A DECADE OF DILIGENCE

8:51 pm Crime Stories

POLICE NEVER GAVE UP TRYING TO MAKE ARRESTS IN THE MURDERER OF JOYCE ANN
HARDING, WHO WAS SLAIN IN 1985

Sunday, October 29, 1995

Page: 1A
By DAWN SHURMAITIS

Within 48 hours of Joyce Ann Harding’s disappearance on Sept. 19, 1985,
investigators zeroed in on two suspects: members of the notoriously violent
Warlocks motorcycle club.

But it took 10 years of dogged legwork for investigators to secure enough
hard evidence to implicate Mark Conaway and Larry Robbins in the shooting
death of the 25-year-old Tunkhannock woman.

From the start, police pegged Conaway as the trigger man and Robbins his
willing accomplice. Residents of Delaware County outside Philadelphia, the
bikers met Harding during a chance encounter in a Wyoming County bar.

“They were always the prime suspects. There was never a question in
investigators’ minds,” says Cpl. William Strong of the state police at
Dunmore. “It was just a matter of getting proof.”

The crucial break?

According to a source close to the investigation, a fellow Warlock
“flipped,” implicating Robbins and Conaway in exchange for a lighter
sentence for another crime and entrance into the federal Witness Protection
Program.

The Warlocks are key to the investigation. During the years, police plunged
deep into a Warlocks’ world ruled by guns, drugs and bloody paybacks.

Harding, say investigators who devoted their careers to exposing gang
violence, was just one of six young Pennsylvania women killed during the
years by biker outlaws from Delaware County.

Why Harding, a data processor out for a night on the town with her best
girlfriend?

“The bitch got uppity,” is what Conaway told his biker buddies, according
to arrest affidavits filed Oct. 12.

Piece by piece

A tattoo, a shiny black BMW and a motel receipt provided the first links
between Conaway and Robbins and murder.

Police informants told investigators the bikers came north that September
day to rip off a local drug dealer, but Conaway “screwed up, the whole deal
went bad up there.”

After checking into the Skyline Motel, the bikers turned their BMW toward
the Shadowbrook Resort’s night club on state Route 6 near Tunkhannock.

Inside, Harding chatted with old friends and new acquaintances.

Within hours, she was dead. Her worried mother reported her missing the
next morning, telling police that Joyce Ann would never stay out all night
before a work day.

Witnesses later interviewed by police put the three together — at the bar,
near the car, at the motel.

One witness remembered Conaway in particular because of the unusual tattoo
of a globe on the back of his hand. Delaware County police knew that tattoo
and gave local police the name they needed: Mark Conaway, sergeant-at-arms
for the Warlocks’ motorcycle club.

Inside Robbins’ car, police found a motel receipt from the Skyline, dated
Sept. 19, 1985. The clerk remembered Robbins from Room 202.

Confident from the start and eager to get the bikers in custody, police
initially charged Robbins with kidnapping, and Conaway with stealing towels
and damaging a light fixture in the motel room. Police fully expected
homicide charges would soon follow.

But the case didn’t hold up. In May 1985, insufficient evidence forced
police to drop the charges.

The investigation stalled. But police persisted.

During the next decade, state police from the Dunmore and Tunkhannock
barracks conducted hundreds of interviews, ultimately compiling a 300-page
file.

“You should never give up on homicide investigations,” says Lt. Frank
Hacken with the state police at Dunmore. “It comes down to hard work and
dedication. That’s what solves cases.”

That, and the testimony of two confidential police informants and a
mysterious witness who waited nearly six years to tell his story.

Lackawanna County Assistant District Attorney Andy Jarbola says one witness
clearly saw Robbins and Conaway the night Harding disappeared. The two
suspects were standing by a shiny dark BMW near a remote stretch of Routes
6 and 11 in LaPlume Township, just across the Lackawanna County line and 10
miles from Shadowbrook.

Police theorize the two men were preparing to roll an already unconscious
Harding 15 feet down an embankment. Once at the bottom, police say Conaway
fired two bullets from a .38-caliber handgun into Harding’s head. The
bullets later were recovered from the ground beneath her body.

Five weeks later, after heavy rains flooded the creek, a fisherman stumbled
across Harding.

The moon-faced girl with the wavy brown hair and dimpled cheeks was no
longer recognizable. Her parents, Bev and Norman, had their only daughter’s
body cremated.

Then, they waited for justice.

After a comprehensive investigation and a two-year grand jury probe,
investigators called the Hardings to the district attorney’s office in
early October. Murder charges would be filed within days.

Bev Harding, who raised three children at the couple’s ranch home in
Tunkhannock, had never given up hope that Joyce Ann’s killers would be
charged. During the years, she wrote letters to politicians, death penalty
opponents and even Oprah Winfrey and “60 Minutes.”

The Hardings couldn’t be reached for comment last week. Jarbola says relief
best describes their reaction to news of the arrests.

A big man with a strong grip, Norman Harding shook Jarbola’s hand hard.

“He thanked us for all our hard work,” Jarbola says. “He was visibly
moved.”

Hell on wheels

Back in their heyday, when bell bottoms and Beatles ruled, the Warlocks
carved out a territory that cut across Philadelphia, Delaware and Chester
counties, and southern New Jersey.
The club formed six chapters, with an estimated 250 members.

Police believe some members live in Luzerne County, but not enough to form
an official chapter. The most visible and violent chapter, according to
police, is in Delaware County.

Like their more prominent brothers-in-arms, the Hell’s Angels, Warlocks
ride only American made Harley-Davidson motorcycles while sporting club
“colors” on denim jackets with cut-off arms.

The bikers always wear diamond-shaped patches with the words “one percent”
in the middle, to signify they are among the 1 percent of the population
that does not obey the law.

Homicide. Rape. Robberies. Aggravated assault. Loan sharking. Arms dealing.
Murder for hire. Warlocks do it all, says Detective Paul Snyder, a former
member of a special gang task force formed in 1976 to infiltrate gangs and
prosecute criminal members. Snyder is a detective with the Upper Darby
Township Police Department.

The Warlock’s specialty, according to Snyder, is the manufacture and sale
of methamphetamine, or speed. In recent years, the gangs have moved more of
their laboratories to rural areas in Northeastern Pennsylvania and southern
New Jersey, where the strong odor from cooking speed is less likely to be
detected.

In the last 20 years, Warlocks have been suspects in 12 homicides in the
two-state region. Snyder can still tick off the names of four women — one
only 15 years old — killed by a single shot to the head and dumped in
remote locations outside Philadelphia in 1976.

The women knew Warlocks, either through dating or drug dealing. Police
dubbed the spree “The Marsh Murders.” The homicides remain unsolved, but
Snyder says investigators are certain that Warlocks were responsible.

“They wreak havoc on everybody,” Snyder says.

Warlocks’ defender

One of the most infamous Warlocks is Robert “Mudman” Simon, who gained
national attention in May for shooting a South Jersey policeman 11 weeks
after Simon’s parole on a murder charge.

Mudman served 13 years in a Pennsylvania state prison for shooting a
19-year-old Delaware County secretary in the head with a .38-caliber
handgun and dumping her body in a strip mine near Hazleton.
Police say Simon killed Beth Jean Dusenberg for acting cocky and refusing
to be “trained” — vernacular for a Warlock gang rape. Seven years after
the 1974 murder, three Warlocks — convicted felons nicknamed Skraggs,
Mountainman and T-Bone — agreed to testify against Simon in exchange for
lighter sentences on a variety of charges.

Mudman’s attorney was John G. McDougall, who’s earned a reputation as “the
Warlocks’ lawyer” for representing numerous club members during the last
two decades.

McDougall, of Delaware County, will represent Robbins and Conaway during
their preliminary hearing Friday before District Justice Carmen Minora of
Scranton.

“Certainly, a number are pretty vicious,” McDougall says of the Warlocks.

But his clients, he says, are pleading not guilty to killing Joyce Ann
Harding.

Anything goes

Larry Robbins — husband, father of three, sometime tree surgeon and
self-employed salesman, according to his arrest affidavit — is a “bright,
capable, confident guy,” says McDougall.

Police say he is a career criminal, an accomplice in Harding’s murder.
Conaway, say police, was the hit man.

The two men go back a long way.

In 1985, the same year Harding was killed, police records say Conaway and
Robbins were paid $500 by a Kennett Square landlord to force a tenant from
his apartment. The tenant was beaten with baseball bats, but McDougall says
his clients weren’t responsible.

They took the money, but changed their mind about actually carrying out the
attack. McDougall thinks the landlord did it.

Both men served time for conspiracy to commit assault.

Snyder, who has been following the Warlocks as closely as McDougall during
the years, says violence — particularly against women — is a way of life
for club members.

“I’ve seen some bikers beat their old lady because they didn’t cook
breakfast right,” Snyder says. “They have no remorse. They just do what
they got to do.”

Sitting in jail

Among the tattoos that cover Conaway’s entire upper body and arms is one of
a .45-caliber handgun, which Snyder says is the Warlock sign for “the
enforcer.”

Conaway was a Warlocks’ sergeant-at-arms, which Snyder says means he was in
charge of the Warlocks’ arsenal. In 1988, Philadelphia police stopped
Conaway’s car and found a sawed-off shotgun, cattle prod, a .22-caliber
rifle with silencer, electric shock gun, rubber gloves, handcuffs, $1,000
in cash and instructions for building a silencer.

The weapons’ offenses got him a 10-year sentence in state prison. The state
tacked on an additional 37 months after Conaway paid a prison guard to
smuggle in steroids.

Conaway remains in the State Correctional Institution at Dallas. Robbins,
who was free at the time of his arrest, is in the Lackawanna County Jail.

Conaway, 37, of Drexel Hill, is charged with criminal conspiracy to commit
murder, first- and third-degree murder and voluntary and involuntary
manslaughter.

Robbins, 43, of Glen Mills, is charged with criminal conspiracy to commit
murder, murder in the first and third degree as an accomplice and
involuntary manslaughter as an accomplice.

Robbins could not be reached for comment. Conaway refused comment. The
district attorney is considering the death penalty.

Still active

Law enforcement officials in Pennsylvania and New Jersey say bikers still
ride, fly colors, commit crimes.

“We’ve seen more activity in the last 18 months than in the previous four
or five years,” Detective Jack Azpell of the Delaware County Criminal
Investigation Division recently told the Philadelphia Inquirer. “The
outlaw-biker lifestyle has not changed. They’re still doing the same things
they were doing in the ‘70s and ‘80s.”

But during the years, some Warlock leaders died, others landed in prison.
That, says Snyder, might explain why long-reluctant Warlocks finally came
forward to testify against Robbins and Conaway.
“This group uses a lot of fear and intimidation to prevent people from
testifying,” Snyder says. “I’m so glad the investigators finally got what
they wanted.”

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