Video: ‘Return To View’ – Josh Shuglie attempts recalling his mother, sister disappearance
The youngest son of Francis and Janet Shuglie, Josh, remembers what happened before he laid eyes on his mother and sister, Marisa, for the last time.
Cole Johnson, The Daily American
Editor’s note: This is the first installment of a series on the disappearance of Janet and Marisa Shuglie. Part two appears in print in the Aug. 2 edition of the newspaper. “Return to View,” a companion podcast for this series, can be heard by viewing the online version of this article.
SOMERSET — Even with decades of retirement in his rearview, Larry Williams hasn’t forgotten.
He remembers the statements of two scared and confused little boys. And he can’t help but wonder how a mother and young daughter could evaporate with the fumes of the 18-wheelers westbound for Pittsburgh.
Janet Marie Shuglie, 35, and her 10-year-old daughter, Marisa, were reportedly last seen walking near the Somerset interchange of the Pennsylvania Turnpike in late June of 1985. They left after Janet had an argument with her husband, Frank, and may have been on their way to see a priest for counseling, according to published reports.
Boswell Borough Council President Larry Williams was the lead Pennsylvania State Police investigator on the Janet and Marisa Shuglie missing persons case.Staff photo by Eric Kieta
In the 36 years that have followed, the case has been complicated by a murder-for-hire conspiracy, frustrated by false leads, and more recently, illuminated by the opportunity for police to look for Janet and Marisa in a place they’ve been unable to search in the past.
“What I thought was strange in this — here’s a mother and a (10-)year-old,” Williams said. “They disappear off the face of the Earth. And all these years (later) there’s never been any surface of their whereabouts or knowledge of them in any way?
“You’d think that would be highly strange.”
Asked if he had any thoughts on why Janet would have left her boys at the motel when she stormed out during a fight with her husband that day, Williams replied: “I do, but I can’t state it.”
At the time of her disappearance, Janet and her family were living at the Coleman Motel, located at the outskirts of Somerset Borough.
A New York man skipped out on paying for a six-night stay at the Coleman Motel in October of 1986. His bill: $95.40, or $15.90 per night.Daily American file photo from newspapers.com
The motel was the kind of place where teenage joyriders from Baltimore, Maryland, would hide out on New Year’s Eve after skipping the city in a stolen ride — where a man who pulled off multiple Somerset County Courthouse burglaries might live — where a 13-year-old runaway from Confluence could hide — where a Coal Junction man might find his estranged wife and her new male companion — where thieves would steal a CB radio and hundreds of dollars in hand tools from a parked vehicle — where a Kingston, New York, man could skip out on paying for a six-night stay after stealing a car from a Shade Township woman — and where a beer-and-liquor thief of the B&B Bar might be laying his head.
This, at least, is the impression given in Daily American newspaper reports from this time period. A night’s stay at the Coleman Motel would cost you $15.90 in 1986.
Janet and Frank didn’t grow up in the area. Her family lived mostly in neighboring Westmoreland County, his closer to Pittsburgh.
There are conflicting newspaper reports about when Janet and Marisa were last seen. Articles in the 1980s state that they vanished June 29, 1985, while more recent accounts place this a day later on June 30.
What brought them to Somerset County — first to Hidden Valley Resort, then later to the Coleman Motel — is similarly unclear.
“We were never able to actually hone down a date that they got here,” said Trooper Steve Limani, a public information officer with Troop A of Pennsylvania State Police. He noted that the Shuglies were known to travel state to state.
“For a lack of better terms, they lived more of a vagabond lifestyle … transient, very transient, not settling down, not growing roots places — a lot of long-term hotel stays. And it wasn’t uncommon for them to live like that.”
According to Limani, police aren’t sure whether Janet and Frank were employed at the time of the disappearances.
“It’s hard for us to lock down any exact dates of employment,” he said. “They definitely had random employments and nothing that we were able to tie to the disappearance (such as) some turmoil at a place where of employment in the past or anything of that nature. So there was nothing during the course of the conversation with the investigator (that) led him to believe that there was something that could have happened at work.”
The Economy Inn at 1138 N. Center Avenue in Somerset is the home of the former Coleman Motel, where the Shuglie family had been staying when Janet and Marisa disappeared.Staff photo by Eric Kieta
Though the reasons for the Shuglie family to live in Somerset were murky, what’s clear is that the husband and wife were having problems.
“My father and mother got into an argument,” Josh Shuglie said during a recent interview. He was just 5 years old at the time. His brother, Christopher, was 7.
“From what I recall, she spit in his face, he slapped her, and she pretty much took my sister with her and walked away. …Later that day my dad supposedly left to go look for them and left me and my brother at the motel.”
It’s the last memory Josh has of his mom.
“(Memories of) my sister? Pretty much nothing,” he said. “No pictures, not even snapshots in my mind.”
This cropped image is perhaps the only publicly circulated photo of both Janet and Marisa Shuglie.Daily American file photo from newspapers.com
In a 1986 interview with the Daily American, Williams said that Janet and Marisa left the motel on foot at approximately 12:30 p.m. June 29 and went across the roadway to Dan’s Auto.
Janet told the owner, Dan Slagle, that they needed someone to drive them to a relative’s residence near Pittsburgh. Slagle allegedly used a citizens band radio to call for a ride, but was not successful in finding anyone willing to take them.
Someone reported to police that they saw two people matching the descriptions of Janet and Marisa walking sometime between 12:30 and 1 p.m. in the area of North Center Avenue where Ruby Tuesday is currently located. That witness may be one of the last people to see either of them alive as they were en route, allegedly, to see a priest.
Janet — 5-foot-3, 110 pounds, brown hair and eyes — and Marisa — 5 feet tall and 92 pounds, with hair like her mother’s but green eyes — were heading in the direction of St. Peter’s Roman Catholic Church.
In the 1986 Daily American article, Williams said they went there to receive counseling from the Rev. Samuel Tomaselli. Williams did not recall this during a more recent interview.
St. Peter’s is a little more than a mile from the former Coleman Motel.
Constructed in 1954, the church is located along West Church Street, across town from the motel. It’s an angular stone structure with beautiful Romanesque features.
According to Williams, Janet told Slagle she meant to see Tomaselli — and she apparently never made it.
Tomaselli, now a pastor emeritus with the parish, said he had no memory of Janet or Marisa. He noted that he is now in his late 80s and unable to recall the situation.
Assuming they never made it to St. Peter’s, Janet and Marisa can last be placed approximately 100 yards or so from the Pennsylvania Turnpike.
Larry Williams, retired Pennsylvania State Police investigatorWhen you’re doing a missing persons (case), especially near the turnpike, you have to consider all avenues that could have occurred. Every time that there was a body, or anything would turn up along an interstate, or an arrest of a truck driver that was involved in serial killing in that manner, we would look for information that would pertain to our case.
“There’s also avenues that could have been involved that we looked into,” Williams said. “That (they were) picked up by a truck driver or somebody traveling along the road … and something happened as a result of that.”
Over the years, the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission has kept records that log traffic volume at each interchange.
The most recent estimates available — April 2021 — shows that an average of 2,658 vehicles per day use the turnpike’s Somerset exit. Traffic here 36 years ago was less intense, but still substantial.
A report on Pennsylvania Turnpike traffic for June 1985. Approximately 49,740 passenger vehicles and 17,716 commercial vehicles exited the Somerset interchange during this period.Document courtesy of the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission
Records show that there were 49,194 entering passenger cars and 49,740 departing passenger cars during during the month of June 1985. There were an additional 17,170 entering commercial vehicles and 17,716 departing commercial vehicles during this period.
This means there could have been somewhere in the ballpark of 4,460 cars, trucks, buses and jeeps roaring through this intersection that day — assuming that vehicles didn’t enter and exit the same turnpike interchange twice in a single day And that doesn’t account for the untold local traffic driving to and from Somerset Borough, the county seat, on North Center Avenue.
“The person that saw them didn’t say that they were thumbing it in any way … and didn’t have the thumbs out, or were hitchhiking,” Limani said. “We don’t have any information that indicated that there were they were trying to catch a ride.”
Even so, the possibility that mother and daughter were picked up by a stranger was not ignored by the original investigators.
“When you’re doing a missing persons (case), especially near the turnpike, you have to consider all avenues that could have occurred,” Williams said. “Every time that there was a body, or anything would turn up along an interstate, or an arrest of a truck driver that was involved in serial killing in that manner, we would look for information that would pertain to our case.”
To date, however, nothing has surfaced.
“If you happen to remember seeing (them hitch a ride), or saw somebody at a truck stop … I mean, I would love to think the best, right, that she’s still alive. And maybe she was just fed up with people at the time and left and … would resurface,” Limani said.
“Unfortunately, you know, you kind of expect the worst … in these scenarios.”
On July 2, three days after the disappearance of his wife and daughter, Frank filed a missing persons report with Pennsylvania State Police.
The case went first to Trooper George Gearhart. Williams said he was brought in to take the investigation a short time later when suspicions escalated from a missing persons and family abandonment situation to something potentially worse.
“Of course you always suspect (the husband) when there’s nothing else. (But we) couldn’t really connect him, at the time, to any crime,” Williams said.
The phrase “at the time” is key in this instance.
Josh’s memories of the day his life changed course forever are understandably vague. The events transpired nearly four decades ago when he was 5.
Williams, however, recalled the statements that Josh and his brother had given to social workers.
A photo of Frank Shuglie that ran in the June 28, 1986 edition of the Somerset Daily American.File photo
“They said (Frank) was more or less disheveled when he come in,” Williams said. “They had no idea where he went or what had transpired.”
Several weeks later, Frank would offer theories of his own regarding Janet and Marisa.
According to Frank, his wife was hiding his daughter from him in the residence of Robert Puccio and Theresa DiMenno, Janet’s aunt and uncle. And he had a plan to see his daughter again.
Per court records, that’s when Frank hired hitmen to kidnap his daughter, injure Puccio and DiMenno, and murder his wife.
Williams said he’s long believed that testimony from that trial could have been key in determining what happened to Janet and Marisa.
“I can’t get into the contents of that because it’s an ongoing investigation. But you may have that in the depositions at the time of trial in Pittsburgh on that case — who knows?”
Transcripts from Frank’s Post-Conviction Relief Act hearing in 1991 — obtained by the USA TODAY Network in Pittsburgh — raise troubling questions and further complicate the mystery of Janet and Marisa.