Judge finds probable cause in Pa. slaying

August 13, 2005|By RICHARD F. BELISLE

A murder case that baffled police in two states for 10 years, until a missing persons Web site connected the investigations, was sent up to a higher court Friday.

Magisterial District Judge Wendy Mellott said, following a preliminary hearing, that there was sufficient probable cause for a first-degree murder charge against Stephen Alfred Vanderbeek, 51, of 33 Corsa Terrace in Ridgewood, N.J.

Vanderbeek's attorney, Brian Manchester of Centre County, Pa., argued unsuccessfully for a third-degree murder charge for his client.

Vanderbeek is accused of strangling his wife, Cynthia Vanderbeek, 47, in March 1995. Her badly decomposed body was found under some brush off Fire Tower Road on May 1, 1995, by Sean Flaherty, an off-duty Pennsylvania state trooper.


Flaherty testified that he was out running with his dogs on the isolated gravel road off Aughwich Road near the Fulton-Franklin county line when his dogs found the body about 40 feet into the woods.

Police in Pennsylvania handled the case for nearly 10 years as a Jane Doe investigation because they were unable to identify the victim. There was no identification, jewelry or personal belongings on the body.

An autopsy determined that Cynthia Vanderbeek died between March 22 and March 28, 1995.

A second investigation

Meanwhile in May 1995, around the time the body was discovered in Fulton County, Detective Robert Nichols of the Montgomery County (Md.) Police Department began a missing person's investigation from a report filed by Camille Catchpole and Sandra Difranco. The women, the victim's mother and sister, respectively, lived in the Gaithersburg, Md., area at the time. They now live in Florida and were not in court Friday.

The two investigations continued independently before they were connected last year when police in Pennsylvania identified Cynthia Vanderbeek through DNA on her tooth. They entered the case on the Doe Network, a nonprofit group that helps police solve cold or missing person cases.

Cpl. Roger Smith, a Pennsylvania trooper who specializes in investigating cold cases, testified. He said he began to review the Vanderbeek case after the Doe Network linked the Montgomery County missing person's case with the Fulton County investigation.

Testimony: Couple splits

According to testimony, Vanderbeek told police in interviews in 1995 and 2004 that he and his wife made their living selling things at boat shows. They ended the 1995 boating season with a show in Portland, Maine. The couple, fighting over financial problems, decided to split the profits earned in the summer show season then go their separate ways, according to testimony.

They left Maine and spent the night at a motel in New York state. The next night, March 24, Stephen Vanderbeek spent the night alone in a motel in Clarksburg, W.Va., according to testimony.

He told police he stopped by Gaithersburg, removed $5,000 in cash from a joint safe deposit box in his and his wife's names, then stopped by Camille Catchpole's house to pick up $1,500 in cash she was holding for the couple. There was conflicting testimony on how much money was in the safe deposit box.

Catchpole and Difranco began to have suspicions about Cynthia Vanderbeek's whereabouts, according to testimony.

Stephen Vanderbeek, in a 2004 interview, signed a statement for police saying he was responsible for his wife's death and for leaving her body.

According to Smith's testimony, Vanderbeek told police he and his wife stopped at Cowan's Gap State Park to eat some sandwiches, but she thought the park was "too crowded." They drove up Fire Tower Road and ate their lunch on the tailgate of his pickup truck.

The two started to argue, according to Stephen Vanderbeek's statement to police. She got out of control and attacked him, Vanderbeek said.

"She started going off on me. Something just happened and I left her there," he told police, according to testimony.

In court Friday, Vanderbeek kept his head down and declined to look at police photos of his wife's body under the brush that were being passed among the attorneys.

Manchester said in his closing argument that "something happened there, but it doesn't mean he killed her. Accidents happen in domestic situations. There is no evidence of intent here."

Harvey launched into his closing saying there was plenty of circumstantial evidence showing that Vanderbeek had the intent and motive.

"They worked the boat season and he didn't want to split the money with her," he said. He accused Vanderbeek of having "a cold, calculating mind." He said it was a case of premeditated, intentional killing.

Harvey said an arraignment date for Vanderbeek probably would be set for sometime in mid-September. The case could go to trial in Common Pleas Court in the October term, he said.

Vanderbeek is being held in the Bedford County (Pa.) Prison.

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