PERKASIE, Pa. — For children preparing to venture out after dark in Perkasie in the early 1960s, their trip often would be preceded by a stark reminder.
” ‘Be careful,’ my mother would say,” recalled Judy Pezzanite. “Remember what happened to Mrs. Kretshmar.”
Those words, Pezzanite said, cut through the idyllic image of Perkasie, an Upper Bucks hamlet with a population back then of just a few thousand people.
“It kind of put the fear of God into us,” she said.
The 1959 death of Mabel Kretshmar — or Mrs. Kretshmar, as Pezzanite’s mother called her — and the painstaking, but ultimately fruitless, investigation that followed served as a grisly flashpoint in the borough’s history. Residents began locking their doors. Children, like Pezzanite, were warned to avoid a similar fate.
While Pezzanite was only 9 years old at the time, the specter of Mrs. Kretshmar, she said, lingered well into her teenage years.
“I just remember it was a horrendous thing,” said Pezzanite, now 67. “It was just horrible what happened to her.”
Friday the 13th
Kretshmar, 58, was a small woman, according to newspaper reports, but unafraid to walk alone, having spent her adult life in Philadelphia.
She moved back to the area after her husband, Edward, a World War I veteran, died in 1947.
It was a chilly February night — Friday, the 13th — when Kretshmar bundled up in a green overcoat and matching hat to embark on the mile-long walk from her apartment to St. Andrew’s United Church of Christ on the south side of town to attend a prayer service.
Shortly before 7:30 p.m., just as she finished crossing the Walnut Street Bridge, which traverses the east branch of the Perkiomen Creek, she was attacked.
Her assailant dragged her 300 feet to a muddy area along the bank of the creek, police said.
She struggled the entire time — leaving behind her left shoe, followed a few more feet by her hat, then her other shoe. A broken pair of eyeglasses was found where she was left in the muck. Her purse, which contained $30, was missing.
The woman, dazed and covered in mud, staggered to a nearby gas station.
By the time police arrived, a small crowd already had gathered. She showed officers the area where she was mugged and beaten.
Aside from a scrape on her right wrist and a small bruise on her hand, there was little sign of injury.
But Kretshmar described a pain in her chest and later was rushed to Grand View Hospital.
She was pronounced dead at 2:20 a.m. Feb. 14.
“Country boy” suspect
The cause of Kretshmar’s death was listed in a coroner’s report as laceration of the liver and abdominal hemorrhaging. All of the ribs on her left side were broken.
In the hours before her death, Kretshmar could provide little detail about her attacker to police. All she could say for certain was that he grabbed her from behind, dragged her away from the bridge and stomped on her chest with his knees.
No one seemed to have witnessed the actual attack, but by Monday two people had come forward to describe a young man seen in the area around the time of the incident. One said he saw him trailing Kretshmar. Both told authorities the man wore a ski cap and a red and black plaid jacket. He walked with a long, “country boy” stride, they added. That detail, police would say, was verified by footprints found at the scene that seemed to show the suspect’s left foot pointed outward. That would have meant he tended to swing it away from his body when walking.
A composite sketch was constructed based on those statements, along with input from a 16-year-old Sellersville girl who was attacked in Perkasie three weeks earlier, which police thought could be connected. The drawing circulated in newspapers and nearly 1,000 copies were posted throughout the county.
Police brought at least one witness to two youth basketball games to hopefully spot the suspect in the crowd, but to no avail.
At the height of the investigation, more than 50 local, county and state law enforcement officers took part, often working 12- to 15-hour shifts. They used Perkasie Borough Hall as their headquarters. Two high school students were brought in to take dictation.
By Feb. 26, police had questioned about 120 possible suspects. The number swelled to 140 by March.
A diving unit from Telford was brought in to search the creek for Kretshmar’s missing purse or any other bits of evidence.
Officers canvassed every home in the area of the attack in the hope that someone might have seen something that could break the case. They stopped drivers near the bridge and questioned them.
The Forrest Lodge VFW Post 245 in Sellersville offered a $100 reward.
Leads turn cold
In 1959, 22-year-old Vernon Gantz was between marriages. He had recently moved back in with his mother across the street from the former location of the Perkasie police department.
From there he could see “probably everyone around town” who even remotely fit the description of the suspect entering the station to be questioned by investigators.
“Guys were coming and going all the time,” recalled Gantz, now 80. The interviews, he said, went on for weeks.
Even he was called in to speak with police, but was ruled out as a suspect.
“The whole thing was just way, in my opinion, beyond anybody’s comprehension in Perkasie,” Gantz said. “There were no serious crimes ever committed in Perkasie. There were pranks … but there was nothing of this magnitude at the time.”
As he stared at the composite sketch of the suspect nearly 60 years later, Gantz shook his head, saying only that it didn’t look like anyone he knew.
He said he feels that Kretshmar deserves to have her killer found and the mystery solved, but he also feels it’s unlikely at this point.
“It’s an incident,” he said. “Then it becomes history. It’s that simple.”
Police had no major suspects, and one by one, they crossed all potential suspects off their list. Leads evaporated or never quite materialized into anything of substance.
In June 1961, nearly two-and-a-half years after the crime, an 18-year-old Pennridge High School student named Werner Schirmer was cleaning a drainage ditch along the creek when he found something buried a few inches in the ground.
It turned out to be a dark leather purse, similar to the one Kretshmar reportedly had been carrying.
Schirmer immediately recalled the tales of the murdered Mrs. Kretshmar and thought it could be connected. He gave the bag over to authorities, but never heard whether he had actually found a piece of evidence. It is unclear if police were able to determine if the bag belonged to the woman.
When reached over the phone at his home in Guilford, Connecticut, recently, Schirmer said he was shocked to be asked about his discovery and the case in general.
He said it had been more than 50 years since he’d even thought about it.
“If the murderer were to be found, I would definitely like to know who it was,” Schirmer said. “To someone, it could still bring some closure.”
Bridge of secrets
Mabel Kretshmar’s murder was the talk of the town. But nearly six decades later, the case has become a relic passed among the remaining few who were old enough back then to remember it.
Others, like Perkasie Borough Council member Scott Bomboy, come upon the case by accident.
While researching the history of the Walnut Street Bridge — which is being replaced after 110 years — Bomboy said he stumbled onto old newspaper articles about the crime.
Bomboy recently reached out to Perkasie police Chief Steven Hillias to ask if he could help publicize the case in an effort to generate new leads.
“It was the largest investigation the state police said they’ve done in this area and it came up absolutely cold,” Bomboy said.
Solving the case is a long shot, the councilman admits, but he believes there is a chance someone — even the perpetrator himself — with some new information might be out there.
Whether it was fear or guilt or an attempt to protect a friend, enough time has passed, he said, that the reason to stay silent back then might have dissipated.
Justice for Mabel
Hillias recently sat down with a stack of copies of newspaper articles along with the Kretshmar case file during an interview to discuss the investigation.
“You just get sucked in by all of this,” he said, as he scanned the material. He examined the original sketch of the suspect, statements penned in cursive writing, and a large, hand-drawn map of the crime scene.
Detective Sgt. Russ Closs has been keeping tabs on the case for at least the last 15 years. He said he stopped by the state police barracks in Dublin a few weeks back and reviewed the 1,095 pages of reports in the files there.
“Before I knew it, I ended up spending an hour there reading it,” he said. “It was like a novel.”
While Hillias shares Bomboy’s reservations about a break in the case ever coming, the decision to unearth Kretshmar’s story is really about one thing: “Justice for Mabel.”
“She was minding her business walking to a prayer service and was robbed and beaten,” the chief said. “She didn’t deserve to lose her life.”
Closs added that he’d like to see the case solved as a tribute to the efforts of all the law enforcement officers assigned to the case — most of whom have died — including lead investigator John P. Mitchell, a state police detective who was elected Bucks County Sheriff in 1977. Mitchell died in 1985.
“You have hours and hours of manpower that were dedicated to this with nothing at the end,” Closs said, “so it would be kind of neat to wrap this up for them.”
Hillias wants to see how modern investigative methods and technology could be applied to the case. If a tip leads police to a suspect with a criminal record or already incarcerated for another crime, the DNA database could connect him to the murder. Investigators in 1959 had sent Kretshmar’s clothing to be analyzed in a lab in Harrisburg. Several strands of male hair were found and a partial fingerprint was obtained from a plastic button.
As he leafed through the documents, Closs found where Kretshmar was buried — Beverly National Cemetery in Burlington County, New Jersey.
He immediately took out his phone to see how far of a drive it would be from Perkasie.
He didn’t expect to find any clues there.
“Just to pay respects,” he said.
Information from: Bucks County Courier Times, http://www.buckscountycouriertimes.com