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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Friday, January 13, 2017
Bucks DA on Grace Packer homicide: 'To them she was, unfortunately, a disposable child'
Sara Packer led out of her arraignment on murder charges
Posted January 9, 2017 After being beaten and raped, then drugged, bound and gagged, 14-year-old Grace Packer was left to die in a sweltering attic.
When she didn’t, the boyfriend of her adoptive mother strangled her. Both the mother and her boyfriend packed her body in kitty litter and moth balls to mask the odor of decomposition and left her in a closet for three months, authorities said.
Then, after police visited the couple’s Richland home in October asking questions about Grace, the pair dismembered her and tossed her remains in a remote area in Luzerne County, investigators say.
Bucks County detectives arrested Jacob Sullivan, 44, early Sunday and charged him with 19 crimes, including homicide, kidnapping, rape and conspiracy. Sara Packer, 41, Grace’s mother, was arraigned 12 hours later on 17 charges, including homicide, kidnapping, conspiracy and abuse of a corpse. They were both sent to Bucks County prison without bail. They could face the death penalty, said District Attorney Matthew Weintraub.
Throughout the arraignment and following press conference, Weintraub described the couple's alleged crimes as “depraved,” “cruel,” “unspeakable” and “heinous.”
Authorities say that July 8, Sullivan and Packer drove from Abington to their new Richland home with Grace, who was dressed in her pajamas and sleeping in the back seat. Upon arrival, Sullivan struck Grace in the face several times, splitting her lip, according to a probable cause affidavit.
Following the assault, Packer and Sullivan took the girl to the third-floor attic where Sullivan raped her in Packer’s presence, according to the affidavit. Packer then gave Grace medicine she had purchased earlier that day to sedate her.
Then, Grace was bound and gagged and put in a cedar closet in the extremely hot attic, court documents said.
Packer and Sullivan left the home and returned to Abington. They returned to the Richland house at 3 a.m. the next day, expecting to find Grace dead from the assault, drugging and heat, police said.
But when they found her still conscious, Sullivan wrapped his arm around her neck and “slowly squeezed the life out of her,” the affidavit said.
“To them, she was, unfortunately, a disposable child,” Weintraub said during a press conference following Packer's arraignment Sunday.
Months earlier, Packer reported to police that Grace had disappeared from the bedroom of her Abington home on July 8, taking with her a backpack, $300 and a journal. A month later, though, Sara Packer moved without telling authorities. She removed Grace and her 12-year-old adopted son -- Grace’s biological brother -- from the Abington School District, but left school officials no forwarding address. She allegedly failed to return police calls to her cellphone or forward photos of Grace to be added to missing person databases. She didn’t tell relatives Grace was missing until October, and continued collecting Grace’s monthly Social Security check, authorities said.
Not long after the October visit by police, she purchased a bow saw and extra blades, according to court documents. Those items have not been found, police said.
Police say Packer and Sullivan moved the body to the second-floor bathroom of the Richland home, where they dismembered the girl in a bathtub. They put the body parts in two plastic totes and loaded them into Sullivan’s car, according to investigators. They then drove north toward the Pocono mountains, avoiding the Pennsylvania Turnpike, taking only back roads.
They drove about 100 miles north to Luzerne County, a place that Sara Packer was familiar with because she grew up there, Weintraub said. There they dumped the remains in a remote area. They remained undiscovered for about two weeks, until two hunters came across a torso without limbs in a remote area of Bear Creek Township on Oct. 31. Eight days later, the remains were positively identified as Grace Packer through dental records, authorities said.
Weintraub on Sunday confirmed that Packer and Sullivan were involved in a polyamorous relationship with another woman, who lives in Horsham. The woman, who this news organization is not identifying, is being called a person of interest in the case, but she has not been charged with a crime as of Sunday.
The woman is the person who called 911 Friday to report she found Sullivan barely conscious in the bedroom of the Horsham home and who later that day drove Packer to the hospital after finding her unconscious in the bathroom of the home, according to court documents. Packer and Sullivan both attempted suicide in what was described as a “suicide pact” using prescription medication, police said.
After he regained consciousness, Sullivan told several workers at Abington Hospital-Jefferson Health he was responsible for killing Grace, according to court documents. He also allegedly confessed his involvement to family members and implicated Sara Packer. The hospital workers had specific details of the murder that had not been previously released, authorities said.
Under subsequent questioning by Bucks County detectives, Sullivan revealed in detail how he raped and killed Grace with her mother’s help. Sullivan allegedly told authorities that he and Packer started planning Grace’s murder shortly after she returned home in November 2015, after a yearlong stay with relatives in North Carolina. Authorities also alleged that Sullivan twice sexually assaulted Grace Packer in the two weeks before her death.
Weintraub said Montgomery County plans to withdraw two charges against Sara Packer filed last month -- endangering the welfare of children and obstruction of justice -- and they would be absorbed into the Bucks County case.
Grace’s brother is in the custody of family members, Weintraub said. He declined to say if the boy has any idea what happened to his sister.
On Sunday, Packer arrived at Newtown Borough District Court wrapped in what appeared to be a white hospital blanket. Weintraub said police arrested her at the Horsham Clinic, where she had voluntarily committed herself. She kept her head down and said nothing as she walked through a throng of waiting media, but once inside the courtroom she picked up her head and appeared to be smiling.
Earlier, Sullivan was heard at his arraignment saying he was “sorry for what I did.”
Following Packer's arraignment Sunday afternoon, Weintraub said the woman has not made any statements about the teen's death.
“How could any mother do this to their child,” he said. “I don’t have an answer.”
Neither do neighbors of Packer and Sullivan.
While news of the charges Sunday had already spread among Tennis Avenue residents in Abington, near the former home of Packer, most said they knew little about the family that lived inside the now-vacant, cream-colored home perched on a small hill set back from the road.
"It's a great neighborhood. It's pretty tight-knit. We know all of our neighbors," Steven Hartner said from his front door just down the street, "But that was the one neighbor we didn't know."
Terri Hack, who lives directly across the street, said it was "extremely upsetting" to know people charged with this type of crime had been living so close.
At the Summit Avenue apartment complex in Horsham, where the couple lived with a third woman, neighbors Ben Cleal and Stephanie Budney were stunned. They live in the apartment above where the three lived.
Cleal and Budney said they had only a few interactions with Sullivan and another woman residing in the apartment since first meeting them in mid-December.
"We were friendly and we would say 'Hi," Budney added. "I brought them down brownies and a Christmas card when they first moved in."
They said they never saw Packer nor had any idea she was staying there.
During their brief encounters, the other woman did most of the talking.
Sullivan was "kind of quiet," Cleal said.
Cleal and Budney were out of town for the holidays when it was reported that their downstairs neighbors could be connected to the Grace Packer investigation. When the couple returned Dec. 29, another neighbor filled them in.
"It's such a horrific event," Budney added. "It's heartbreaking. It gives me the chills just thinking about it."