Family of Clairton girl missing 32 years desperate to resolve cold case
November 4, 2013 11:22 PM
Lea Rae Keeney holds a picture of her sister, Toni Lynn McNatt, taken not long before Toni’s disappearance in 1981 in Clairton. Ms. Keeney plans to hold a vigil tonight.
By Amy McConnell Schaarsmith / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
In the 32 years since the disappearance of 14-year-old Toni Lynn McNatt, her family members and even the retired Clairton police detective who investigated the case have given up hope of finding her alive. But they still cling to the possibility that someone has information that will lead them to the ninth-grader's remains and give all of them, finally, a chance for some peace.
For Lea Rae Keeney of Glassport, continuing to search for her little sister is fulfilling a pledge.
"I promised my mom on her deathbed that I would not stop looking for my sister, and I can't, because if I do, what has she got? Who's going to look for her? Because I feel like the authorities don't care," said Ms. Keeney, who is holding a candlelight vigil tonight at the intersection of Mitchell and Miller avenues, where Toni was last seen in November 1981, supposedly heading to a pep rally at Clairton High School. "There isn't a day that goes by I don't think about her -- we think something bad happened to her that night, and we also believe somebody knows what happened."
Over the years, a tangle of clues has emerged that suggest the blond, blue-eyed tomboy was murdered, probably the night she vanished and possibly even in her own home, by her own father, according to the investigator who first worked on her case. But with little to investigate -- no body, no physical evidence of a crime -- and the prime suspect now deceased, that investigator and Toni's family members say more help is needed to solve the case.
"This is going to be a murder, when all is said and done, but it's not a murder until we can find a body and that's what I want to do -- I want to find her," said retired Clairton Detective William Scully, who said he keeps in touch with Toni's sisters, Ms. Keeney and Roxanne Paolicelli of Clairton. "I'm not looking so much for justice for Toni, but for closure for the girls, to take her from where she is and let her rest."
State police investigators in Belle Vernon, who took over the case in 1985, could not be reached for comment.
Ms. Keeney said her mother, Audrey McNatt, provided a good home life and was close with her daughters. But Mr. Scully said Audrey McNatt's husband, Sam Chiapetta, was another matter. Clairton police responded to the duplex at 921 Van Kirk St. for domestic disputes on more than one occasion and also responded after Chiapetta fired his gun inside the home early one morning, Mr. Scully said.
Investigators also believe Chiapetta might have physically and possibly sexually abused one or more of the girls, including Toni, who seemed desperate to get away from the house, Mr. Scully said. The teen briefly lived with her grandmother in Uniontown in August or early September before she was supposed to start ninth grade, he said.
The face Toni showed the world, however, was of a happy, if somewhat quiet, girl who enjoyed her friends and liked the idea of becoming a "Honeybear" majorette for the high school marching band. But she didn't seem overly interested in parties, steady boyfriends or testing the limits of what she could get away with, her sister said.
"She didn't even wear makeup -- you know how some girls are 14 and they look like they're going on 41? She wasn't like that," Ms. Keeney said.
And running away? Not a chance, Ms. Keeney said.
So when Toni didn't show up at the school pep rally that Thursday and failed to meet her friend at 6:30 that evening, and when her mother -- driving the half-dozen blocks between the stadium and their home in the pouring rain -- couldn't find her, her family immediately became worried.
That night, drenched by cold November rain, they knocked on neighbors' doors, searched in alleys and along dark streets, and finally called the police around midnight, according to articles published at the time by The Pittsburgh Press. There was no sign of Toni that night, or the next day or the next, as dozens of police officers and volunteers combed the area's woods and streams.
From the beginning, Mr. Scully said he felt something was odd about Chiapetta despite his energetic searching to find Toni, whom he called his daughter but who might have been his stepdaughter. Chiapetta, a furniture mover, seemed edgy about the night Toni disappeared, when he had gotten home from work about 6 p.m. and witnesses saw the girls' mother at work until at least 7:30 p.m., Mr. Scully said.
When Chiapetta took a polygraph test and was asked if he had anything to do with Toni's disappearance, the results didn't look good, Mr. Scully said.
"He said no, but the examiner felt he was being deceptive," Mr. Scully said.
Still, with no evidence of foul play, investigators did not search the family home and soon were out of leads. About four months after Toni's disappearance, as the woods were beginning to thaw in early 1982, a man called the Clairton police station, Ms. Kenney said.
"He said, 'Your little missing girl is at the bottom of Peters Crick,' and then he hung up," Ms. Kenney said.
Again, searchers turned up nothing.
Many things about the case, and Chiapetta's possible role in it, continued to trouble the detective. Shortly after Toni's disappearance, Chiapetta -- never one for home improvements -- replaced the duplex's wooden back porch with a cement one. Toni's older sister, Ms. Paolicelli, told Mr. Scully that she woke to find her father touching her sexually one day, a few months after her sister's disappearance.
And in 1982, Audrey McNatt came to the detective with tears in her eyes and told him that, out of fear of her husband, she had misled investigators about her husband's involvement and about a potentially important detail.
"She told me, 'Scully, I feel now that Sam probably had something to do with this,' " he said. "I always felt that way, but she kind of waylaid us."
When she got home after work that Thursday night, Ms. McNatt told investigators, she found the blouse Toni had worn to school that day dripping wet and hanging from a laundry line in the basement.
"That means she went home," Mr. Scully said. "Now, was it wet from her washing it or was it wet from the pouring rain and she came back to the house to change clothes? That's what I believe happened."
Her presence at the home that night, along with that of her father and the other circumstantial evidence, has led Mr. Scully to believe that Chiapetta killed the girl, probably accidentally, and disposed of the body somewhere in the area, the detective said.
Clairton went bankrupt and in 1985 laid off its entire police force, including Mr. Scully. State police assumed management of all investigations, including Toni's case, when they took over law enforcement in the city that year, and kept authority over the case even after the Clairton police department was re-formed in 1992. The trooper who took over the case from Mr. Scully was moved to a different barracks and transferred his case to another investigator at the Belle Vernon barracks.
Through all those changes, Mr. Scully never could prove his hunch. Family members said they feel state police have given the case scant attention. Chiapetta died nearly a decade ago, followed by Audrey McNatt a few years later.
Now family members and investigators hope it's not too late to finally answer the question of what happened to Toni.
"Did the world open up and swallow my sister?" Ms. Kenney said. "Somebody, somewhere, has to know something."
Amy McConnell Schaarsmith: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1719.
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