For five months Stephanie Dietrich crisscrossed northeast Ohio’s wooded areas in her red Dodge Intrepid, searching for the bodies of two missing children she had never met. “All summer long I had four shovels, a pickax, work gloves, mud boots and a flashlight in the car with me,” says Dietrich, 44, an Akron mother of two. Coworkers, she admits, thought she “was nuts.” Friends were “concerned I was getting too obsessed.” Her husband, Bob, she says, “tried to get me to stop.”
But she would not, and her obsession—and detective skills—finally paid off. On Dec. 1 she discovered the remains of Sarah and Philip Gehring, siblings from Hillsborough, N.H., who had been missing since July 4, 2003, when their father, Manuel Gehring, shot and killed them. Before he committed suicide in prison, Gehring had given authorities frustratingly vague clues to their resting place, saying he buried them somewhere along a 700-mile stretch of Interstate 80. Several law enforcement agencies, the children’s mother, Teri Knight, and many volunteers spent countless hours searching in vain. “It’s a miracle anyone found it,” Jefferey Strelzin, New Hampshire senior assistant attorney general, told the Akron Beacon Journal.
Sarah, 14, and Philip, 11, had been at the center of a bitter custody battle between Knight, a former critical-care nurse, and Gehring, who divorced in 2001. On July 4, 2003, the kids attended a fireworks show with their father in Concord, N.H., but witnesses say the three argued vehemently as they left the event. After shooting the children in his minivan, Gehring told police he then drove cross-country; he was captured six days later in Northern California.
Gehring, an unemployed accountant, strangled himself in jail in February 2004 before he went to trial or revealed the location of the bodies. Knight, who had remarried and was five months pregnant with twin girls when her older children were killed, continued to hunt for her missing kids. This summer she led a five-day search and made a public plea for help. Dietrich, a supermarket cashier, answered the call. She has always loved mystery shows like CSI, and since she was familiar with the terrain being searched, figured she could put her sleuthing skills to the test. “I’ve always been very observant,” she says.
Dietrich chatted with FBI agents and pored through hundreds of pages of online agency reports and news articles for clues. One report said pollen found on Gehring’s clothes and shovel could be from northeast Ohio, so that’s where she concentrated her search. Another mentioned landmarks Gehring detailed—including several willow-type trees, a 6-ft.-high wire fence, concrete sewer pipes and gray-colored firewood. With her dog Ricco for company, Dietrich scoured the area several times a week, taking off work, and eventually focused on a smaller area around Hudson, Ohio.
On Nov. 29 she came across a secluded area she hadn’t searched before. “There was the massive concrete sewer pipe, the green pump surrounded by a chain-link fence, and the pile of weathered firewood,” she said. And when she returned two days later, she noticed something else: A drooping tree that might have looked like a willow in the summer. Ricco lay down under the tree, which Dietrich considered a positive sign. After digging just a bit, “I hit black plastic,” she says. “Then I found duct tape and twigs and I said, ‘Oh Lord.’ ” Dietrich alerted police, who quickly unearthed and identified Philip and Sarah’s bodies.
Knight, 44, was grateful but understandably subdued. “I was very relieved,” she said, but “there is no such thing as closure when it comes to the death of your children. It still is a lousy deal.” Although she delights in her twins—”It’s unbelievable how they were sent to rescue me,” she says—she mourns her two lost children. “Right now we’d be looking at colleges with Sarah. She was just full of energy,” Knight says. “Philip had a wonderful wit about him. Who knows what their dreams would be?” She will retrieve their remains from Cleveland, and she looks forward to meeting Dietrich. “She is the amazing spirit of what we hope people are,” Knight says.
Bob Meadows. David Searls in Akron and Diane Herbst in New York City