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December 22, 2022

Husband charged with homicide in Pennsylvania cold-case of estranged wife who disappeared 38 years ago

Investigators say handwriting analysis and other evidence led to the arrest of Jere Bagenstose, 68, of Lancaster County. Maryann Bagenstose has never been located

Investigations Cold Case
Lancaster County Cold-Case homicide Thom Carroll/for PhillyVoice

Jere Bagenstose, 68, of Lancaster County, has been charged with homicide 38 years after his wife vanished, prosecutors said Thursday.

A Lancaster County man whose estranged wife disappeared in 1984 has been charged with homicide in a cold-case investigation that has stretched nearly four decades without answers.

Jere Bagenstose, 68, of Pequea Township, which is about five miles south of the city of Lancaster, was charged Thursday with killing Maryann Bagenstose, who is presumed to be dead after she went missing in 1984. The woman was 25 at the time, and she has never been found or heard from since, authorities said.

Handwriting analysis of a note that Bagenstose claims his wife had left on the day she disappeared enabled investigators to piece together enough evidence to bring charges against the husband, prosecutors said.

"An arrest in this 38-year-old case has certainly been long awaited," Lancaster County District Attorney Heather Adams said. "This is not a case solved with DNA. Rather, the arrest of Jere Bagenstose is the result of decades of hard work and dedication by law enforcement personnel."

At the time when Maryann disappeared on June 5, 1984, she had been separated from Jere and was living at a home on West Willow Road with the couple's 2-year-old son. She also had a relationship with another person who lived at the property, police said.

Two months earlier, Maryann had been granted custody of the couple's son, but still needed to appear at a formal custody hearing that was scheduled for June 15. She never showed up at the hearing, and Jere Bagenstose was awarded custody of the boy.

Maryann's mother first reported her missing on June 7. Jere, who hadn't contacted police, was the last person to have seen Maryann, investigators believe.

During initial his interviews with police, investigators said Jere told them he had seen his estranged wife the morning of June 5, when he went to her house to take her to trade in her car. He said Maryann was not ready to leave when he arrived to pick her up, so he took their son to a nearby park to give her more time, according to police. When Jere returned to the home, he said Maryann wasn't there and that she had left a note saying that she was walking to a Turkey Hill convenience store in the area.

Three days into the search for Maryann, a Pequea Township police officer met with Jere at the home on West Willow Road. In the garage, the officer saw a piece of cardboard covering freshly dug dirt, prosecutors said. When the officer lifted the cardboard, he found a 3-foot by 5-foot area that had been dug up and refilled.

Five days passed before a search warrant could be executed at the property allowing investigators to re-dig the hole, and when they did, Maryann's body wasn't inside.

But during the same search warrant, investigators found a note in the living room, that read,  "Had to run a quick errand, be right back." It was collected by Pennsylvania State Police and held as evidence.

Jere Bagenstose Mugshot

Jere Bagenstose

For decades, authorities tried to make sense of what they believe are inconsistencies in Jere's account of Maryann's disappearance.

On the day Maryann vanished, for example, Jere's employer said he had an unexcused absence from work. Jere also had an unexplained injury to his left arm, which was bandaged. Police said he gave conflicting information about how and when he got hurt.

Jere also had allegedly told investigators that Maryann was having mechanical problems with her car, which he said was the reason she walked to Turkey Hill. Neighbors and acquaintances told police that Maryann's car had been working fine and that she simply had been planning to get a new one.

A Turkey Hill employee told authorities that she never saw Maryann on June 5, 1984. When investigators pointed out that the note they found didn't specifically say anything about Turkey Hill or walking anywhere, Jere said he had assumed that's what Maryann had done.

In the year after Maryann's disappearance, Jere allegedly told police that people had come to him saying that they had recently seen Maryann. He never proactively provided police with this information, prosecutors said. There also were a number of postcards and notes that Jere told police had been sent by Maryann — after her disappearance — that Jere allegedly failed to show police.

Pennsylvania State Police resumed the investigation in late 2018, focusing on the note that had been found in the home's living room. Over a period of a few years, they combed through online databases to find public records and other documents with Jere's handwriting that could be compared to the note.

On Sept. 22, 2022, investigators executed another search warrant at the same residence along West Willow Road, where they seized numerous items they believed to contain examples of Jere's handwriting.

The samples were submitted to the Pennsylvania State Police Bureau of Forensic Services – Harrisburg Regional Laboratory for analysis. The resulting report concluded that the note seized by police in 1984 had been written by Jere Bagenstose.

Authorities point to multiple factors suggesting Maryann is not alive. She has contacted no family or friends since her disappearance. There was no evidence that she ever packed belongings to leave home, nor has she opened any bank accounts or claimed any income. And there hasn't been any activity on her credit or social security number. She also has never established residency or legal identification in any other state, and never held a passport or left the United States, prosecutors said.

Jere Bagenstose was arrested Thursday morning, arraigned and sent to Lancaster County Prison.

"This begins the criminal process in a 38-year-old case, and we hope it brings relief to Maryann's family and friends," Adams said. "We will do everything we can to see that justice is done in this case."