Stories written by Jo Ciavaglia, award-winning multimedia newspaper reporter at the Bucks County Courier Times in Bucks County, a suburb of Philadelphia, Pa.
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Thursday, October 15, 2015
Police: Others knew, failed to come forward in 1984 Bensalem murder
Posted: Saturday, October 3, 2015
Where is my daughter?
That is what the angry father banging on the front door of a Bensalem apartment in August 1984 wanted to know.
More than 30 years later, Bob Rowan found out that his 14-year-old daughter, Barbara, was being raped and suffocated inside that home at the time, police said.
But six other people knew for at least a decade before him, police added, and all but one kept silent.
George Shaw (L) Robert Sanders
They included George Shaw Jr., 55, of Seminole County, Florida, who is now accused of homicide and rape, and Robert Sanders, 51, of Stroudsburg, who is charged with hindering apprehension of prosecution, Bucks County and Bensalem law enforcement officials said during a news conference Friday morning. The others are Sanders' brother, his girlfriend, one of his drug buddies he told, and a friend who went to police after Shaw told him about the murder while they were drinking at a Montgomery County bar, authorities said.
That is until last week when, Bensalem police say, Sanders finally spilled the whole story, not long after testifying before a Bucks County Grand Jury that was convened in the unsolved murder case.
Shaw had been suspected in the rape and murder from the beginning, but could never definitively be tied to the case, police said. After the murder, he moved back to Hatboro, where he was convicted of sexually assaulting a 69-year-old woman two months after Barbara’s killing.
The catalyst for the Hatboro assault was a TV news segment on Barbara's murder, according to Bensalem Director of Public Safety Fred Harran. Shaw moved to Florida about a decade ago, where police arrested him Tuesday after a brief struggle. He is expected to be extradited to Pennsylvania, though a date is unknown.
Sanders is incarcerated in Monroe County in connection with an unrelated case.
Bob Rowan, and his wife, Patricia, did not attend the news conference announcing the arrests. Police said they requested privacy. The Bensalem couple still grieves the loss of their only child. Barbara’s childhood photos still cover the walls of their home today, Harran said.
“Thirty-one years to bring a case to closure is unbelievable,” Harran said. “After 31 years, there is hopefully closure.”
Barbara's decomposed body was found along a roadside almost two weeks after her Aug. 3 disappearance.
The week before, police were interviewing neighbors in the apartment building where Shaw lived, which is about 500 feet from the Rowans' faded pink mobile home. Some neighbors told police that Barbara was regularly seen at the Shaw house. Sometimes she baby-sat his 3-year-old daughter; other times she was seen just playing with the toddler.
One neighbor said that she last saw Barbara around 5 p.m. on the day of her disappearance, as the teen was on her way to talk to Shaw about baby-sitting his daughter. Barbara told someone else that Shaw asked her to baby-sit and asked the person not to tell her parents because her mother thought she was too young to baby-sit, police said.
Until Tuesday, the Rowans didn't even know their daughter had been watching the child of a man they never met, Harran said.
Police said they talked to Shaw, who claimed that Barbara was outside his apartment that night, but left around 4:30 p.m. to return a borrowed radio to a friend, according to a probable cause affidavit. Police interviewed him two more times, and he mostly stuck to the original story, though some details came and went, they said.
But Sanders' testimony and later conversation with police painted a different picture.
Bensalem detectives first learned about Robert Sanders two years after the murder. A friend came forward claiming that he was at the Neptune Bar in Upper Moreland the previous night and Sanders told him that Shaw was involved in the death of a teenage girl in the Trevose area, according to the affidavit. In 1998 police interviewed Sanders' brother who also claimed he heard Shaw "date-raped a girl and killed her when he was high on meth," but he didn't think his brother was involved, court documents said.
Police interviewed Sanders in 2004 when he was incarcerated in Montgomery County prison on unrelated charges. He claimed that he and Shaw got high at his house the day Barbara disappeared but he never saw her. Shaw then left the apartment for a half-hour. He also mentioned a man banging at the door looking for his daughter, a new detail, police said.
The detectives caught up with Sanders again last month; his story mostly stayed the same: Shaw picked him up near his Upper Moreland home on the night of the murder, they went to a nearby McDonald’s in Hatboro, then to Shaw’s Trevose apartment where they used meth, and that he never saw Barbara, according to police.
But police didn’t believe him. They handed him a subpoena to appear before the grand jury on Sept. 3.
THE WHOLE TRUTH
Before the grand jury, Sanders testified he saw Shaw take Barbara, who was alive at the time, into his bedroom. Shaw told him he drugged the girl, he said. While they were in the bedroom, Bob Rowan knocked on the door and then burst into the apartment looking for his daughter, he testified. Sanders told him Barbara wasn’t there, he told the grand jury.
After Bob Rowan left the apartment, Sanders said he heard a ruckus and loud banging in the bedroom. About 20 minutes later, Shaw emerged from the room sweaty and panicked, closed the door and told Sanders that "he (expletive) up," the affidavit notes. He also saw Barbara lying on the bed not moving. Next he watched Shaw pull his car to the rear of the house, then leave, Sanders testified. When Shaw returned he took Sanders home.
Last week, though, police said, Sanders admitted that he helped Shaw load a black trash bag containing Barbara's body into Shaw's car and disposed of it on a nearby road. He also admitted that Shaw had told him on the ride to his Trevose home that he drugged the baby sitter and planned to "take advantage of her," the affidavit said.
Sanders also told the detectives that he should have admitted what happened "a long time ago," the affidavit said.
In his testimony before the grand jury, Sanders also admitted that he eventually told his longtime girlfriend what happened the night Barbara was murdered. The girlfriend kept his secret for 15 years, police said. Sanders also later admitted that he told his brother about the rape and murder, too.
Assistant District Attorney Jennifer Schorn said those who knew, other than Shaw and Sanders, won't be charged with a crime. She said just hearing about a crime isn't a crime.
Bensalem Detective Christopher McMullin and Bucks County Detective Michael Mosiniak took over the Rowan investigation in 2002. They zeroed in on Robert Sanders as a key to getting to Shaw — and the truth about what happened.
"You can remember a lie for a while," McMullin said. "They lose track of their lies, but we keep track."
In June 2004, they obtained search warrants for copies of recorded phone calls Sanders made between April and June while he was incarcerated in the Montgomery County prison on charges unrelated to Barbara's murder. Three of the calls were pertinent to the Rowan case said.
In them, Sanders made references to Barbara's murder — at one point claiming, “there’s three people that know about it: me, the Lord and the person who did it,” police said.
In one call to his brother, police allege Sanders is heard asking what him he told police in 1998. During the conversation, Sanders allegedly admitted to being at the murder scene — “Just cause I was there, you know what the (expletive) am I supposed to do about it,” he said, according to court documents.
Besides the phone records and Sanders' testimony, police said they also have other evidence to physically tie Shaw to the murder.
Soon after Barbara's body was found, a friend of Shaw’s told them that months earlier, he had given Shaw some rolls of specially manufactured heavy-duty tape, they said. Tape was found around Barbara’s skull, neck, hands and feet, police added.
In late August 1984, police said they obtained a search warrant and secured rolls of similar tape from Shaw’s apartment. Decades later, forensic testing connected the tape found on Barbara with the tape found in Shaw’s home, police said.
Such evidence, while compelling, wasn’t enough to bring charges against Shaw at the time, police said. Through the years, though, the new leads continued to slowly develop like an old-fashioned Polaroid.
On Friday, McMullin credited police officers before him who worked the case with the arrests.
Detective Chris McMullin
“If they didn’t do their job in 1984, we wouldn’t be here today,” he said.
McMullin added that he never met with the Rowan family until Thursday, though he spent the last 13 years trying to solve their daughter’s murder. He didn’t want to bother them until he had enough evidence to close the case, he said.
Harran emphasized that the investigation into Shaw isn’t over. He suggested there may be evidence he was involved in other unsolved crimes in Bensalem, though he didn’t elaborate.
Police also believe that more people still know something that can help with the prosecution of Sanders and Shaw. Harran is hoping an anonymous person who left a message on 1984 describing a key piece of evidence in the murder will contact Bensalem police.
“It would help put the nails in the coffin,” Harran added.
Jo Ciavaglia: 215-949-4181; email: firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @jociavaglia