No suspect in Stellfox case, but no end to investigation either
MOUNT CARMEL - There's been no suspect identified in the cold case death of Miss Jean Louise Stellfox.
Borough police hosted a press conference Friday on the eve of the 10th anniversary of the hit-and-run accident, but there was no announcement of an arrest.
It wasn't expected.
Police purposefully held the press conference to bring to light a case that may have seemed to have been in the dark.
Stellfox, 64, was crossing Maple Street at Third Street shortly after 6 p.m. Oct. 26, 2003, when the accident occurred. She parked her vehicle in a garage between Poplar and Vine streets and may have been walking from there to her home at 44 E. Avenue.
She was walking west to east toward Oak Street when a dark-colored sport utility vehicle, perhaps a green Dodge Durango, failed to stop when turning right from Third Street to Maple Street. Police aren't sure how fast it was traveling.
The driver, believed to be male, drove off. At least four eye-witnesses are believed to have saw it happen. Witnesses traveling in a vehicle behind the hit-and-run driver pulled over to render aid and call 911. Donkochik was among the first-responders.
It would have been dark at the time of the accident. There was a light rain falling and temperatures were in the high 50s, according to online weather records. It was a Sunday evening. In a community with a lot of walkers and joggers, Cpl. David Donkochik said it was an unfortunate circumstance that many of them had stayed indoors at that time.
Stellfox suffered a fractured skull and was airlifted to Geisinger Medical Center, Danville, where she was pronounced dead at 12:14 a.m. Oct. 27.
Officers working on the case years ago had previously said witnesses were interviewed immediately after, including several drivers in the area. In the months following the accident it had been reported that many vehicles were inspected in both Northumberland and Schuylkill counties. One SUV was impounded but was found not to be the suspect vehicle. The case eventually went cold.
The investigation was revisited in August 2012 after Todd Owens was named department chief. Donkochik was assigned to be lead investigator. He teamed with Cpl. Joseph Akers of state Police at Montoursville, a member of the major case team. Together they sorted through old statements and reports, reviewed video surveillance footage, re-interviewed witnesses. They started over.
"At least two prominent people" were cleared through polygraphs and follow-up interviews, dispelling decade-old "barroom" rumors, Owens and Donkochik said. One flew in from the Gulf Coast of Florida to be interviewed.
"They are 100-percent eliminated. ... We've cleared folks that have been guilty in the court of public opinion for the past decade," Owens said.
Those "prominent" names were kept out of a press conference. District Attorney Tony Rosini said it would be of no purpose to "slander" them in the newspaper, even in clearing their names that had often been linked to the unsolved case.
"They can put one and one together," Donkochik said of public curiosity.
Stellfox's death is likely the most difficult case the department has ever encountered. Owens said as much. It's the department's only active cold case.
There has been no new physical evidence collected since renewed effort was put into the investigation, but there has been new evidentiary information collected. And a public reminder last week of the case generated another new tip.
Donkochik hopes the publicity will remind the responsible party that the investigation will continue, that new leads will be sought, and that efforts will continue to be made towards making an arrest.
Perhaps the driver has kept the secret long enough, too.
"I'd like to speak to them for their own peace of mind," Donkochik said.
Donkochik has Stellfox's obituary taped to a filing cabinet at his desk as a reminder. With 22 years on the force, he said when the time comes for him to retire, he will brief the next lead investigator on the case if it remains open. It's not being closed.
"It's not a petty robbery or a theft. Someone died," he said, adding that he believed there is no statute of limitations on the case.
If someone is brought to justice, they'd face a felony count of leaving the scene of an accident. It's a vehicle code violation, but would be a more serious charge than homicide by vehicle, a misdemeanor, Rosini said.
"It's not a murder case. We always believed it was an accident," he said.
Although it's been 10 years, Owens said there would be value in obtaining the vehicle involved in the accident. Trace evidence could be found, he said. Rosini added that if repairs were made to the front end where impact had occurred, that would be of interest.
Any evidence, any information at all as meaningless as it may seem would be useful, the law enforcement officials said.
"That one piece could solve our puzzle," Owens said.
To contact police about the case call 570-339-6020 ext. 66.