YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio (WKBN) — If you’re a homicide detective in Youngstown, being able to find out the fate of Joanne Coughlin would be like finding the Holy Grail.
She vanished without a trace Dec. 27, 1974, on her way to a Boardman health spa. Her fate has bewitched generations of detectives.
The latest to take a crack at finding out what happened to her is Detective Sgt. Dave Sweeney, a veteran investigator who has worked several homicides, including the infamous Robert Seman triple homicide case in 2015.
He and his partner Detective Sgt. Ron Barber have spearheaded the department’s two-year emphasis on missing person cases, and in 2018, he was able to determine the fate of a woman missing since 1998, Lena Reyes-Geddes. Sweeney was able to determine that Reyes-Geddes was shot and killed a few months after she disappeared in Utah. The homicide is unsolved.
Barber was recently able to get a pair of people indicted for a November 2018 triple homicide on the South Side where one of the victims was an infant.
Sweeney has spent the last two years of his working life tracking down DNA samples from relatives of missing people and dental records and other old forms of identification, as well as juggling a regular caseload. The DNA samples are submitted to CODIS, courtesy of funding by the National Missing And Unidentified Missing Person System, or NAMUS.
NAMUS has helped the city solve other missing person cases, such as the former owner of the Avalon restaurant, who was last seen on the railroad tracks by the Mahoning River behind the Covelli Centre. It was dental records submitted to NAMUS that were able to confirm his identity over a year after he was fished out of the Ohio River by authorities in West Virginia.
Coughlin, 21, was supposed to go to her boyfriend’s home after she was finished at the spa, but she never made it, even though someone signed her name into the register at the spa. Her car, a 1968 Ford Fairlane, was also never found.
She was declared legally dead in 1985.
The case attracted a lot of attention when she went first missing, and it has been revisited over the years by several different detectives.
Since he started working the case last year, Sweeney has talked to family members, former Youngstown detectives who worked the case and even detectives in Boardman who worked the case. They were involved in the case because the health spa was in Boardman.
Recently, Sweeney went through the file, which is actually two accordion-style folders, in front of a reporter. It’s like going through a time capsule. Initial reports are handwritten and more formal, while follow-up reports were made on a typewriter.
There are also several handwritten notes and phone messages written down on slips of paper, summaries of interviews, pictures of suspects, witnesses and Coughlin herself, even a report on the search for her car in a quarry near the state line.
Also included is correspondence with other police departments who were solicited for help from the case as far away as Hawaii, who sent their reply via airmail. But no one, it seems, had any information on the aspiring actress.
Coughlin is the sister of Louise McIltrot and was one of four girls in a once tight-knit family that lived in Brownlee Woods. McIltrot said her sister’s disappearance tore the family apart.
“It ruined my mother,” McIltrot said.
Coughlin was a Woodrow Wilson graduate who was on the flag line and a head majorette. She was in a school production of “Man Of La Mancha,” which gave her a taste of the acting bug.
She worked at the Jewish Community Center and attended Youngstown State University, where she planned on majoring in counseling. She would babysit McIltrot’s son.
“She was a like a second mother to him,” McIltrot said.
The last time she saw her sister was Christmas Day, 1974, McIltrot said.
The day she went missing, McIltrot received a call from her mother, Johanna, saying she was worried because Coughlin had not told anyone where she was going.
“That was not like her at all,” McIltrot said.
They searched Coughlin’s apartment looking for any clues as to where she might have been.
“There was not a thing out of place,” McIltrot said.
They made a report with city police, but McIltrot said everywhere her family turned for help at that time, they were rebuffed, which was frustrating. She said it made her believe that someone did not want what happened to her sister to ever see the light of day.
“Nobody would help us,” McIltrot said although she did add she does trust Sweeney and Barber.
There were reports that the night Coughlin disappeared, someone heard a woman screaming near some quarries off of U.S. Route 224 near the Pennsylvania border. Johanna decided to have the quarries searched herself, using money Coughlin won in a settlement after she was injured in a car crash.
The searches turned up nothing.
McIltrot said she thinks her sister either saw something or heard something that forced someone to kill her because that person or group of people were afraid of what would happen if she would tell anyone what she knew.
Sweeney said he believes that Coughlin met with foul play, but he also added because the case is so old, he is open-minded about how she might have met her fate.
“I don’t want to paint myself into a corner,” Sweeney said.
When told about McIltrot’s concerns about what she said was a lack of help by police and law enforcement at the time her sister disappeared, Sweeney said he can not speak for how the investigation was handled then. He said he could only work the case now the best way he knows how.
Sweeney said he has gone over the file extensively and talked to over a half dozen people since he got the case about a year ago. He is also in the process of having all the files digitized, or transferred to a digital form, which make sharing it with other investigators easier.
The fact that the case is 45 years old is a hinderance, Sweeney said. If he had any inclination of what he thinks might have happened to Joanne, Sweeney would not say.
Someone also tried to use Coughlin’s bank book at a downtown bank shortly after she died, but that lead also turned up nothing. Johanna never gave up searching for her daughter, but McIltrot said she learned to let go a little bit over the years, although she said she still wants to find out what happened to Joanne and who is responsible.
“After about five years, I gave up,” she said. “It was starting to affect my family.”
While not as obsessed as her mother, McIltrot said through tears she is still upset “because I think somebody just erased a young girl off the face of the earth and nobody ever cared.”
Other people also remembered her sister. McIltrot said Joanne had performed in some plays at the Youngstown Playhouse and they used to have a picture of her.
McIltrot said that over the years, even if she or police never find out what happened to Joanne, a higher power does know, and the person or persons who engineered her fate will be held accountable by that higher power.
“At some point in time they’ll have to meet their maker and be judged, too,” McIltrot said.
Anyone with information on the case can call the Detective Bureau at 330-742-8911.
Our sister station, WYTV, looked into the case in 1979, five years after Joanne’s disappearance. Watch the video above to see that report.
This story is part of a series of cold cases that WKBN is examining.