Thursday, November 30, 2023

Pennsylvania sisters seeking answers in their parents’ mysterious deaths a half-century ago in the Poconos

Must read

SAYLORSBURG, Pa. — Large poster boards full of frustration and mystery cover up the pretty, blue-and-white china in Lori Leonard’s kitchen in the Poconos.

There’s handwritten notes and reports attached to them, along with police sketches and black-and-white photos of her parents, stately buildings long-since demolished, and a mangled car in a snow-covered forest. On one corner, there’s a large new flier she and her twin sister, Debra, made with a link to a GoFundMe account and a photo of John and Madeleine Leonard holding them in their laps as infants.

“2 Unsolved Murders in One Family” is written in red across the top.

All of this evidence and information and, perhaps more importantly, all that remains unknown, have clouded Lori and Debra Leonard’s lives for more than 50 years.

Investigators said they’re not close to solving John Leonard’s murder. They don’t believe Madeleine was murdered at all.

The Leonard sisters are left with their own theories, drawn from recollection and sources, that would be difficult to prove today. One man who’s helped the Leonards dig around told The Inquirer he didn’t think the case would ever be solved. Closure is still out of reach, but memories remain.

They were just 13, sitting in Pocono Central Catholic School, when the police showed up. It was Sept. 8, 1970, and their father, a World War II veteran, had been shot to death while at the wheel of a taxi at the Inn at Buck Hill Falls, a historic Poconos resort.

Less than three years later, on Feb. 22, 1973, Madeleine Leonard’s Pontiac Tempest careened off Route 940 in Mount Pocono, striking several trees. Newspaper accounts at the time said she likely died instantly. Her death was ruled accidental.

The twins said they’ve always shared a sixth sense. Something was off that night, when their mother left. She told them she’d be chasing down a lead in John’s death.

“We knew,” Lori said.

‘We said ‘Oh no, something happened. She’s not coming home,’” Debra added.

Raised themselves

When Madeleine died, the Leonard children lived in an attic apartment owned by the Mick family, who owned the taxi service their father worked for. There were five children total, they said, the oldest just 18, and they fought to stay together. The sisters said they all went to school and church, working jobs to pay rent and buy food with little oversight or help from authorities or adults.

“I, we, always wanted to have a normal life and we would say to our kids, ‘We want you to have a better life than we did,’” Lori said.

For decades, the Leonard family left the digging to investigators. Rumors of Northeastern Pennsylvania mafia ties to the cases kept them fearful, so they focused on their own families. But now that their children are grown, they’ve returned to the mystery that’s consumed the family for 50 years.

“We were afraid then and wondered what they would do to our kids,” Debra said. “But now, we need our answers.”

They’ve gone deep into the world of true crime in recent years, putting up the fliers at various locations throughout the Poconos. They’ve appeared on multiple podcasts and recently received 1,000 pages of information from investigators.

The twins are also trying to find anyone who was alive and worked on the cases in any way, whether it’s hospital workers, government clerks, or employees of the Inn at Buck Hill Falls, where their father was shot dead.

“We’re still going through it,” Debra said.

Shots and a snowy road

Debra and Lori were told their mother had alcohol in her system the night she died, that a snowy road contributed to her crash. They also claim a local police officer, now deceased, told them their mother was run off the road.

“She was lured out checking a lead on our dad’s case and she never came back,” Lori said at her dining room table last month.

Detective Craig VanLouvender, of the Monroe County District Attorney’s Office, told The Inquirer there is “no evidence or documentation” that Madeleine Leonard’s death involved foul play.

John Leonard’s murder is listed among the open cold cases on the Monroe County D.A.’s web site. Details about Madeleine’s death are mentioned under his file, too. John Leonard, of Cresco, Pa., was driving a taxi that day in 1970 and had been called to the Inn at Buck Hill Falls for a ride. He was shot four times in the head, “mafia style,” the sisters said. They never learned who called for the cab.

Last year, investigators released a sketch of a man in a sports coat with “slicked, dark-colored hair” who’d been seen walking toward Leonard’s cab. The man, investigators said, was seen holding a paper bag.

VanLouvender said the sketch, released by Pennsylvania State Police, was likely shared with the public to jog memories and “get people talking,” so long after the murder. Still, there are no active leads, he said, “that are backed by evidence” in John Leonard’s case today.

“Unfortunately, we are not close to solving the case at this time,” he said in an email. “No information provided or speculation has advanced the investigation at this time.”

Exhumations and closure

As of last week, Lori and Debra had raised $765 on GoFundMe, but they have big ambitions and a $75,000 goal.

“We need to get their bodies exhumed and examined by modern forensics to find truth and answers to try to solve these two murders,” they wrote on the fundraising site.

If an exhumation isn’t possible, Lori and Debra said they’ll used the money to hire private Investigators and lawyers, conduct forensic testing, and pursue their own theories. They believe Northeastern Pennsylvania organized crime families, some of the same depicted in Martin Scorsese’s 2019 film The Irishman, may have played a part in John Leonard’s death.

VanLouvender told The Inquirer there’s no evidence that John Leonard’s murder was tied to organized crime.

The sisters say they’d start a scholarship fund with any leftover funds, but the goal, they said, is answers that could lead to closure.

“I know when something is unsolved, it’s sort of never fully ends,” Debra said, “and we’ve never basically grieved because we were in shock.”

Latest article