By Debra J. Groom
April 3, 1994.
It’s Easter Sunday. People in Oswego County are getting ready to celebrate this holiest of days on the Christian calendar.
It’s about 7:30 a.m. In New Haven, Town Justice Russell Sturtz is getting ready for church. Ditto Historian Marie Strong.
Over in Oswego, Undersheriff Reuel Todd is helping his wife with preparations for a family holiday feast later in the day.
Everything changes about 20 minutes later.
“I got a phone call about 7:50,” said Todd, who now is Oswego County sheriff. “They said one of our deputies was flagged down out in New Haven because the door to the D&W Convenience Store was unlocked but there was no one at the store.”
Sturtz got a similar call from his sister-in-law, who was Heidi’s mother. “She said Heidi wasn’t at the store,” he said.
Heidi Allen, then 18, was working at the D&W Convenience Store at the intersection of Route 104 and 104B that Easter morning. Some time after 7:30 a.m., she disappeared.
She has not been found in all these 20 years.
Heidi and her disappearance still affects people throughout New Haven and other parts of Oswego County to this day. Many will gather April 3 at the New Haven Fire Department to remember Heidi, share stories and light candles.
In those 20 years, two trials were held. Brothers Richard and Gary Thibodeau were arrested and charged with kidnapping Heidi. Separate trials were held – Richard was found not guilty, Gary was found guilty.
Gary, now 60, is serving 25 years to life in the Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora, Clinton County. His scheduled release date is May 19, 2020, according to state prison records.
While many cases this old may be set aside, especially after someone has been found guilty and sent to prison, that isn’t the case here.
Todd said the Heidi Allen case is still very active. The case is discussed once a month and rookies and trainees even get in on the action by checking all the information from the case to see what has been done.
And the Oswego County Sheriff’s Office still has a Heidi Allen page on its website.
“It is discussed here probably more than any case we’ve ever had,” Todd said. “We continually follow up leads as to where she is. If we get a teletype for remains that have been found, we follow it up. Our main interest is the family. If we could recover her, it would put an end to it for the family,”
Heidi’s older sister Lisa Buske, of New Haven, has written four books about the feelings one has when a loved one vanishes without a trace. She has met other people from all over who also have missing family members. She speaks to many groups across the country about her journey.
She said “it is more common than you think” that someone can remain missing for 20 years. She has met people with family members missing for 30-plus years.
The use of DNA to make matches with discovered remains has helped solve many cases.
“There are a lot of cold cases out there,” she said.
Todd talked of the searches held from the moment Heidi was discovered missing.
“I gathered up the things we would need, pens, county maps, yellow pads, and headed to New Haven,” he said. “Our initial thought was ‘oh, she ran home for something and forgot to lock the (store) door.’ Or ‘we’re going to get a call — she’s going to call and say ‘I’ll be back shortly.’”
But those calls never came. Todd and scores of others spent much of the next two weeks at the New Haven fire hall, putting together search parties, tracking down leads, talking to witnesses.
Strong, the historian, heard about the case when Sturtz showed up at her house to get her son to help with the search. She also worked at the fire hall registering people who were helping out.
“This just seemed impossible,” she said. “It didn’t seem like this could happen around here – it’s a small town, a quiet town.”
Many members of the public showed up to help search. Todd said searches actually were made easier by the heavy wet snow that fell that Easter morning. If the snow in an area was pristine and untouched, everyone knew Heidi couldn’t be there.
“There were guys all over searching,” said Alan Downing, who was New Haven supervisor at that time. “I volunteered for searches.”
To date, the Heidi search has taken sheriff’s office officials to many different states. Buske said Todd is always sure to let the family know when remains are found that are being checked to see if they could be Heidi.
In fact, the case was publicized in many parts of the country. Downing, who took a trip to the Canadian Rockies a number of years after the kidnapping, said he was traveling back into Washington state from Canada and saw a 3-foot square sign “Have You Seen Heidi?” with her photo as he entered the U.S.
Todd said not finding Heidi is the matter that bothers him the most in his nearly 40-year law enforcement career.
“I would like to think we left no stone unturned,” he said last week. “I’m a parent and I can’t figure out what they’re (Heidi’s parents Ken and Sue) going through. I think because we got so close, it’s more troublesome. When you have something like this you like to see a finality.”
Todd recently announced he is running for another four-year term as sheriff. That will give him another four years to try to find Heidi.
“If I could find her, I would retire a very, very happy man,” he said.