Wayne County Wanderings: Keeping Her Memory Alive

My phone buzzed at a little after 4 a.m.

It was a rainy, humid night like so many we’ve experienced here lately.

Normally I wouldn’t even have heard it, but I sleep only lightly and fitfully with the windows closed and air conditioning on.

So, I sat up, stretched, grabbed the phone and headed downstairs. Callie, my intrepid little beagle barely opened one eye. She probably thought I was crazy to be getting up at such an early hour.

Moments later, I was out on the patio with a glass of water and two chocolate chip cookies ... a little pre-dawn snack as I checked the phone.

All was perfectly still in White Mills. The creek at the bottom of my backyard whispered quietly. The air was thick and sweet-smelling. A spectral mist swirled just above the surface of the Lollipop Pond.

I took a sip from my glass and a bite of the cookie before punching in my password. The phone lighted up immediately.

Hmm. It wasn’t a phone message or text, but an email. Who the heck was emailing me at four in the morning? I didn’t recognize the name of the sender, but the two words in the subject line made me sit bolt upright in my chair.

“Laura Ronning.”

Background

For those of you who may not remember or are too young to know, Laura Ronning was a counselor at Camp Cayuga.

She was preparing for her senior year of college by working at the waterfront.
She was pretty, intelligent, hard-working and caring. She loved children and hoped to become a teacher in the near future.

Sadly, Laura’s dream would never be realized because she was brutally raped and murdered just a mile from the camp on July 27, 1991.

She went for a walk at around 11 that morning. It’s about a mile from the camp to Tanners Falls, a peaceful spot where Laura wanted to relax, soak up the sun and maybe read a little.

Within two hours of setting out, she was dead … shot in the head with a .22 rifle. Laura was sexually assaulted and thrown down a bank into the woods.

But, even that wasn't enough for this monster.

Nope, he had to clamber down and “pose” her body in a grotesque manner.

It's something every law enforcement official involved in the subsequent investigation said they'd never forget.

Revelation One

It’s been a little while since I last wrote about Laura’s despicable murder.

Over the years, my co-workers and I have visited the little shrine to Laura’s memory up at Tanners Falls.

Her stepdad, John Gicking, lovingly constructed a cross out of rosewood in his basement workshop. It bears a brass plate that simply says: “Laura Lynne Ronning, Murdered July 27, 1991.”

The cross, which is painted white, marks the exact spot where Laura met her horrific end. We bring gardening tools, weed killer and mulch. We spend a quiet hour sprucing things up as best we can.

It’s the image of this spot which leapt to mind as I opened that early morning email. The message came from Karla Thompson:

“It's late and my work has me up at all hours. For some odd reason, Laura came to mind tonight. I was a 14-year-old kid at Camp Cayuga in 1991. It was my last year at the camp, but it was cut short the day after Laura died.”

I don't know Karla. She came across one of my previous stories online and felt compelled to write.

“I'm 41 now,” she said. “I have a 14-year-old daughter of my own and a gnawing sense of frustration that this girl's family has no peace … so much so that it has me writing to a total stranger at 4 a.m.”

Karla went on to say that, no matter how much time passes, we must keep searching for justice.

“There is, if you have no faith, an overabundance of injustice in this world,” she wrote. “But sometimes, if you're patient, the universe allows you to witness the karma unfold. I'm glad someone is standing up for those that can't be heard.”

And then she dropped the first bombshell.

“Did you you know that Plishka is dead?”

Prime Suspect

Jeffrey Plishka was the prime suspect from Day One of the investigation.

He lived not far from Tanners Falls and had, shall we say, an unsavory reputation. He was the son of a famous opera singer, Paul Plishka Sr. of New York City.

Jeffrey was a troubled young man who haunted the Falls for years.

Several local girls claimed that he'd sexually assaulted them, but no charges were ever filed. He was also seen on more than one occasion sunning himself nude on the rocks below the falls.

Plishka inserted himself into the investigation right from the get-go. He kept pestering police as they searched and eventually claimed he'd seen Laura sitting on those rocks … the very ones on which he used to perch in the buff.

To make a long story short, Plishka was eventually arrested and charged with the crime. He always maintained his innocence.

Plishka was finally brought to trial in 2010, but the jury found him not guilty of all charges. More on him later.

Revelation Two

Coincidence is a powerful force in the universe.

Some say “there are no coincidences,” that everything happens for a reason. And on this particular night, I'm inclined to agree with them.

After sitting there in the dark for several minutes, I picked up the phone again and did a search of my email archive using Laura's name. Lo and behold, I spied another message in my spam filter … one I'd never seen or read.

It was dated July 27, 2016 and came from one Sebastiaan Marechal.

Apparently, last year on the anniversary of Laura's death, Sebastiaan couldn't sleep either. He's a former Camp Cayuga employee who now lives in the Netherlands.

“Today I read your article published in The Wayne Independent on July 26,” he wrote. “What happened to Laura shocked me then and it still does now. I hope they solve this case so Laura's family can see the murderer brought to justice.”

Sebastiaan worked in the barn/stables area and knew Laura only in passing. She had signed up to take one of the horses out that fateful morning, but stopped by to cancel at the last minute.

Sadly, she'd decided to take a walk to Tanners Falls all alone...

“I remember counselors searching for her and then, the next day, the sad news of her death,” Sebastiaan said. “I want to thank you for writing this article. It keeps her memory alive and it gives people hope. It's good to know Laura has not been forgotten.”

It was after reading Sebastiaan's email that I decided to dig deeper and the first name I punched into Google was Patricia Gicking.

Her name popped up immediately, but my chest tightened when I realized the top results all included the word “obituary.”

Sometime between my last story and this humid summer night, Laura's poor Mom had passed away. It was heartbreaking news.

With a trembling finger, I tapped the top result and read the obituary in the Tampa Bay Times. Laura's mom died on May 14 … just two months ago.

She was 71.

Pat became a fixture here at the paper in the years following Laura's death. She made the trek each summer and inevitably stopped in to visit with our publisher, Don Doyle.

As time passed, though, her visits became less frequent. And, following the acquittal of Plishka, Pat vowed never to return.

She never did.

We last spoke on the phone a little more than two years ago leading up to the 25th anniversary of Laura's death.

“There is no closure,” she said. “It never ends. I know where Laura is now. She’s safe and sound.”

I'd like to think that the two of them are together again now … that both of them are “safe and sound.”

DA Speaks

Pat Robinson was working in the District Attorney’s Office when Plishka went on trial in the summer of 2010.

He is the DA now and brings an unique perspective to the case.

“My wife became friends with Pat Gicking,” he said during an interview this week at the Wayne County Courthouse. “She sat with Laura’s mom and sister all during the trial. We’ve kept in contact with the family over the years.”

It’s safe to say that our current district attorney wishes the outcome of the Plishka trial had been different. He witnessed firsthand the frustration and heartache the Ronning Family endured when the not guilty verdict was handed down.

However, he is 99 percent certain police arrested the right man.

“I have a great deal of confidence in the investigators who worked this case over the years,” Robinson said. “They put in thousands of hours. To a man, they all thought Plishka did it. I believe that too. Unfortunately, there’s a big difference between believing something and proving it to a jury beyond a reasonable doubt.”

Make no mistake, though: Wayne County’s DA hasn’t closed any doors.

“While I’m skeptical that anything new will come to light, I am 100 percent open to it,” Robinson said. “If anyone has any credible evidence, my office is definitely interested. Please bring it to me.”

My Take

I’ve been writing about this case for nearly two decades now.

This week, though, I immersed myself in written records of the investigation, arrest and trial. I devoured hundreds of pages of evidence ... everything from the affidavit of probable cause and police reports to witness statements and psychological exams.

In my opinion, Plishka was innocent.

He was a borderline idiot (IQ of 74, according to court papers) who inserted himself into the investigation, rubbed everyone the wrong way and just wouldn’t stop.

I understand completely why so many people believe Plishka did it. There is an abundance of circumstantial evidence pointing to his guilt. There were numerous accusations of sexual assault in his past and testimony of a longtime family friend claiming he was prone to “fits of rage.”

Additionally, Plishka was his own worst enemy in that every time he opened his mouth another apparently incriminating statement came tumbling out.

I get it, I really do.

But there is zero solid, physical evidence that Plishka ever even spoke to Laura, much less committed this terrible crime.

Again, in my opinion, he wasn't the guy.

I do believe, though, that he witnessed something. He reportedly said at different times that he saw Laura and she looked “terrified.” He also said he didn’t approach her because he “didn’t want to get shot.”

Terrified? Of whom?

Shot? By whom?

Couple these statements together with his report of a blue station wagon parked near the Falls ... and the documented presence of the “two scruffy guys” at Kmart and Camp Cayuga ... and you have a plausible alternative theory of the crime.

I can't stress enough that this is just my opinion. I've heard many, many others over the years from all sorts of people.

The bottom line is this: I don't want Laura to be forgotten and, someday I want her family to receive some measure of peace.

Never Forgotten

In closing, I'll share one last email with you. This one came from Robby Hecker, a camper who's never forgotten.

He was 14 at the time and Laura made a big impression on him.

“She was the sweetest human being in the world,” Robby said. “Laura was dedicated to us kids. Her presence at camp was happy and comforting.

“Laura was one of the counselors on my camp Olympic team. One of the events was Team Spirit.

“I remember sitting with Laura, on the mess hall porch working out songs and cheers for what seemed like forever. She treated me like an equal. She was warm, spirited, fun, excited to be alive.”

The song they came up with went something like this: "I heard it through the grapevine ... that your team is not as good as mine"

"Honey, honey, yeah. Gonna beat ya, gonna beat ya, gonna beat ya baby.”

Robby closed his email with these poignant words:

“I wish I could recall more such songs. I wish I could recall more of Laura...”