Today's Reading

Some forty miles to the west along Interstate 70, Piedmont Lake was overflowing its banks and spilling into the surrounding lowlands, filling the marshes and backwater inlets. These coves normally drew just enough water to create fetid mud bogs that supported little more than moss, sickly honey locust trees, and water moccasins. But after three days of rain the swollen lake had filled the back bays, including an inlet on its western edge near where Township Highway 357 dead-ends, the remainder of its southern route lost to the depths when Stillwater Creek was dammed in 1937 to create Piedmont Lake. The moss that had thrived in that dank inlet rose on the floodwaters, creating an emerald pool that shimmered when the sun finally showed itself on the morning of July 24, a week after Donna had disappeared.

It was just a few hours later when Merle Dresbach parked a Ford pickup truck that was more primer than paint along the berm of Highway 357. He and his grandson, Nick, grabbed a tackle box and two rods from the bed of the pickup and maneuvered over a sodden path that led to the water. Merle had his fishing gear in one hand and two sack lunches in the other.

By the time I started looking into the death of Donna Herrick, Merle Dresbach was fifteen years gone, having succumbed to black lung, the consequence of four decades spent mining coal deep beneath the hills of eastern Ohio. But his grandson remembered that day, if only through the eyes of a boy who was barely six. He remembered following his grandfather down the path and trying to step in the footprints left by his work boots, which seemed gigantic to him. The overgrown grass and foxtail were still soaked from the rain and they bent over the path like the arched roof of a cathedral, brushing against the young boy's face like so many wet paintbrushes. He remembered his grandfather stopping suddenly, dropping the lunches and the rods and tackle box, its contents of lures, hooks, and orange bobbers spilling over the damp soil.

"My grandpa was a pretty tough old bird, but when he saw that girl in the water, that really spooked him," said Nick Dresbach. "He didn't think I'd seen anything, but I did. I was little and there was a gap in the cattails, and I could see right through it. I saw that girl floating on the water; she was face down and her black hair was fanned out in a perfect circle. It was floating on the moss like a halo."

She was naked from the waist down and had been strangled with a dirty, rawhide shoe lace.

His grandfather scooped Nick up in his arms and ran, his diseased lungs pulling hard for air and producing a strained wheezing. Nick remembered being disappointed that they weren't going fishing and how his grandfather's white knuckles wrapped around the steering wheel as they sped to a nearby house to call the sheriff.

The sphere of interest in Donna Herrick's murder was centered in the Upper Ohio River Valley. Reporters came to Ed Herrick's house for interviews and asked for photographs to accompany their articles, and for the next week stories of her death dominated the front page above the fold. But a story works its way out of a newspaper in concentric circles, like a pebble dropped in a still pond, or a body dropped in a man-made reservoir. Other people die in car crashes, mayors and city councils clash, a highway construction worker is crushed to death in Yorkville. The latest victim is always the star. Donna Herrick's connection to an even larger evil had yet to be discovered, so the headlines faded. She was buried in a hillside plot in the Catholic cemetery overlooking the little town of Lafferty, and her life began to drift in memory except for those who had loved her.

The Belmont County sheriff assigned two deputies to the case. But where does one go when there are no witnesses and precious little physical evidence? And, after all, it wasn't like Donna was the daughter of a state senator or bank president. Her daddy had worked in a glass factory in Bellaire. As the stories disappeared from the newspaper, so did the leads into the sheriff's department, and soon Donna Herrick's file yellowed in a steel cabinet.

It would be another five months before a deer hunter found the body of a second woman, Betsy Bergen, in a thicket near the Old Egypt Cemetery. She was naked, with ligature marks on her neck and a green Christmas scarf with embroidered red reindeer lying at her feet. Then came the spring thaw and the badly decomposed remains of a third woman—to this day unidentified—was found in a stand of cattails on the western shore of Piedmont Lake near the 4-H camp. Seven months later, turkey hunters would find the body of Anne Touvell lashed to an elm tree near Egypt North Road; she had been garroted with baling wire that remained embedded in her neck.

The Egypt Valley Wildlife Area is a protected expanse of more than eighteen thousand acres in eastern Ohio. It was named for the extinct farming town of Egypt, which had grown up around a flour mill that pioneer James Lloyd erected near the banks of Stillwater Creek in 1826. The little town had a school, general store, post office, and a Baltimore & Ohio Railroad train station, but not much else. Egypt disappeared sometime in the early 1900s when the surrounding farmland, known as the Egypt Valley, was purchased by the coal companies, and the vast majority of the Allegheny Plateau was stripped away. The wildlife area was reclaimed after strip mining operations had extracted the last of the Pittsburgh No. 8 coal seam that lay beneath the surface. The dense Egypt Valley Wildlife Area horseshoes Piedmont Lake, a 2,270-acre reservoir with thirty-eight miles of shoreline.
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