Out the Door, and She Vanished

8:58 pm Crime Stories

Ed. Note: The following story won a 2003 Associated Press Managing Editors association first place award in feature writing.Wilkes-Barre Times Leader

March 6, 2004

OUT THE DOOR, AND SHE VANISHED

BYLINE: DAWN SHURMAITIS

LENGTH: 1562 words

No coat. No purse. No note.

No Phylicia.

When 22-year-old Phylicia Thomas stepped into 13-degree cold near midnight on Feb. 11, the only thing she carried was her ever-present Camel menthols.

When she left, her boyfriend was snoozing on the couch of their Hunlock Creek home. All Ed Rudaski remembers – after a hypnotist coaxed it out – is the sound of a car door closing.

No one has seen or heard from Phylicia since.

“How can somebody disappear and nobody knows nothing?” asks Phylicia’s mother, Pauline Bailey, who says three psychics contacted by family members believe her daughter is being held against her will, either in a barn or basement. One psychic, she says, saw the death card.

Bailey refuses to give up hope. But she believes something awful has happened to Phylicia, the fourth of seven children.

“She’s a very independent person. She can take care of herself. But she always called her mom, no matter what,” says Bailey, 47, of Dorrance Township.

The night she disappeared, Phylicia went home after her usual 3-11 p.m. shift at the Pike’s Creek Pump-N-Pantry. She tossed her coat over a box of newspapers she’d brought home as bedding for her two rabbits, early Valentine’s Day gifts from her boyfriend.

That Saturday – Valentine’s Day – the couple planned a horse-drawn sleigh ride to celebrate their third anniversary. Instead, at the request of state police, Rudaski took a lie detector test. He says he passed it.

“They asked me if I ever hurt Phylicia, if I know anything about her disappearance, and if I know anything about her whereabouts. I told them no.”

State police said they could not comment because of the ongoing investigation into the disappearance.

That same weekend, friends and family made the first of daily searches throughout snow-covered woods and mountains near the home Phylicia shared with Rudaski and his mother.

Despite an odd sighting – an empty cabin with a pair of handcuffs dangling from a bed – searchers found no trace of Phylicia.

Although Rudaski realized Phylicia had left the house late Wednesday, he didn’t sound the alarm until Friday, Feb. 13, when her employer called for the second time. Rudaski says he thought Phylicia was at her mother’s house and couldn’t call because there were no minutes left on a long-distance calling card.

“I think somebody out there has her,” says Rudaski, 27. “I keep telling myself she’s coming home.”

Subhed: Big heart and easygoing nature

When Phylicia was growing up, the family moved 10 times, finally settling in Dorrance Township, where Bailey lives with Jocelynn, Wyatt and Wade, her three youngest, in a ranch home next to a junk yard. She’s decorated the house with family photos and dream catchers Phylicia made as gifts.

When Bailey talks about her daughter, she alternates between anger, laughter and tears. “She was a very smart kid. A tomboy. She was always climbing trees, hiking, fishing.”

Described as “so happy she was practically singing,” Phylicia liked shop class, Scooby Doo cartoons, and music by the Talking Heads and Grateful Dead. She especially liked to draw, once painting a Pink Floyd album cover on a wall in her room. She never wears makeup. Just Chapstick. She tie dyes T-shirts and leather jewelry.

Those who know her say Phylicia has a big heart and an easygoing nature. “You couldn’t argue with Phylicia. She was the peacemaker of the family,” says her cousin, Yvonne Confletti, 30, of Hunlock Creek.

Says her mother: “She was always bringing home dogs. Then, she started bringing home people – street kids. She’d say, ‘Mom, this kid is sleeping on roofs. Mom, we can’t allow that.’ She’d do anything for anybody.”

Wherever her sister went the night she disappeared, Jocelynn says Phylicia didn’t expect to stay long because she didn’t bring ID. “She always had her ID because she needed it to buy cigarettes,” says Jocelynn, 19, of her chainsmoking sister.

SUBHEAD: The Martin connection

Like the rest of her family, Jocelynn worries about a possible link between the disappearances of her sister and Jenny Barziloski, who was last seen June 23, 2001.

While state police haven’t found anything to link the disappearances, the two knew some of the same people, including Rudaski’s best friend, Steve Martin, of Ross Township.

Martin was the last person to see Jennifer Barziloski before her disappearance and the last person to speak with Phylicia.

Rudaski told police Martin called looking for him Feb. 11 and spoke briefly to Phylicia, who told him Rudaski was sleeping. Earlier, the two boyhood pals had made plans to go out.

State police seized items from Martin’s home Feb. 20 and are awaiting forensic test results on the items. Martin could not be reached for comment for this article. The search warrant on his home is sealed.

According to published reports, Martin said he has nothing to hide and was happy to allow the search.

SUBHED: Boyfriend feels animosity of Phylicia’s family

Phylicia and Rudaski met in 1999, when they both hung out with teens and twentysomethings at the Noxen ball fields. Both were high school dropouts.

For a time, the couple lived with Bailey, who says she asked them to leave because Ed wouldn’t get a job and help with bills. From there, they moved in with Rudaski’s mother. The day Phylicia disappeared, Katherine Rudaski drove her to work as she often did because Phylicia didn’t drive.

Ed Rudaski spent most of that day with Martin and his girlfriend, who is Jenny Barziloski’s sister. After making plans to see each other later that night, Rudaski went home.

“I crashed on the couch. When Phylicia got home, she woke me up. Like she always did, she gave me a kiss and a hug and told me she loved me.”

Phylicia wanted him to join her for a few beers, but Rudaski told her he was “fried.” He told her there was beer outside, where he keeps it because his mother doesn’t allow alcohol in the house. The beer, he says, wasn’t touched.

Later, Rudaski says, she jostled him awake again. He’d hoped a hypnotist he consulted would help him remember if Phylicia said where she was going but all he remembered is the sound of the front door and then a car door closing.

At about 1:30 a.m., Rudaski says, he woke up and, realizing Phylicia was gone, rode his ATV about a mile through the woods to a friend’s home where he thought Phylicia might be. Finding the house dark, he went home and watched TV until about 6 a.m.

On Feb. 12, Rudaski worked on a pal’s Jeep until after 2 a.m., then called the Pump-N-Pantry looking for Phylicia. “When she didn’t show up for work Friday, I started worrying.”

After talking to several people, Rudaski realized no one had seen or heard from Phylicia in two days. He called her mother, who filed a missing person report with state police.

Calling Phylicia “a beautiful girl,” Rudaski says: “She’d do anything for me. She has a happy-go-lucky attitude. She’s always smiling.

“She always wanted to get married. I think it’d be fine but told her we’d have to wait until we get enough money and get out of my mom’s house.”

Rudaski says he took a polygraph because he didn’t want police wasting time investigating him. Although they confiscated an all-terrain vehicle and other items from Martin’s home, Rudaski said they took nothing except a head band and Phylicia’s stuffed tiger to help the bloodhounds get her scent.

Rudaski has stopped talking to Phylicia’s family and no longer joins the searches. “I can’t take it down there with the way they treat me and look at me.”

Katherine Rudaski, 53, says she can understand why some might suspect her son. “If it was my daughter, I’d be looking at the boyfriend, too. I hope whoever is involved in this, they catch them and they’re punished.”

SUBHED: Massive search comes up with nothing

Every day since Phylicia vanished, Scott Arellano has driven to Mountain Fresh Supermarket on state Route 118, just past the Pump-N-Pantry, less than a mile from the Rudaski home and less than five miles from Martin’s place.

From there, Arellano – whose wife is Thomas’ cousin – organizes volunteers to search for the missing woman. They’ve scoured a 100-square-mile area, looking inside abandoned buildings and summer cabins and searching for breaks in the ice.

The massive sweeps that sometimes included dogs, heat-seeking helicopters, horses, ATVs and hundreds of volunteers on foot yielded nothing.

“I sit here at night with my kids,” Bailey says. “I see their faces. One by one they break down. I can’t imagine not having her here with us. If we just had a clue.”

Sidebar
Wilkes Barre Times Leader

THOMAS CASE RARE AMONG MISSING-PERSON REPORTS

BYLINE: DAWN SHURMAITIS Special to the Times Leader

SECTION: NEWS; Pg. 1A

LENGTH: 414 words

WYOMING – Each year, more than 800,000 people are reported missing – the majority of them children, according to the Center for Missing and Exploited Children.
Ninety-eight percent of missing persons return home within 24 hours, says state police Trooper Martin Connors. Often, especially in this area, the missing are Alzheimer’s patients or runaways. Abductions are rare.

Since the first of this year, the state police at Wyoming have logged six missing persons cases. Four were runaways and returned home, according to Connors. Another turned out to be a student skipping school.

The sixth was Phylicia Thomas, a 22-year-old Hunlock Creek woman reported missing by her mother Feb. 13.

Once Pauline Bailey contacted police, she set in motion a large-scale investigation devoted to finding Thomas, who left her home without a coat or purse during the evening of Feb. 11.

“As far as the investigation goes, we treat it almost like a homicide,” Connors says. “That’s the level of importance we assign to it.”

In this area, true missing persons cases are rare, Connors says.

Investigating a missing person means gathering as much information as possible on physical characteristics and personal habits. Friends, family and co-workers are interviewed, and often reinterviewed.

Police also check the person’s favorite places and familiar pathways to and from work, home and the like.

A physical description is entered into the National Crime Information Computer, which enables law enforcement in other areas to check the system if, for instance, someone without identification is arrested or brought to a hospital, or if a body is found.

The media are particularly important, says Connors. Getting the missing person’s photo on the news and in the papers helps keep the case in the public eye.

“You’ve got to hope for that break from the public,” Connors says. “Somebody always knows something.”

Police also conduct searches, using helicopters with infra-red systems to scan large areas for body heat. Police often coordinate with search and rescue teams and use search dogs. Volunteers are always helpful, Connors says.

In the Thomas case, in addition to a large-scale search, police also conducted a traffic checkpoint, stopping every car on state Route 118 near Thomas’ home in Hunlock Creek to query occupants.

In a worst-case scenario, the missing person is not found. After a year passes, police issue a media alert to refresh the public’s memory.

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