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Going behind the scene of the crime with retired trooper

True crime has its devotees in books, on television and through podcasts, and the genre, when set in Washington County, will certainly enthrall many a local reader who opts to travel with retired state trooper Bernard Stanek along “The Road to Justice.”

Be forewarned that both the subject – a decapitated corpse rolled down an embankment of Interstate 79 under cover of darkness – and accompanying photographs of the head that was found miles away weeks later – are gruesome.

But this glimpse into how Stanek solves a whodunit in which the victim had no face reads like a police report punctuated by vignettes of life in 1980s Washington during the era of big hair, stonewashed denim and the polyester double knit suit.

This self-confessed two- to four-pack-a-day man gave up smoking during his retirement, and that may be one reason Stanek will be turning 85 this Thursday.

“I almost died in 1997 after I retired,” Stanek said. “I smoked too damn much, I really did.”

He spent decades as a detective in the the Pennsylvania State Police Troop B crime unit based in Washington, taking almost as many years to write, off and on, “The Road to Justice,” which he self-published.

One reader wondered if Stanek has a photographic memory in recounting 234 pages of material, but, in a recent interview, he said he worked from his personal notes.

There are also things he could never forget.

“They thought they had committed the perfect murder, but they were so stupid,” Stanek said.

Those in the news business who write about local crime had a scoop that frigid Friday afternoon, Jan. 22, 1988. A truck driver searching for a wheel and tire combination, found a wrapped body and then went straight to the Observer-Reporter newsroom because he wasn’t sure of the jurisdiction.

Jeff Hoch, police beat reporter on the night staff, first ascertained this was no hoax and accompanied the trucker to report the crime to the proper authorities. He wrote a 12-paragraph news story quoting both the driver and Washington County Coroner Farrell Jackson who asked anyone with information to contact state police.

Members of the news media and local police departments bedeviled Stanek that night, hounding him for details, and he was miffed enough to admonish those transferring the calls they weren’t to bother him unless someone was calling to provide, not seek, information about the case.

As the word “justice” in the title implies, Stanek cracked the case and a convicted perpetrator is in prison. No spoiler alert needed here, but once a reader learns of the outcome, an internet search of the criminal’s name will show the felon is still trying to be released on parole.

Stanek and his fellow investigators in their quest to learn about about the faceless victim doggedly pursued the mystery, capitalizing on inconsistencies that kept cropping up when a key subject was interviewed and re-interviewed.

Anyone who regularly visited “the barracks” while it stood on Murtland Avenue will remember on breezy and buffeted days the clanging of its American flag on the pole’s halyard, and details like this add depth to scenes Stanek captures. Expect a liberal sprinkling of “10 codes” as Stanek recounts radio transmissions.

“Bernie was my chief deputy for two years,” said Washington County Coroner Timothy Warco, who has been in office since 1992, succeeding Jackson.

“He was a great mentor, and I was so proud to have Bernie, a retired state police homicide investigator as part of my staff. Bernie and I hit it off from day one.”

Warco recalls Stanek’s cool demeanor inducing interviewees to divulge significant information.

“You wouldn’t even know where his mind was going,” said Warco, who called the former trooper “highly respected among his peers.”

Stanek, with long-time friend and co-worker Trooper James C. Patt, were known as “silk and satin,” apparently because they were so smooth.

The author is not sure who nicknamed them, but he said it was a female civilian employee – either a secretary or a police communications operator.

So which of this duo was silk and who was satin?

“Nobody knows,” Stanek said.

The crime detail wore plainclothes, not gray uniforms, but they were flashy rather than plain.

“I recall when I interacted with Trooper Stanek he always dressed in a suit and tie – very spiffy,” said former Observer-Reporter staff writer and editor Linda Ritzer. “And in the winter, he always wore a topcoat.”

Another public figure who is named in “The Road to Justice” is Washington County Commission Vice Chairman Larry Maggi, who also described Stanek as a mentor.

Maggi, a former trooper and sheriff, had been part of the crime investigation unit for less than a year when the body was dumped down the slope.

Stanek sent Maggi to interview people who lived nearby and at a service station to see if anyone knew anything significant.

“You circle out from the crime scene,” Maggi said. “You hit the closest business, bar, person or place and ask if anyone saw anything or if anything abnormal happened that day.

“Anything strike you as unusual? Do you remember anyone coming in asking for directions? Did anyone come in here that you didn’t know? You didn’t have much to go with at that point.”

Neither were there leads from those who worked with horses at The Meadows Racetrack.

The investigation took state police out of state, where they zeroed in on family members and friends of the by-then identified victim, who could be described as a “gear head.”

Maggi recalled when members of the forensics unit used a chemical luminescent at what was determined to be the crime scene.

“It just glowed,” he said, “it indicated there had been blood all over the place.”

Trying to extract details like this from police and prosecutors in Ohio was Ritzer, who also had to cultivate sources via phone among various clerks and secretaries.

“You have to remember this was pre-internet,” Ritzer said. “Online court dockets were unheard of, and I don’t recall if I received any information via fax.”

Stanek retired in 1990, and as he was bidding people farewell, many of them told him he should write a book.

“The Road to Justice” is being sold at Amazon.com in both paperback and digital versions. Stanek is donating a portion of pre-sold books through June 21 to the Hope for Heroes Foundation, a charity for first responders and members of the military who have work-related disabilities. He said he has raised $369.

Protect your catharsis

Dear Annie: I recently read the letter from A Better Man Today, who was concerned about people reading his personal diary, particularly about his “dark times.”

I agree with your answer but would like to add one more idea. Create a “burn box” and entrust it to someone who will not open it or divulge its contents but will see that it is destroyed upon your death or at your request. I read about this once upon a time and apologize for not recalling the origin. I suspect it was from the military.

I shared this idea with a very dear friend of mine years ago because she also journaled and was concerned about how her children might react to her words and deepest feelings.

She created her burn box, sealed it and left instructions that it was to be given to me.

I understood that once I received it, I was to burn it.

She may have cleaned it out and destroyed the contents already. I don’t know and don’t need to know at this point.

But this may be another way for A Better Man Today to have some peace of mind about his most personal, deepest thoughts.

Dear Burn Box: What a clever idea.

Thank you for your suggestion.

Dear Annie: I resisted responding to the first letter you received in regard to eliminating mice, but after reading another on that subject this morning, I decided to add my experience.

When I lived in my previous house, I would get a mouse visitor every so often, so I set out a cage trap.

I was delighted to discover that each one I caught had a facial expression and personality all its own. For example, one looked at me with great irritation, and I could almost hear it thinking,

“You’ve got some nerve. Just wait till I get out of here”; another was quite afraid and huddled as far away from me as possible; another had a sweet expression and looked at me as if to say it would like to know more about me.

I would drive each one to a wooded area away from houses and let them free. – Missing My Mice

Dear Missing My Mice: Your sweet story makes me imagine them like little cartoon characters. Maybe you could write a children’s story about them.

All people and animals have unique personalities and characteristics that make them special. It is beautiful you noticed that in little mice.

Send your questions for Annie Lane to dearannie@creators.com.