We’ve all gotten that cringey gift. Maybe it’s lingerie we wouldn’t feel comfortable wearing. Or a piece of jewelry that borders on gaudy. Or a sweater we wouldn’t be caught dead in. Most of the time, we shrug it off. We might not be crazy about the fire-engine red garter belt or the ginormous rhinestone earrings but we love our guy and it makes us smile because, hey, he tried.
Less often, we get those gifts that make us wonder if we know the giver as well as we thought we did. Sometimes they may even haunt us. When 22-year-old Gary Schara gave his young wife a music box he bought at Brittany’s Card and Gift Shoppe, Joyce didn’t think much of it at first. She loved trinkets and Gary knew that. He told her a “little old lady” with gray hair had sold it to him and she had no reason to doubt his story.
That is, until a pretty, blue-eyed woman who worked at the Agawam store disappeared during her night shift in April of that year. Lisa Ziegert had a mass of curly chestnut brown hair and a mischievous smile. The 24-year-old was a vibrant, fun-loving person who had many friends and a steady boyfriend.
Lisa loved the children at the middle school where she worked and hoped one day to become a special education teacher. She was a recent college graduate and a talented artist who adored music. In high school, she had played saxophone in the band, as well as flute. The free spirit often sketched musical instruments and she loved to dance. If a favorite song came on the radio as she was driving she would sometimes pull to the side of the road and dance. She worked a second job at Brittany’s to help make ends meet.
In recent weeks, Lisa had told a friend she felt she was being watched. She didn’t know who it was — or even if it was really true — but she sensed something wasn’t right. Brittany’s storefront featured large plate-glass windows. As she sat behind the cash register in the store filled with greeting cards, porcelain knick-knacks and music boxes, was she afraid? Did she look out into the darkness and wonder who was out there?
One night shortly before closing, Lisa vanished.
When Sophia Maynard showed up for work the next morning, the door was unlocked. The lights and music were on. Lisa’s car was still in the parking lot and her purse was in the deserted shop. The back room was a shambles and a small amount of blood was spattered across some flattened boxes.
Lisa was nowhere to be found. Even more ominous, she hadn’t shown up for work at Agawam middle school that morning.
It was April 16, 1992. In addition to working two jobs, Lisa also found time to teach Sunday School. Had she still been alive, she would have known it was the day before Good Friday.
What happens when police and the FBI see a man as "the good guy" for 25 years--despite allegations that he may have murdered Lisa? The answer to that question shattered two women's lives.
A new husband’s obsession
The Scharas and their one-year-old son were living in Longmeadow, a neighboring town, so it made sense that Joyce’s husband was glued to the TV whenever the kidnapping came up on the local news. Western Massachusetts is a quiet, rural area and those kinds of crimes are rare. Everybody, not just Gary Schara, was focused on the young clerk’s disappearance. So if he stopped whatever he was doing in another room and rushed to the television set to hear about the investigation, it wasn’t that strange.
Except he had come home in the middle of the night when Lisa went missing, and when Joyce asked him about it he couldn’t give her a good explanation about where he had been. He’d seemed “amped up” that morning.
She noticed cuts on his hands and called her sister.
Everybody liked Gary. Her tall, handsome husband had no record and was a good father to their baby. But when Joyce looked at the music box from Brittany’s, she felt uneasy. It was a carousel with a blue horse, the sort of thing she usually adored. They had been married less than a year.
Three days later a dog walker discovered Lisa’s partially clothed body in a secluded location off Route 75 in town, about 250–300 yards away from the road. It was Easter Sunday and her body had been left about a mile from the store. The free-spirited 24-year-old had been viciously raped and attacked. The killer had stabbed her repeatedly then slit her throat before leaving the scene.
Onlookers watched as police removed Lisa’s body and other items from the scene, including buttons, a blouse and a denim skirt. Because of the brutality of the crime, authorities believed the killer was a large, powerful man. Because the location was in a lonely out-of-the-way area, they speculated he had to be local.
Joyce was speculating too. It was April 19, 1992.
Could her new husband and the father of their child — a good guy that everybody liked — have murdered a woman he didn’t know? It must have been unfathomable. But she couldn’t banish her doubts.
Gary had always pushed the envelope in the bedroom, sometimes holding a knife to her throat as part of role-playing games. Was it possible he had taken his fantasies further?
A disintegrating marriage
Whether the Scharas had problems before the murder is unknown. What is clear is that it wasn’t long after Lisa’s death that their marriage fell apart for good.
In August of that year, four months after Lisa’s murder, the couple quarreled and Longmeadow police visited their home. Joyce was hiding in the bathroom and refused to come out. She said through the door that she was fine and didn’t need medical help.
Police records give this account of the incident:
I arrived and spoke with Mr. Schara. He stated that he went to Lil’ Peach with his wife. When they were coming home they had a fight. He dropped her off at the hill near Barbara Lane and proceeded home. A few minutes later Mrs. Schara came in the house screaming. Her blouse was torn and she had a few scrapes on her side. She wouldn’t let her husband see her.
I tried to speak to her through the door to the bathroom. She stated she was fine and that nothing happened. I asked to see her and she stated that she didn’t want to see anybody. She stated she was fine and didn’t want any medical treatment. I advised Mr. Schara that if he finds out anything else to contact the department.
A few months later, in November 1992, the couple split and the court awarded Gary temporary custody of their son. Joyce did not fight the decision.
In January 1993, she got permission for a non-custodial parent visit with her son, who was not yet two years old. She put them both into a cab and went to the airport. The two of them boarded a plane to Seattle, where she had gotten an apartment near her mother, and disappeared.
A long cordial relationship
It was at this point that Gary began a long cordial relationship with the police, as well as the district attorney’s office and the FBI. When authorities called Joyce’s apartment in Washington, a woman they believed was her mother answered and told them she had no idea where her daughter and grandson were. The officer would later record his words to her:
“I explained we were concerned with the welfare of the child and just wanted to ensure that he was safe. The woman told me [the boy] is safe. . . “
Schara could not locate his ex-wife and their son. He filed a criminal complaint for parental kidnapping against her, which resulted in a warrant for her arrest. Six years later, in 1999, Schara moved to Agawam, the town where he had raped and murdered Lisa.
Not a credible source
Over the years, officials from the police and the FBI regularly contacted Gary to follow up on his efforts to regain custody of his son. At one point he tried to enter his son’s name into a database for missing and endangered children.
This occurred despite the fact that, at Joyce’s behest, her attorney had told police months after Lisa’s murder that Gary may well have been involved. Shortly afterward, Agawam police spoke to Gary on the phone and he agreed to stop by the station. The next day his attorney told them that wouldn’t be happening. Joyce was out to get Gary because of the divorce proceedings, the attorney said, adding that her claims were absurd. Gary would not be meeting with police or providing a DNA sample.
When police investigated the claim, friends of Gary, as well as Gary’s mother, told them Joyce was a depressed, mentally unstable alcoholic. At the time, other women were allegedly also calling in with similar tips. According to Dateline, “So the tip from Joyce’s attorney went into the massive file, along with all the others.”
Gary was not interviewed about the murder until 2002.
When Agawam police first questioned him at the station, 10 years after the crime occurred, he touched nothing. He wore a trench coat, as well as gloves, and kept his hands in his pockets the entire time.
In that interview he refused to give a DNA sample, citing concerns about “cloning.” The person who interviewed Gary described him as “extremely polite.” Despite the bizarre cloning explanation, police had no evidence to link him to the crime — or even to Lisa. They had nothing but a missing ex-wife’s old claims.
After the short non-recorded interview ended, Gary lived as a free man for another six years. Police brought him in again in 2008, 16 years after the murder, but he again denied any involvement in the crime and told them he didn’t really read newspapers, only scanned the headlines. Sitting well away from the table in the interview room, he was careful not to touch anything and refused the bottled water police offered him. A questioner remarked:
“I think this may be the first time we’re getting your side of the story as to how was she linking you to the homicide back here.”
Gary, who seemed personable, went on to say he had no idea why she would claim such a thing during their divorce. “I went ‘what’? What are you talking about?”
That day Gary walked out of the station a free man for the second time. And police had no DNA from him.
Authorities weren’t the only ones who were skeptical of Joyce, however. Even a family member who spoke to The Republican anonymously in 2017 said:
“I always thought maybe she was just being a crazy drunk. But she wasn’t. She was right. She was trying to save her son’s life.”
While Joyce was living in fear and Gary continued working with police to get his son back, other detectives were still investigating the Ziegert case. Rumors that Lisa’s boyfriend had murdered her after she caught him and his housemate Ed Borgatti in a compromising situation flew around Agawam. Borgatti’s father was a retired police detective, a fact which fueled talk of a cover-up.
Police could not rule either of them out and also continued to search for a man several health club members said used to stare at Lisa while she worked out. A key had been missing from Lisa’s key chain and detectives tried to match various suspects’ keys to Lisa’s apartment door. One person reported hearing sounds coming from the back room that night. Another said they had seen a couple struggling in a car not far from where Lisa’s body was found.
The crime remained unsolved.
As time passed, technology was changing. The murderer had left DNA and semen on Lisa’s torn denim skirt. In 1992, DNA technology was relatively new but as the decades passed it advanced rapidly.
In 2017, 25 years after the crime, Parabon Labs created two digital sketches of the killer — one as a young man and another as a middle-aged adult — using information garnered from the DNA phenotype, which includes hair and eye color as well as details about geographic ancestry. Though Gary did not resemble either picture, his name was still in the file. He was a close enough match that police included him on a list of 11 suspects they wanted to obtain DNA from.
Joyce never saw the phenotype pictures. She had died of undetermined causes on the West Coast in 2014. No obituary ran in any paper and the causes of her death have not been released to the public. She struggled with alcohol and depression for most of those years.
Meanwhile, Gary had found a long-term girlfriend, made friends and held a variety of low-level jobs. Joe Stevens, a former boss at a restaurant where Gary worked as a dining room manager in the late 1990s, recalled that Schara seemed like a great person. Stevens never suspected he had a dark side and even trusted Gary enough to let him rough-house with his daughters. “Just a regular guy…very outgoing...He could converse with almost anyone.”
A disturbing confession
As it turns out, Joyce had been right all along. Gary had taken his fantasies further. After the phenotype came out in 2017, a grand jury ordered the men on the narrowed-down suspect list to submit DNA samples. An officer headed over to Gary’s West Springfield apartment and left a message with his roommate.
It was the beginning of the end for Gary Schara.
In a confession letter he wrote the next morning— when a match between his DNA and the DNA found at the scene was inevitable— Schara blamed his lifelong obsession with hardcore pornography for the brutal crime:
“I’ve never really been or even felt normal. From a very young age I was fascinated by abduction & bondage. I could never keep it too far from my mind for long. On that fateful day, I let myself do something terrible.”
He left the handwritten letter, along with a will and a brief apology to Lisa’s family, for his girlfriend then fled the area. When she returned home from work that night and found the documents, she went to the police.
Gary turned up not long afterward at a hospital in Connecticut, where he was being treated after a suicide attempt. When his role in the crime became public after his arrest, people who knew him were shocked.
Schara’s DNA has since been entered into a national database and is currently being compared to DNA found at other crime scenes. His confession letter alleges he never committed another murder and felt guilty about killing Lisa. During court proceedings, he changed his plea from “not guilty” to “guilty” and is now serving life in prison without the possibility of parole.
How convincing is Schara’s claim that abduction and bondage pornography led him to commit the crime?
That’s for readers to decide, but bestselling author Peter Vronsky would likely find it credible. In Serial Killers: The Epidemic Years 1950–2000, the investigative historian with doctorate from the University of Toronto traces the surge in serial murders to a “perfect storm” of factors that include “Great Depression and World War II parental traumas, as well as true-detective/men’s adventure ‘sweats’ rape culture porn.”
Though Vronsky was speaking primarily of serial killers, his theory on what drove them to murder can apply to many people who commit this type of violent crime. He also writes of his fear for the future:
I dread what will come from the familial traumas of the financial crisis of 2008, the unspeakable secrets of a War on Terror that not only fathers, but now mothers as well, are fighting, and the coronavirus pandemic, all combined with availability of absolutely anything on the Internet, including those old images from the ‘sweats’ and more current and far worse graphic material.
If books had soundtracks, this one would close with John C. Fogerty.
“I see a bad moon a-rising. I see trouble on the way.”
Because no known connection between Lisa and her killer existed, Gary would never have been caught had it not been for the information Joyce gave police. She did not do this to gain custody of her son because she was not contesting the childcare arrangement, possibly because she was afraid.
While the Parabon image and DNA evidence made it possible to convict Gary, it was Joyce who first took action. In addition, her willingness to risk the repercussions of being branded a kidnapper by law enforcement may have saved her son’s life.
The Ziegerts also acted heroically, despite all they had suffered. They kept the case alive for decades. On old message boards, you can still find comments left by Lisa’s brother Dave, who wanted to follow every lead. Lisa’s mother Dee has said she never refused an interview so she could keep the investigation moving forward. Her sister Lynne placed a bouquet on Lisa’s grave the day she got married because Lisa should have been the maid of honor. Lynne never forgot her sister’s beautiful personality— or her case.
Credit is also due to the investigators who put endless hours of work into solving the case, especially those who looked at the case with new eyes and pushed to use cutting-edge technology to catch the killer. Agawam Police Detective Sgt. Mark Pfau and Massachusetts State Police Trooper Noah Pack worked together to lead a revamped team that finally brought the Ziegerts justice.
Then there is Lisa herself. Considering her love of music, it seems fitting that the melodious trinket with the blue carousel horse led to the imprisonment of her murderer. She will always be a hero in her own original, unforgettable way. In her short life, she inspired her students every day.