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What happened to Jerry?

Missing man's family searches for clues in this world and the next / Second of two parts

Sunday, July 06, 2003

By Joe Smydo, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

In the candlelit room, Ilona Boyd joined hands with the medium who would contact her son's spirit.

Angel: Boy, you've had a time with him. ... He told me to tell you he never meant to hurt you.

Boyd: I know that.

Jerry Cushey Jr. seemed upbeat the week before he disappeared in October 2001.

He spoke with his mother every day save one, even told her about a planned visit to a strip club.

"Behave yourself," Boyd told him. "You're not drinking, you're not doing drugs, are you? He said no."

Ten months earlier, the 29-year-old had returned from the St. Louis area, unsuccessful in his pursuit of love and happiness.


Previous installment:
Family fears for wistful wanderer, poet and 'follower' mysteriously missing


He was unemployed from December 2000 until spring, when he and buddy Jeremy Wingo established a grass-cutting business. A few months later, Wingo said, Cushey got a better-paying job with Forward Construction Co. of Forward, Allegheny County.

Cushey sold the pickup truck he had bought to haul lawn mowers. He bought a Thunderbird in need of some work and borrowed his dad's Jeep Wrangler until he could fix the car.

Cushey often slept in his bedroom at his dad's house in Union. Sometimes he slept on the couch at his mom's place in New Eagle. Other times he stayed with two women in Monongahela.

Days before he disappeared, he and an old acquaintance had a chance meeting on a Monongahela street and decided to get an apartment together.

Cushey's relatives said Jerry Jr. and Christopher J. Myers had met years before, when Cushey had an arcade and Myers had a tattoo shop on the same Charleroi street. At one point, state Trooper Samuel Ferguson said, the two had a falling out "over a girl."

But Cushey held no grudge, family members said, and empathized when Myers told him that fall day about breaking up with a girlfriend. Cushey had been having a rough time, too -- his maternal grandfather, Anthony Nasal, had died two months before.

So Cushey was excited at the prospect of sharing an apartment with Myers at 212 Second St. in Monongahela, above Myers' business, Totally Tattoos.

Family members said Cushey didn't go to work Friday, Oct. 12, 2001, because he and Myers planned to work in the apartment.

Cushey did go to the construction company office to pick up his paycheck and, while there, made plans to meet coworkers Jarrod Fetchen and Mike Curran that night.

He cashed the check -- for $185.57 -- at Venanzi Distributing Co. in Monongahela. Ferguson has the canceled check.

Cushey also stopped at the Sheetz store in town; family members said they've spoken to the clerk who waited on him.

It was the only day that week Boyd didn't speak to her son.

But Cushey's younger sister, Gina Thorn of Fairmont, W.Va., spoke with him when she called the tattoo shop about 2 p.m. to consult Myers about her plans for a "tattoo party" -- an event at which guests get body art. She was the last family member to speak with Jerry Jr.

Driving by in the early evening, Wingo saw Cushey outside the tattoo shop.

"He said he had plans that night," Wingo said.

If Cushey meant his plans with Fetchen and Curran, he never kept them, according to people Ferguson interviewed.

Jerry Cushey Sr. said he was watching television at his home about 10:30 p.m. the next day, Saturday, Oct. 13, when he saw headlights, looked out the window and saw the Jeep being returned by a person who wasn't his son. Concerned, Cushey unsuccessfully tried to reach Jerry Jr. on his cell phone.

The search had begun.

At first, Boyd didn't worry. Jerry Jr. was 29, after all, and may have had reasons for not answering the cell phone she and her ex-husband called repeatedly that weekend.

Family members later began calling the tattoo shop, leaving messages Cushey didn't return.

Thinking she might find Jerry at the Russian Club, where he once tended bar and still hung out, Boyd called the Monongahela establishment Friday, Oct 19, and received the shock of her life.

When she asked whether anybody had seen Jerry Jr., the man on the other end of the line said Cushey had stolen money and a van and was "on the run." Startled, she pressed him for details. He hung up.

Boyd called Thorn, who called the club. When Thorn asked about her brother, the man who answered the phone said Cushey was "probably in a ditch somewhere." The man hung up.

Ferguson said he made inquiries about the calls but received "very vague" answers from club members. The club since has closed.

Alarmed and confused, Boyd and other family members drove to the tattoo shop. Myers wasn't there, but an employee said Cushey hadn't been around for days.

Relatives drove to the Russian Club and Monongahela police station but didn't learn anything.

By the time they swung by the tattoo shop again, Myers had returned. Myers confirmed the story -- Jerry Jr. had stolen his van and $1,500.

To Cushey's family, the notion was preposterous. He had his dad's Jeep. Why steal a van?

Angel: Will I tell you where he is? He's in heavenly light.

Boyd: His body -- we never found his body yet.

Angel: Ooh , he's showing me water.

Myers reported the van stolen to Monongahela police at 10:57 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 16.

Police filed the information with the National Crime Information Center and quickly received a report from West Virginia authorities:

The van had been discovered 17 hours earlier, about 6 a.m. Oct. 16, over an embankment along Morgan Run Road, a couple of miles from the Cheat Lake exit off Interstate 68. A tree had stopped the van from plunging into a stream.

"A back road like this? Why would he just turn off?" Thorn later said, doubting her brother drove to the site voluntarily.

Cushey was nowhere to be found. Unhappy with the thoroughness of the police search, family members scoured the wooded area themselves "at least 15 times" over the next few weeks, Thorn said.

It was the first of many steps -- "extreme" steps, Trooper Ferguson said -- family members would take to push the investigation along.

Jerry Sr. and other searchers collected a pop can, stained towel, screwdriver and rubber gloves from the area where the van was found and, thinking they might be clues, gave them to police. Ferguson said the items are being examined.

Family members filed the missing-person report with Union police because Jerry Jr. officially lived with his dad. Ferguson was brought onto the case Oct. 25.

That night, after a briefing from Union police officer Daniel Walker, Ferguson interviewed Cushey's parents and elder sister, Sonya Helmantoler of Monongahela. Five days later, he interviewed Myers, who said he was cleaning the apartment about 8 or 9 p.m. Friday, Oct. 12, when Cushey arrived with a woman.

"I wasn't feeling well, so I went to bed," Myers told Ferguson. "Around 10-11:00, I heard Jerry yelling. When I exited my room to see what was going on, there were many bags of coke in the apartment and the girl was naked. I threw them out."

Myers said he heard Cushey return about 5 a.m. Tuesday, Oct. 16, four days after relatives said they began looking for him. Myers recalled a door opening, the shower running and a door closing.

Cushey was gone. And so, Myers said he learned late that night, was his van.

Ferguson said crime scene investigators found no evidence in Myers' van or Jerry Sr.'s Jeep. Jerry Jr.'s handgun was still in the Jeep's glove box.

Myers referred the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette's questions to Uniontown lawyer Dianne Zerega, who did not return calls.

Using a computer, family members designed a series of missing-person posters bearing photographs of Jerry Jr., then posted thousands of posters on utility poles and buildings. Not one person called with a tip.

"I even put a mother's plea for help," Boyd said.

Family members scoured roadsides in and around the Mon Valley, climbing over embankments and scrambling down hillsides in search of Jerry Jr.'s body.

Helmantoler also cruised streets around the apartment, checking out Dumpsters, and conducted surveillance of people she considered knowledgeable about her brother's whereabouts.

Cushey's sisters went to a bar to hear Orlean Gypsy, a rock band their brother once managed. They posed as single women having a night on the town, hoping to hear people in the crowd gossiping about the case, but they learned nothing new.

The family's doggedness may have rattled somebody's cage. Helmantoler received an anonymous phone call telling her to "back off." Boyd received a call purportedly from her son, saying he was OK.

As usual investigative tools yielded few clues, Cushey's family soon turned to the unusual.

A Monongahela psychic told the family Oct. 29 she had images of drugs, a fight, metal on flesh, a wooded area, water, mold and a body bound with rope.

In all, the family has consulted five psychics, people who claim to have unusual perception, and three mediums, people who claim to communicate with the spirit world. All have given the family similar messages, indicating Jerry Jr. is dead and around water.

Before receiving a call from Cushey's family, a Pittsburgh psychic named Shaurie said, she had a dream of a man face down in water, the back of his shirt puffed up, four others standing around him.

Shaurie described the dead man's plaid shirt. Family members said it sounded like Jerry Jr.'s.

The family took Shaurie and the medium to Morgan Run Road. The medium said Cushey told her to look for a large "M" and a sign that said "Lakeview."

Driving around the Cheat Lake area, the group came to Lakeside Marina and a sign for a Marathon gas station there. The medium walked along the water's edge, carrying Jerry Jr.'s jacket.

"This is where he's at," family members recalled her saying. "He's telling me this is where he's at."

Angel: One thing I do want to tell you ... Nobody ever gets by with anything, ever.

Boyd: Good.

Angel: And if there is not justice in this world, there will be justice in that world.

And it's easier if it happens here. Truly.

Thomas Griffith, owner of the building housing the tattoo shop and apartment, told police Nov. 29, 2001, that Myers gave up the apartment two weeks after agreeing to a two-year, $250-a-month rental agreement.

Griffith showed Trooper Ferguson and Officer Walker the vacant apartment and, on the carpet in one room, the investigators saw what looked like a bloodstain.

They returned with a search warrant, taking samples of unknown substances from a bathtub, bathroom sink and bedroom floor. Also from a bedroom, they took a vent cover, two paint samples and a 9-inch piece of baseboard.

Tests revealed nothing, Ferguson said.

Shaurie said she is pressing for a search of the Monongahela River and additional searches of Cheat Lake.

Waters around the Lakeside Marina have been plumbed on four occasions -- three times by emergency dive teams and once by family members, who pressed into service friends with a boat.

One of the emergency dive teams found a black-and-white Adidas hat like one Cushey wore. It is slated for DNA testing; Boyd provided her son's toothbrush and razor for a possible DNA match.

Two months ago, Helmantoler appeared on the Montel Williams show with nationally known psychic Sylvia Browne. Browne said Cushey had been struck on the head and choked and his body dumped.

"Do you know how hard it is to find a body in water?" Browne said.

Boyd: Can I ask one more question? Why did they do this to him?

Angel: Money.

At a party held by one of her friends, Boyd met with one of the two Pittsburgh mediums who call themselves The Angels.

The medium, who allowed Boyd to record the session, said Jerry Jr. was killed in an argument gone awry. But she said Cushey still walked around Boyd's house and would come to his mother in dreams, once she eased her grip on grief.

"I want to find him," Boyd persisted. "That's all I want. I can't stop 'till I do.

"You gotta help me, Jerry."

Joe Smydo can be reached at jsmydo@post-gazette.com or 724-746-8812.

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