Youngstown police have been investigating since human remains were found Aug. 26 in a wooded area on Thorn Hill Road on the East Side. In Part 1, the investigators, Youngstown police detective sergeants and homicide detectives Ron Barber and Anthony Vitullo as well as their supervisor, Capt. Jason Simon, are called out to collect the bones. In Part 2, they put the bones together in the Mahoning County Coroner’s Office. Today, in Part 3, they learn the bones belong to 29-year-old Amy Hambrick, who has been missing since November 2017.
Sept. 7, 10:03 a.m.
Simon meets Barber in his office with the door closed. The room is filled with bright sunshine. A window unit is cranked up full blast and pumps out enough cold air to make a visitor regret wearing short sleeves. As one of several occupants over the years in the small office, Simon has put some of his own personal touches on it, including a Star Wars light switch that has settings for “Dark Side” and “Light Side.”
There was some movement in the case over Labor Day weekend. Hambrick’s brother went into the woods the morning of Sept. 3 after he had heard the week before that some bones were found on Thorn Hill. He told investigators that he knew where to go because he saw Simon on television and he “recognized the trees.” He found one of the few remaining pieces of her that was missing, the left side of her pelvis. Simon himself and the other detectives did not go back out, but a member of the Crime Lab and the coroner’s office were both called to catalog the find and store it.
Now, Simon and Barber have a major piece of information but are not sure if it will jump-start the investigation; a pair of forensic dentists had identified the skeleton as Hambrick based on dental records. The fate of one of Youngstown’s most well-known missing persons is now known.
Simon says investigators have decided to hold off on making an announcement at the request of her family; they are in town for the wedding of one of her brothers and would not like the information to get out before then. Simon notes it is indeed a strange coincidence.
“How does this happen the week where her brother is getting married?” he asks.
While Barber has an identity, the case does not get any easier for him. How did she get there, but most importantly, how did she die?
The cause of death will be undetermined because of the nature of the remains, he said, and while he is leaning toward her death being an overdose and someone trying to hide her body, he still has lots of questions.
What especially intrigues him is the curtain, the tape used to bundle it up, and the fact that there was no clothing found.
“What does the curtain say?” Barber asks. “Was it something out of guilt?”
Now that they know the bones belong to Hambrick, Barber’s former partner from his first stint in The Bureau, Detective Sgt. Dave Sweeney, will be joining the case. Sweeney left The Bureau after 2021 and is now a patrol supervisor on day turn. As a detective, he was responsible for the department’s missing person cases, and when Hambrick went missing, he was the lead investigator.
Although Barber was Sweeney’s partner then, he was not the lead investigator, so some of the details in the case that only a lead investigator would know elude him at the moment.
“I remember some things,” he says, “but not everything like I would if I was the lead.”
That means Barber will be going over all the files and reports that Sweeney kept on the case as well as consulting with his former partner. They will be reinterviewing some people and trying to see if they can find something new or missed something the first time they interviewed them.
But without a definite cause of death, they do not have a lot to work with.
Barber compares the Hambrick case to that of Jackie Bluhm, 28, who went missing in May of 2017 and whose skeletal remains were found in January 2018 at Kensington and Halleck avenues. However, there was some flesh on the skeleton that was able to be tested, and traces of fentanyl were found. Although the cause of her death is listed as undetermined, he had at least a direction to lean in to investigate when the fentanyl results came back.
Sweeney was part of a team of investigators in Youngstown and Utah who were able to determine the fate of Lina Reyes Geddes, who went missing from her Austintown home in 1998 and was found murdered a few months later in Utah.
First, Sweeney and Utah authorities in November 2018 were able to identify Geddes’ remains through familial DNA. Geddes was bound in rope, and authorities in Utah, with Sweeney’s help, were able to get a DNA sample from the rope Geddes was bound with. They matched that DNA to her former husband, Edward Geddes, who had once owned a business in Youngstown. He died by suicide in 2001 in Nevada.
Because of their success in identifying Geddes’ husband as her probable killer, Barber says he holds out some hope in finding DNA on the tape that had bound the curtain in which Hambrick’s bones were found. He said he will be consulting with BCI to find out how to best get DNA from the tape. He is hopeful he can get a sample from a layer of tape that was not exposed to the elements.
Every time remains are found, Sweeney is contacted because they could belong to one of the 14 open missing person cases he is still responsible for. When asked if he was surprised when he found out the remains belonged to Hambrick, he said not really.
“Anymore, nothing really surprises me,” Sweeney said.
Sweeney is an Ursuline High and Youngstown State graduate who is the longest current-serving member of the department. He came on board in 1989 and has a jones for travel and skiing. He said the case was very time-consuming from the start.
There were searches of fields, some with cadaver dogs, on the West Side, Coitsville and North Jackson. There were interviews. Warrants served on phones. There were sightings of Amy in Colombia, Michigan and Nevada. He reached out to different law enforcement authorities who investigated human trafficking cases because of their expertise in tracking people who move long distances, most likely unwillingly. None of those sightings panned out.
Sweeney even took a call from some psychics who said they could tell him where Hambrick was.
“They felt compelled to call,” he said, “and nothing panned out.”
One thing Barber was not expecting was that humid Friday as he walked from the driveway of the woman who found the bones to the woods, he said: that the identification would turn out to be Hambrick.
“Part of me thought, ‘We ain’t finding her, and this is something else,'” he said.
Sweeney didn’t know, but when he heard from Barber and Vitullo and others immediately after the bones were found, he was hopeful.
“When I got the feedback from those guys, I was on a roller coaster that day,” he said.
Next: Police announce to the public that the remains they discovered belong to Amy
You can read all of the stories in the series on WKBN.com.