was they were going to check with the family.”
Days later, Stark called Zellers again, this time to bring Bullet to Barbara Miller’s former home on Penn Street.
Zellers said her dog didn’t take long to alert on the potential odor of human decomposition in the basement at the Penn Street home.
“When we went in, it took 30 seconds for the dog to run through the house and he did not show interest,” Zellers said. “The dog began to show interest by a heater grate in the kitchen and then went to the basement where he ran to both sides of the home and made a full circle before alerting on a dirt floor.”
Zellers said the dog’s behavior gave an indication that there was something in the ground or that something had been there previously.
“The dog was working and I stood back and he began pawing and biting,” Zellers, a 30-year dog handler, said. “They asked what that meant and I recommended that they take some soil samples. They took six or seven small containers of dirt.”
Shortly after the home search, Northumberland County Judge Charles Saylor legally declared Barbara Miller dead. That was the only update Zellers received on the case.
“I don’t know the outcome. Often police departments don’t share what they found,” Zellers said. “We had an alert at the Penn Street home and in the caves in 2002. I remember police doing soil samples but I was never told anything regarding the results. It was a few months later the courts declared Barbara Miller dead and I assumed it was either a result of what they found, or timing, I don’t know.”
Despite the dog indicating there were human remains in both places, law enforcement officials believed there was still not enough evidence to proceed with the case, according to police.
2008: Bones found under home
Stark retired from the Sunbury Police Department in 2005. The case went cold for another three years until a contractor doing work at Egan’s old home in Lithia Springs, Point Township, reported he found bones under the home in 2008.
Following a search of the area, it was determined the bones were cow remains.
In 2009, Sunbury police again received information about the case. Former Sunbury Chief Steve Mazzeo, now a patrolman on the force, claims he called for a meeting between county officials and police to discuss a lead the department uncovered regarding a home along Front Street in Milton, a property owned by Northumberland County Judge Sam Ranck at the time of Barbara Miller’s disappearance. Mazzeo said he was told there wasn’t enough evidence to search 715 N. Front St.
At the time of Barbara Miller’s disappearance, Ranck owned the home, which was lived in by Cathy Reitenbach, the sister of Egan, according to court documents.
Ranck died in 2012.
While the initial tip appeared to go unfollowed, current Sunbury Police Chief Tim Miller said the same information may now have led police to Barbara Miller’s remains.
2016: New police chief reopens case
After Tim Miller was hired in Sunbury in May 2016, the chief read the Barbara Miller files and re-opened the case.
“After constant requests made by The Daily Item, I decided it was important to look at the files and see what the fuss was all about,” Chief Miller said. “Once I opened them, I couldn’t put them down and I decided this case was absolutely worth re-opening and the more we are seeing the more we are trying to put this together.”
Chief Miller — who is unrelated to Barbara Miller — found the tip saying the missing woman’s body was possibly buried on the property of 751 N. Front St., in Milton, in the Sunbury police report system. After finding numerous references to the address in police reports, Chief Miller requested a search warrant for the residence. The tip led him to believe Barbara Miller could have been buried in the basement or entombed in a wall inside the home.
Chief Miller discovered the home was owned by Ranck and that Reitenbach lived in the duplex that was part of the weeklong dig.
When asked about Barbara Miller in November, after The Daily Item began a series of stories on the cold case, Reitenbach declined comment.
Reitenbach died in January.
The home was never searched prior to June and no reports were ever officially made that the house was owned by Ranck, Chief Miller said. However, Chief Miller said he saw Ranck’s name in case files.
Chief Miller and a team of contractors, police and Northumberland County Coroner Jim Kelley, removed walls and several tons of soil from the home during a week-long dig.
Kelley, who was at the Milton site the entire week said he was thrilled Chief Miller re-opened the case.
Weeks after the June dig, on Aug. 10, Chief Miller and Sunbury Cpl. Travis Bremigen and members of a state police forensic team served a sealed search warrant on Barbara Miller’s former home at 239 Penn St.
Zellers said she was curious about what had happened with the case and reached out to Chief Miller when she began to see coverage of the Barbara Miller case in June. Zellers said she wanted to make sure the chief was aware of the prior search of the address.
“Items” were removed from the home, Chief Miller said. He declined to say what he may have been looking for or what was taken that may not have been taken in 2002 when the same home was searched by investigators. Chief Miller declined comment on the 2002 search or any evidence that might have been collected by his team or previous investigators, nor would he say if any of the soil samples or clothing was tested at any labs.
The day after the visit to Penn Street, Chief Miller, Bremigen and a search and rescue team arrived at a pond, just outside of Lewisburg, on Route 45, and removed a large container. Chief Miller would not reveal what was in the container, saying only, “We got what we were looking for.”
Chief Miller declined further comment and Bremigen only would say the investigation is progressing.
“It is a long process and this has been 28 years,” Bremigen said. “We want to make sure we are doing everything right and make sure we don’t leave any stone unturned. We are working daily on this and we are confident in what we have been discovering.”
2017: Investigative team takes shape
Evidence collected at the Milton home, the pond and Barbara Miller’s former home are being tested by forensic scientists, Bremigen said.
Renowned forensic scientists Dr. Henry Lee, of Connecticut, and Dr. William Bass, of Tennessee, joined Chief Tim Miller, county Coroner Jim Kelley, Bremigen, Cpl. Brad Hare and officer Brad Slack as part of the investigative team.
Bass, of Tennessee, a retired professor at the University of Tennessee, in Knoxville, is best known for his research on human decomposition. He has assisted federal and state authorities in identifying human remains and continues to play a role at the university in the anthropological research facility, more widely known as The Body Farm, which he founded.
The Body Farm was established by Bass in 1980 and is dedicated to the study of the rate of decomposition of the human corpse under various conditions that relate to criminal investigations.
Lee has worked on several high profile cases, including the O.J. Simpson case, and the JonBenet Ramsey case.
Chief Miller announced less than two weeks ago that “wood chips” were located inside the walls that were removed from the Milton home.
Wood chips and other unexplained matter were found inside the concrete walls and Chief Miller said his team is “looking in the right place.”
“We have discovered the presence of wood chips throughout the concrete walls as well as other discoveries that continue to confirm that we are definitely looking in the right place,” Chief Tim Miller said Monday.
“Obviously we seized a great deal of material, mostly being the concrete, that made up the basement walls. Those walls were constructed in a manner that makes it extremely difficult to penetrate them in our search for evidence,” he said. “This process is proving to be painstakingly slow, however, our team will chip away piece-by-piece for as long as it takes.”
On Thursday, Chief Miller, Bremigen and officer Brad Slack arrived at a creek, just outside of Montandon and once again removed potential evidence related to the Barbara Miller case. As he had most previous instances, Chief Miller declined to say what police collected. He said it was part of the ongoing investigation.
“I will not comment on any potential evidence in this case,” Chief Miller said. “I will say we will not leave any rock unturned. We will continue to investigate this all the way.”
Northumberland County District Attorney Tony Matulewicz has declined comment and has chosen to remain mum on the investigation since announcing at the beginning of his term that he would take a hard look at the Barbara Miller cold case.
Matulewicz said his office does not comment on ongoing investigations.
Matulewicz said in January he was planning on looking at the case as time and resources permitted because his office was short-staffed.
“I have been reviewing the case files,” Matulewicz said. “Chief Miller has produced the entire paper case file. I have been looking into this a lot now and I want everyone to know I am serious about this case.”