March 03, 2023
A Sellersville man who disappeared in October 2021 was allegedly kidnapped, robbed and killed by a coworker who disposed of the man's body and then fled the state, Bucks County prosecutors said.
Michael Stark, 49, of Royersford was charged Thursday in the presumed death of Matthew Branning, who was 50 at the time of his disappearance. His body has not been found. At the time Branning went missing, both men were employees of Encholor, Inc., a parts manufacturer for water treatment systems.
Branning was last seen at the end of his work shift on Oct. 15, 2021. When his family lost contact with him and reported him missing, authorities began gathering evidence to retrace his movements that afternoon.
Surveillance video showed Branning inside his silver Lexus around 4 p.m. When he made a stop at an ATM nearby his home in Sellersville, an unidentifiable person could be seen in the backseat of his vehicle. Police said Branning withdrew $500 from the ATM and then traveled into central New Jersey around 5 p.m., according toll data and cell phone records.
Branning's bank account showed another transaction at a gas station in Somers Point around 7:05 p.m., police said.
More than 1 1/2 hours passed unaccounted for until Branning and Stark's cell phones both were detected in the area of a Wawa in Cape May. Surveillance video from the store allegedly showed Stark making a purchase. Branning did not appear to be with him, police said. A store employee told police Stark had purchased a car charger.
Branning's Lexus was next tracked traveling westbound on the Atlantic City Expressway, which is the last location where his phone could be traced. Stark's cell phone, which was on the Expressway at the same time, didn't show activity again until hours later in the area of McPherson Square in the Kensington neighborhood of Philadelphia, police said. That was the last place Stark's phone could be traced.
Branning's family told authorities that his lack of communication was unusual, and that he would not have traveled unexpectedly to New Jersey without telling anyone. He was described as a religious man, a car enthusiast and an outdoorsman who mostly kept to himself and his family.
Branning had been an employee at Encholor Inc. for nine years. Stark started working there part-time in spring 2021.
The owner of the company told detectives Branning was a model employee who never failed to show up without letting him know. The owner further told police that Branning and Stark occasionally had minor conflicts at work, but otherwise had a professional relationship. They were not known to associate with each other outside of work, police said.
Stark did not show up to his job in the days leading up to Oct. 15. He allegedly took an Uber to the manufacturing facility that day and was "lying in wait" to kidnap Branning, prosecutors said.
Investigators believe Stark killed Branning and disposed of his body at some point after the alleged kidnapping. No specific motive was provided.
Stark was reported missing by his family after they lost contact with him the same day Branning disappeared. Stark had abandoned his belongings at the Royersford apartment where he was staying, police said.
More than a year after Branning's disappearance, Stark was found in Wayne County, Michigan after authorities obtained a record for a bicycle he allegedly had pawned at a shop there in November 2021. Stark was extradited to Pennsylvania on an unrelated warrant out of Monroe County.
In December 2021, Branning's family was notified by a wrecking company that his Lexus was found in the area of Falls Church, Virginia. Inside the car were Branning's driver's license and credit cards, police said. DNA obtained from the steering wheel of the Lexus matched DNA evidence collected from Stark's old apartment in Royersford, according to a grand jury presentment detailing the investigation.
Stark's criminal history includes an aggravated assault and three prior robbery convictions, including one gun-point robbery, investigators said.
Stark is charged with first-degree murder, kidnapping, robbery and related offenses. He's being held at the Bucks County Correctional Facility.