Lisa Ziegert case: How technology caught up with cold-case rape-murder suspect 25 years later
10/23/2017 2:30 pm PDT
UPDATE May 8, 2019:
Lisa Ziegert's family was in the courtroom Wednesday, May 8, for a brief session to set hearing dates for Gary Schara, the man accused of killing the 24-year-old in Agawam in 1992, MassLive.com reports.
Schara was brought into the Roderick L. Ireland Courthouse from the Hampden County Correctional Center in Ludlow.
Hampden District Attorney Anthony Gulluni and Rudof set a status conference for Sept. 13. Motions must be filed by Oct. 11. A scheduling conference will be held Oct. 18. No trial date was set Wednesday.
Schara, 48, of West Springfield, has pleaded not guilty to murder, kidnapping and aggravated rape in Ziegert's death.
After 25 years there's finally been a huge development in the cold-case murder of Lisa Ziegert.
Lisa Ziegert, a 24-year-old teacher's assistant working with special education children, worked part-time at a small gift shop in Agawam, Massachusetts.
"She started working in the gift shop. She worked there a couple nights a week," said Dee Ziegert, Lisa's mother.
And on the night of April 15, 1991, it's an average Wednesday for Lisa working behind the counter at Brittany Card & Gift Shoppe on Walnut Extension.
"Her shift started at 5 and would usually end about 9 o'clock at night," said Agawam Police Sgt. Mark Pfau.
And like clockwork, one of Lisa's regulars stops in: it's her sister Lynne.
"I went into the card store and it was a very slow evening for her," said Lynne Rogerson, Lisa's sister. "She was talking to me about what she wanted to do with her life, how she was feeling about being an assistant teacher."
Lynne eventually takes off and leaves her little sister to finish her shift.
"A few people came in and out of the store. Not anything out of the ordinary," Lynne tells Crime Watch Daily.
Shortly after Lynne leaves, another customer stops in and makes a purchase, according to a receipt time-stamped 8:20 p.m. Then not long after that, a final customer pops in right as the store is closing.
"At 9 o'clock this customer comes to the store, the store still looks like it's still open," said Sgt. Pfau. "She comes in, she looks around, nobody's coming to assist her, which she feels is odd because the store is open."
She looks around for a few minutes.
"She thinks she hears some type of a noise in the back area of the store. She does not investigate it. She then leaves the store," said Sgt. Pfau.
The next morning a co-worker arrives to begin her morning shift at the same gift shop. She too finds the door open, lights on, and...
"She notices Lisa's car is still in the parking lot," said Pfau.
But when this employee enters the store, right away she's unnerved by what she sees lying next to the cash register.
"She notices Lisa's pocketbook. She notices Lisa's sets of keys are still there," said Pfau.
But eerily Lisa Ziegert is nowhere to be found. Frantic, the co-worker calls 911.
At the same time, Lisa's family is flooded by worried phone calls from Lisa's school, where she was a no-show that morning. The Ziegert family races to the gift shop and finds it cordoned off and surrounded by police. Detectives on the scene interview Lisa's family and co-workers.
"She was a very responsible young lady. This isn't somebody that just went out and didn't check in with friends or anything like that," said Sgt. Pfau. "They knew relatively quick that this is a missing person case."
As investigators search the store, they make a chilling discovery.
"There's evidence at the card shop at that scene, there is evidence of a struggle," said Pfau.
In the back room, as seen in actual crime scene footage, there is what appears to shoe markings on a door. And...
"There is a small amount of blood at the scene," said Pfau.
Right away investigators believe Lisa Ziegert isn't just missing -- she was taken.
"Everything indicated that she did not leave the store on her own accord," said Pfau.
But where did this abductor take the 24-year-old schoolteacher? Multiple law enforcement agencies join the search for Lisa, including Agawam Police, Massachusetts State Police and the FBI. Then on Easter Sunday, four days after Ziegert went missing, police get a call.
"From a resident indicating that he went for a walk with his dog in the woods and he believes he found some human remains," said Sgt. Pfau.
They are the remains of a young woman who has been raped and then stabbed. Shortly after the grisly find, a detective from the Agawam Police Department knocks on Dee Ziegert's front door.
"He said 'We found her,'" said Lisa's mother Dee Ziegert. "And I went 'She's dead isn't she,' and he had tears in his eyes and I remember kind of going to my knees. The worst day of my life."
"It was the crime of the decade," said Massachusetts Police Captain Christopher Wilcox. "Women being fearful, getting pistol permits because no one knew exactly what happened."
Cops on the case chase down every lead.
"A lot. Hundreds of interviews," said Capt. Wilcox.
Investigators get a lucky break when they are able to extract the killer's DNA from the crime scene.
"We had the proverbial bloody fingerprint in this case and we just needed to get that match," said Wilcox.
"The crux of the case is attaching an identity to that DNA and we likely had an offender," said Hampden County District Attorney Anthony Gulluni.
But detectives and even Lisa's own family take special note of the curious place where Lisa's body was discovered.
"A rural area. No houses or anything like that around," said Capt. Wilcox.
It's not a visible turn-off from the main road. In fact, it is a spot that someone would have to know in order to get there.
"Always thought it was somebody who was very familiar with the area just based on where she was found," said Lynne Rogerson, Lisa's sister.
It doesn't take long for the small town rumor mill to start spinning, and as the months pass, the talk on the streets turns into a full-fledged accusation. The finger-pointing is squarely at one man.
"Ed Borgatti was a friend of my sister's," said Lynne.
Ed Borgatti attended high school with Lisa and even lived with Lisa's sister and boyfriend at the time she was murdered. Coincidence? Not according to the court of public opinion.
"They decided for some reason that he was the person," said Lynne.
And there's something else: Not only were some residents claiming Ed killed Lisa, but that police were covering it up.
"Because Ed's dad was a member of the police department," said Lynne.
But there's one huge problem with this theory: Ed Borgatti has a rock-solid alibi.
"I was working the restaurant that night," Borgatti tells Crime Watch Daily.
In a Crime Watch Daily exclusive, Ed Borgatti speaks out publicly for the first time since Lisa Ziegert's murder.
"I was working between my office and down on the floor and my sister was there waitressing, so I there with my family and my friends that night and there were plenty of witnesses to verify that," Borgatti tells Crime Watch Daily.
And according to police, Ed's DNA does not match the sample taken at the crime scene.
"There was never anything to hide," said Borgatti.
"Ed is one of my dearest friends," said Lisa's sister Lynne. "Ed had nothing to do with it."
Ed Borgatti is immediately cleared by police, but without a suspect in custody, the vicious rumors keep swirling.
"My thought on the whole thing was just move ahead, just keep moving forward and not worry about what people think, and you just know it's not true and you just continue to just live your life," said Borgatti.
Police continue with their investigation.
"We just kept on getting samples from everyone that we could and we just always hoped that at some point we would get a DNA hit," said Capt. Wilcox.
But they don't get a hit. In fact, 23 years later there was still no DNA match.
"When it first happens, I think everyone thinks they watch TV shows, 'CSI' and things like that, and in an hour everything is going to be wrapped up," said Lisa's brother David Ziegert. "The person is going to be arrested and everybody is going to know what happened, and as time goes on you begin to understand how reality doesn't match that."
The case appears to be cold and on the fast track to frozen.
The new Hampden County District Attorney, Anthony Gulluni, remembers the case. He was a young boy growing up in the area when news first broke of Lisa Ziegert's abduction and murder.
"I was in my adolescence at the time," said Gulluni. "It was something that resonated and stuck with you and in some ways haunted the town of Agawam and the people who experienced it.
"This case means the world to a lot of people who developed a commitment to Lisa and developed a commitment to Lisa's family to tell them that we had the person responsible for their dear daughter's death," said Gulluni.
Just months into his administration, D.A. Gulluni gets wind of cutting-edge technology known as phenotyping. It's a process that takes a DNA sample and turns it into a digital composite sketch. The D.A.'s office releases the digital composite to the public. The Ziegert family is front and center for the unveiling. When they look at the sketch of the man who took Lisa's life?
"It was very difficult when I first saw it, trying to think 'Do I know that person? Did I go to high school with them? Were we friends?'" said Lisa's brother David.
So cops have the killer's DNA and a composite of his face. Now they just need a name.
"We ended up looking back at persons who had been identified for one reason or another and then sort of cross-referencing that with people who had refused to give their DNA voluntarily," said Gulluni.
Then prosecutors make an unprecedented move.
"We went through a legal process that was devised by our team led by myself and Captain Chris Wilcox, and through that legal process we were attempting to compel a certain identified small list of individuals to provide their DNA," said Gulluni.
Massachusetts State Police investigators visited a handful of homes serving search warrants to collect DNA samples. One person on the list had been on their radar since the investigation began, but refused to give his DNA at the time. When troopers knock on his door, he is not home. But his roommate passes on the information.
"With essentially a message that 'state troopers are looking for you,'" said Gulluni.
The composite narrows down their suspects, but when troopers attempt to collect DNA from their remaining persons of interest, one man appears to skip town.
"And at that point put him on our radar much more significantly," said Hampden County D.A. Anthony Gulluni.
Then the next day Massachusetts State Police troopers get a surprise visit.
"Someone walked into state police barracks and provided us with some information that was very compelling," said MSP Capt. Wilcox.
It's potential explosive evidence in the form of letters. And the writer? None other than the man who is currently missing.
"I read the letters and at that point I called the district attorney Anthony Gulluni, we thought this might be our guy," said Wilcox.
"He purportedly handwrote a series of notes that amounted to his confession and responsibility for the killing of Lisa Ziegert," said Gulluni.
If true, police have a confessed killer on the loose. And they have no idea what else this seemingly desperate and dangerous man is capable of doing. Right away, cops issue an arrest warrant for their suspect and alert surrounding law enforcement agencies to be on the lookout. They also give a heads up to the Ziegert family that an arrest could be imminent.
"The police really wanted to share with us, but they had to be very careful with what they shared," said David Ziegert. "What we knew was this was the best lead we've had since beginning of the investigation and 'we're sorry we can't tell you more.'"
Hours later, the fugitive is spotted outside of Massachusetts, and police close in.
"He was tracked down to Connecticut, where he had made some efforts to commit suicide," said Gulluni.
The man is treated for a failed overdose attempt and arrested awaiting extradition back to Massachusetts. Meanwhile investigators get a search warrant and collect the suspect's DNA from items found at his home. The sample is sent out for comparison against the DNA of Lisa Ziegert's killer. And after years of waiting, it's just a matter of hours before the lab results come back.
"I remember that moment very distinctly," said Gulluni. "It was a very short email. I can remember seeing the word 'match' underlined."
The next morning the Ziegerts get a knock on their door, one for which they've been waiting a quarter of a century.
"It was the D.A., the chief of police, the head of detective bureau, and they sat us down and said 'We got him. We got him,' and it was like a cold wash going over you, and then a flush and then a 'Really? Are you sure?' Because over 25 and a half years we've had lots of 'Looking good,'" said Lisa's mother Dee Ziegert.
Investigators explain they have a written confession and DNA match.
"My immediate thought to myself was 'Wow, this is finally it,'" said Lisa's sister Lynne Rogerson.
"It was literally unbelievable in that after that amount of time, statistically it was virtually impossible this was ever going to happen, and then it did," said David Ziegert.
But exactly who is Lisa's alleged killer? The D.A. calls an urgent news conference to reveal once and for all the man's identity.
"Today, I'm informing the public that the search for Lisa's assailant is over," Gulluni announced. "Last Friday, September 15th, an arrest warrant was issued from the Westfield District Court for Gary E. Schara, age 48, of West Springfield, Massachusetts which charges him with the murder, aggravated rape, and kidnapping of Lisa Ziegert on April 15th, 1992."
And it turns out local residents' worst fears were realized.
"He's been among us, he's been in the community," D.A. Gulluni tells Crime Watch Daily.
The suspect grew up in the neighboring town of Longmeadow, only five miles from Lisa's home town of Agawam, Mass.
"He had been married and went through a divorce around the time or just before the murder. He has one child. That child is now adult," said Gulluni.
According to recent news reports, Gary Schara's ex-wife Joyce McDonald told relatives at the time of Lisa's death that she thought her husband was involved. Sadly, no one took her seriously because she was battling alcoholism.
"I never heard the name Gary Schara before the news conference. I had never heard of this person," said Lisa's brother David.
Lisa's friend Ed Borgatti, who lived the last two and half decades under a cloud of suspicion, is also present at the press conference.
"It's a feeling of incredible relief," said Borgatti. "A friend of mine summed it up perfect. He said 'For 25 years,' he said, 'You woke up 70 percent Ed Borgatti,' and he said, 'And today you're 100 percent.' And I appreciated that. That summed it up."
"Ed Borgattti is owed an apology by every person who slandered him and had a mean and horrible comment to say about him," said Lynne Rogerson.
While the news conference is underway, Massachusetts State Police troopers pick up the suspect from Connecticut and begin extradition back to Massachusetts. And as they make their way across Route 5's south-end bridge connecting the two states:
"There was a line of traffic and it was bumper to bumper and people in the community knew that we had him and we were bringing him back," said Capt. Wilcox. "As we are going through that traffic people were literally putting their hands out the windows of cars fist-bumping. It felt good, very rewarding to our troopers and the local officers that were involved in this."
"There was a bit of excitement and joy about the prospect of this being something real, but there was a lot of caution too, because there were some false alarms in the past over many, many years," said D.A. Gulluni.
The news media gets wind of an arrest and cameras are recording as a police escort arrives outside the Agawam Police Headquarters. It was the first time the community gets a glimpse of the man who terrorized their small town all those years ago.