Cold Case: The disappearance of a six-year-old girl

PITTSBURGH — It’s a crime that shocked the community and the region.  A-six-year old girl swiped right of the street while walking home from school and two years later, her body found in a shallow grave.

43 years later, no one has been charged with the death of Beth Lynn Barr. Now for the very first time, her mother is speaking out about the tragedy.

Target 11 Investigator Rick Earle spoke with Donna Barr about the case.

“We never got to experience her going to school dances, going to college, and I’m sure she would have gotten married and had children,” said Barr.

All of that was taken from Donna Barr on the afternoon of November 23, 1977, when her six-year-old daughter, Beth Lynn, never made it home after an early dismissal from school.

The first grader made the 10-minute walk home with a friend on most days, but this day her friend got picked up by her mother and Beth Lynn began the walk home by herself.

“It was early dismissal for Thanksgiving. The kids in our neighborhood all walked home. Thinking this all over after all this time that was what the kids did, but I know that all changed when she was taken from us. Kids were stopped from walking home from school. Those block watch signs went up all over. It’s a parent’s worst nightmare, and it’s unbelievable,” Barr said.

An elderly neighbor reported seeing Beth Lynn talking with a man in a car just blocks from her home. Police believe that man took her.

Beth Lynn’s dad was a Wilkinsburg police officer and he, along with dozens of other co-workers, friends and volunteers began searching the area.

“He was out there looking with everybody else, you now so truly how can something like this happen?” said Donna Barr.

Fear gripped the community.

Zandy Dudiak was a young reporter for the Wilkinsburg Gazette. She had just been on the job for about five months.

“Initially I was hoping they would find her. I was hoping that it was just somebody you know who took her and they would find her,” said Dudiak, who covered the case for years.

It had a profound impact on her after she became a parent.

“The fact that this could happen to a child, really changed the way maybe I parented. I had eyes everywhere when I was out with my kids,” said Zudiak.

Robert Payne is the Police Chief of Edgewood Borough. In 1977, he was an investigator with the Allegheny County Police. He was working the day Beth Lynn vanished. He said the Allegheny County Police superintendent at the time offered manpower to the Wilkinsburg Police Chief.

“I remember the superintendent specifically telling him, ‘I got nearly 300 police officers. I’ll turn them all on, we’ll do whatever we can.’ Unfortunately, as things were progressing that day, he decided not to bring us in at all,” said Payne.

To this day, he believes that was a critical mistake with the investigation.

“I think it was absolutely a critical mistake. Sometimes things that occur within the department like that, people are too close to that, and I don’t think that people have the experience number one.  I think we had experienced  investigators, but you have patrol officers investigating a homicide. A homicide is very difficult case which takes an awful lot of time and manpower,” Payne said.

As the days turned to weeks and then months, Donna Barr held out hope.

“I think I had convinced myself that she was going to come home, and she was going to be okay,” Barr said.

But then came a shocking discovery, seven miles from the Barr home. Almost 16 months to the day after she vanished from the streets of Wilkinsburg, a man walking his dog near a cemetery in Monroeville stumbled upon a shallow grave with Beth Lynn’s remains.

Dr. Cyril Wecht was the Allegheny County coroner at the time.

“The body was markedly decomposed, of course, when we found it. We could only determine she had been murdered,” said Wecht.

An autopsy revealed that the young girl had been stabbed in the chest multiple times.

“The pain is incredible. I think anyone in particular who has children, they know. When I really think about who might have done this, I think, how could this go on forever, like this, and there’s not a clue. They’re not closer, at least I don’t think they are. That’s the other thing. When this happened, there was a lot of protection around me. They tried very hard to protect me from all that was going on as best they could so that I maintained my sanity.  There were probably lots of things that went on around me that I probably wasn’t even aware of. I didn’t get all the details of what they were investigating. Little bits and pieces. Things that they had to talk to me about, but I’m sure there was a whole lot more I just had no idea,” Barr said.

After her body was found, Monroeville Police called in the Allegheny County Police to conduct the investigation.

“We were unfortunately 13 months behind the suspect, and we could, we actually never got anything solid, nothing which is really an oddity but it was an oddity that we never, we never came up with any solid leads,” said Payne.

He chased down multiple leads over the years even traveling to Florida to question a potential suspect.

According to newspaper reports from the time, police arrested a North Hills man and initially charged him with kidnapping but then released him when his alibi checked out. He had a witness and store receipts showing that he was in Johnstown, Pennsylvania on the day Beth Lynn was abducted.

Payne said the strongest lead came from an elderly neighbor who said she saw the little girl talking to a man in a blue sedan with red and white license plates just blocks from her home on the day she vanished.

Police suspected it may have been an Ohio license plate. They tracked down a car matching the description at a local hotel. It was registered to a car rental agency and the agency said the car had not been rented the day the little girl disappeared.

While the murder remains unsolved, Zandy Dudiak created a website devoted to the case, and she still gets a lot of feedback and even occasionally some new information about it.

“The kids that grew up in the neighborhood, went to school with her still carry this. I hear from them time to time, neighbors, people who thought they saw something, people who thought they knew something. They’ve carried it just like I have,” said Dudiak, who tracks all of the tips and has passed them on to investigators over the years.

So far, nothing has panned out, but Donna Barr remains optimistic, even after all these years.

“There hasn’t been any justice and to be truthful I think someday there will be. I think someday there will be when we probably least expect it,” Barr said.

Barr told me that she, her husband and their son, who’s three years older than Beth Lynn, have only managed to push on with life because of the support of friends, family and even strangers who would approach them over the years and offer prayers and love.

“I think what always makes me step back a bit is, and my husband and son both have had this experience out of the clear blue sky, somebody will hear our name and they’ll walk up and say, ‘Are you Beth’s family?’ and it’s just out of nowhere. They don’t forget,” Barr said.

Barr, who has never before done an interview, told me she wanted to speak out after all these years so people will never forget.

“We miss our darling daughter. I’m sorry. I don’t want anybody to ever forget and that’s why I wanted to do this. I don’t ever, ever want anybody to forget her,” she said.