HUNLOCK TWP. — In the picturesque countryside of Hunlock Township along the gentle hills of Golf Course Road and Timber Lane, a dark and mysterious secret could lie.
It is the strongest lead yet in the 14-year quest by Pauline Bailey to find out what happened to her daughter, Phylicia Thomas, the night of Feb. 11, 2004. Thomas was just 22 when she went missing.
Despite personal threats, misinformation, rumors and what she calls a mediocre investigation by State Police, Bailey said she is committed to bringing her daughter home and holding accountable those responsible for her death.
“I’m her mother and I won’t stop until I bring her home,” a teary Bailey said. “I know what happened to her. My family and friends have been looking all these years and we’re convinced we know what happened.”
Bailey and her friends, Judy Fisher and Kevin Ryan, believe Thomas was killed while attending a party inside a house trailer and dismembered in a barn on Timber Lane.
It is a theory that has been investigated by State Police, a presumption that remains open, said Trooper Stephen Polishan, a member of the Criminal Investigations Unit.
From what Bailey and her friends say they learned from a few people who attended the party, Thomas was taken into a bedroom by four men and raped before she was killed. The party was attended by 17 people and two or three left when they heard Thomas’ cries for help, Bailey says.
Thomas’ body was wrapped in a blanket and carried to a small barn that has a gravel and stone floor where she was dismembered on a large tarp and later burned in a debris pile or buried in a vegetable garden in a field on top of a hill, they believe.
“All the players are there; all the answers are there,” Ryan said. “You can almost see it happening right before your eyes.”
Bailey believes Thomas was killed because she was asking about the disappearance of her friend, Jennifer Barziloski.
Friend vanished in 2001
Bailey said Thomas confided to her that Steve Martin was responsible for Barziloski’s disappearance. At first, Bailey said she ignored what Thomas told her. But over the years, she believed Thomas may have been telling the truth.
Barziloski was reported missing to the now-defunct Lake Township Police Department on June 23, 2001. State Police would not get involved with Barziloski’s disappearance until August of that year.
“Phylicia would not give up to find out what happened to Jennifer and she kept saying, ‘I’m close to knowing,’” Bailey recalled.
According to previous State Police accounts, Thomas’ boyfriend, Ed Rudaski, told investigators he was awakened by Thomas when she arrived home from work between 11:30 p.m. and midnight on Feb. 11, 2004. Rudaski claimed he told Thomas there was beer outside on his all-terrain vehicle and he fell back to sleep.
Rudaski reportedly never saw Thomas again nor did he report her missing.
Who reported Thomas missing? Bailey.
Bailey reported Thomas missing to State Police at about 5:30 p.m. Feb. 13, 2004, about 41 hours after Rudaski claimed to have seen Thomas walk out a door to get a beer.
Bailey said her nightmare began when Thomas’ employer, Pump and Pantry, a convenience store at Routes 29 and 118, called her to say Thomas never picked up her paycheck.
“When I received that phone call, I knew something horrible had happened. As a mother, I just knew,” Bailey said.
Bailey, Fisher and Ryan said a few of those who attended the party claimed Rudaski and Thomas were picked up by Martin and driven to the house trailer where John Anthony Neary lived.
“I don’t think Phylicia would get into the truck with Steve (Martin) if Ed (Rudaski) was not with her,” Fisher said.
Once inside the trailer, the mother believes Thomas was lured to a bedroom followed by four men.
Efforts to reach Rudaski and Neary were unsuccessful last week.
Focus shifts to Martin
State Police almost immediately focused their attention on Martin, 32, who lived at 302 Golf Course Road, less than one-half mile from the house trailer and barn on Timber Lane.
Four days after Thomas was last seen, Martin was questioned and his house was searched.
Although never charged with the disappearances of Barziloski and Thomas, Martin was accused by State Police of supplying drugs and alcohol to teenage girls and making sexual advances toward the girls on numerous occasions during a two-year span.
As troopers continued their investigation, Martin initiated a pursuit with State Police that ended in a crash at Wilkes-Barre Boulevard and Conyngham Boulevard on Dec. 9, 2004.
Vera Simon, 55, the driver of a vehicle Martin struck during the pursuit, died Dec. 20. Martin pleaded guilty to homicide by vehicle and involuntary manslaughter and was sentenced to two to four years in state prison.
Martin took his own life while jailed at the State Correctional Institution at Camp Hill on Aug. 10, 2005.
As the probe into the disappearances of Barziloski and Thomas slowed after Martin’s suicide, Bailey said she continued to hear information from those known to the two women.
Bailey said her efforts were renewed when two boys, 12 and 15, riding all-terrain vehicles along Roaring Brook Creek near Roaring Brook Baptist Church found a human skull on April 2, 2010.
State Police Lt. Richard Krawetz, now retired, said in early April 2010 that the creek was thoroughly searched but the skull was the only human skeletal remain found.
Dental records were used to identify the skull as Barziloski’s.
The skull did not have any perforated marks, suggesting a saw was not used to detach it from the atlas of the cervical spine, according to the Luzerne County Coroner’s Office.
Coroner Bill Lisman did note, however, nothing has been ruled out.
Generally speaking, Lisman said it is possible to use a saw to remove a skull without leaving perforated marks depending where on the cervical spine the cut is made. Lisman said it is also possible for the skull to become detached as the cervical spine discs, muscle, tissue and ligaments decompose over time.
It remains unknown if Barziloski’s skull was washed down by high water or carried by wild animals.
According to the National Weather Service, there was a high water event throughout Northeastern Pennsylvania due to 2 inches of rain, warm temperatures and snow melt from Jan. 24 to Jan. 26, 2010, less than 10 weeks before Barziloski’s skull was found.
Barziloski’s skull was found about three-quarters to one mile downstream from Martin’s residence and the barn.
A feeder creek to Roaring Brook Creek, where Barziloski’s skull was found, flows near the barn where Bailey believes her daughter’s body was taken. The feeder creek, as it appeared last week, is about 6 feet wide and in sight of Martin’s residence.
About 100 yards behind the barn in a heavily wooded area, Ryan said a black deteriorating tarp was found next to the feeder creek. Ryan said the tarp was big enough to cover a small car.
Bailey and her friends received another boost of hope when the 25-acre property where the house trailer and barn are located was sold in December 2015. The new property owners allowed Bailey to search the area.
Fisher arranged to have cadaver dogs from Search and Rescue Dogs of Pennsylvania, based in Malvern, search the property Aug. 20, 2016.
According to two reports from Search and Rescue Dogs, two cadaver dogs made favorable hits.
One dog and its handler located the deteriorating tarp under brush and leaves, and it gave an indication at the debris burn pile in the open field.
The same dog and a second cadaver dog in separate searches gave indications at the same spot inside the barn. Both dogs laid down in front of a cabinet on the stone floor.
With information gathered from those few who attended the house trailer party and the cadaver dog search, Bailey, Fisher and Ryan said they are convinced Thomas was killed and dismembered.
Fisher said State Police were unaware of the cadaver dog search until early September 2016.
Trooper Polishan said he could not discuss the investigation because it remains open. However, he did say the same cadaver dogs from Search and Rescue Dogs were used when State Police searched the property over two days. The Forensic Services Unit and a forensic anthropologist were also involved in that effort.
Chuck Wooters, coordinator of Search and Rescue Dogs, said State Police “really tore up the place” and “really worked their butts off” when he assisted with his cadaver dogs.
Wooters acknowledged that his cadaver dogs gave indications at certain areas of the property when he conducted the private search with Bailey, Fisher and Ryan.
When he assisted State Police, Wooters said he was “baffled” the cadaver dogs did not give any indications as they had in the earlier search.
“There wasn’t a bone to be found,” Wooters explained about assisting troopers. “Certified cadaver dogs are right 99 percent of the time but I’m baffled by it.”
Wooters said a cadaver dog can indicate human decomposition within 20 to 25 feet of where human remains are buried. He noted that over time, odor from human decomposition of buried remains can spread underground dependent upon the soil and weather conditions such as rain and snow melt.
When Wooters did his search with Bailey, Fisher and Ryan, he said the cadaver dogs had “a big interest” inside the barn.
The barn as it appeared last week is made up of board plank siding with a solid shingle roof. There are air gaps between most of the wood planks and a window was propped open. The condition of the barn in 2004 is not known.
The floor of the barn is mostly made up of golf ball-size gravel except for a corner that is made up of flat stones, the same corner where the cadaver dogs gave indications during the August 2016 search. There is a noticeable dip in the stone floor, an indication that some type of excavation had occurred.
There are old farm tools around, including six rusty handsaws hanging on a wall and a rusty long-handle ax.
Newer grass-cutting equipment, spreaders and a pallet of fertilizer were also inside the barn.
John Ackerman, a Westmoreland County deputy coroner and a cadaver dog handler, and Dr. Nicholas Passalacqua, a forensic anthropology professor at Western Carolina University in North Carolina, explained well-trained cadaver dogs can detect human decomposition years after a body has been moved or buried.
Ackerman explained that body fluids and tissue are similar to gasoline in that the odor does not easily dissipate over time. Passalacqua said cadaver dogs — when making an indication — are hitting on a cocktail of chemicals in body fluids.
A well-trained cadaver dog is able to detect human decomposition that is 100 years old, Ackerman and Passalacqua explained.
When described the theory that Thomas was dismembered inside the barn, Ackerman said it is possible that a well-trained cadaver dog can detect human decomposition or tissue even after 12 years.
Ackerman and Passalacqua are not involved in the Thomas investigation.
Some info not public
There have been changes to the 25-acre property since it was sold in December 2015.
The house trailer Neary lived in and where Bailey believes her daughter was killed was demolished and the debris burn pile has been removed, graded and seeded.
A satellite picture from the US Geological Survey’s Earth Explorer shows the burn pile, remnants of the vegetable garden, the barn and a bulldozer where the trailer was located.
While Trooper Polishan said he could not discuss the ongoing investigation, he noted there are details about the case not known to Thomas’ family and the public. He did say Martin and another man who is known to investigators were last seen with Thomas.
Aimee Dilger | Times Leader
Reach Ed Lewis at 570-991-6389