On Aug. 26, Youngstown police detective sergeants and homicide detectives Ron Barber and Anthony Vitullo as well as their supervisor, Capt. Jason Simon, are called to a wooded area on Thorn Hill Road on the East Side after a set of remains are found by a woman looking for her dog. It is later learned that the remains are the body of Amy Hambrick, 29, who has been missing since November 2017. A WKBN reporter was allowed to observe the investigation. In Part 4 of our series, police announce the identification to the public through a news conference.
Sept, 13, 10:57 a.m.
The three women seem out of place as local media begin to assemble for a press conference in the Youngstown Police Department’s Roll Call Room announcing the discovery of the remains of Amy Hambrick, who had been missing since November 2017.
The women are relatives of Hambrick’s — a grandmother and two aunts. The aunts bear a striking resemblance to the young woman, who was 29 when she was last seen.
They sit quietly amongst themselves as reporters and cameramen begin to assemble their equipment, setting up tripods, placing microphones on the dais, and fumbling for pens and notebooks.
The Roll Call Room is generally where media gatherings are held, under the watchful eye of the 16 city police officers killed in the line of duty, memorialized by plaques on the walls. Off to the side is a large map of the city cordoned off into specific police beats.
The discovery of Hambrick’s remains Aug. 26 in a remote area of the East Side was the first homicide call that WKBN was allowed to accompany detectives on, to get an idea of what goes on in a homicide investigation from the time of the callout until the case goes cold or until an arrest is made.
A reporter was present with Chief of Detectives Capt. Jason Simon and detective sergeants Ron Barber and Anthony Vitullo when Hambrick’s remains were found; when they were pieced together in the morgue at the Mahoning County Coroner’s Office; and when it was learned that the bones belonged to Hambrick.
The last rung in the process — or at least it seems that way — is announcing to the public that she has been found and asking anyone who knows how she wound up wrapped in a curtain bound in duct tape to contact detectives.
The Roll Call Room has gotten a workout over the last two-plus years for members of the department and administration to meet with the media. Mayor Jamael Tito Brown has said that when something big happens, he wants to give the citizens the facts as soon as possible, so he convenes the media with departmental brass to hold court and answer any questions.
But there is not always a give and take. Sometimes, the barest of announcements are made with hardly any details, because police do not want to let someone know what they know — and what they don’t know. Every presser, as those in the media call them, also comes with a plea for help from the public if the topic is a serious crime.
At least one presser is known for its raw emotion; the one held just hours after a 10-year-old girl was killed in August 2021 on Samuel Avenue in a shooting that also wounded three other people at her home and led to another shooting that killed a man and wounded another. The presser started late, and when it did, Brown appeared to have been crying and police Chief Carl Davis was visibly angry. The case is still unsolved. The details are among the most closely guarded of any case in the recent history of the department.
As reporters begin to set up, more law enforcement officials file in. Joining Barber and Vitullo is Detective Sgt. Dave Sweeney, who was assigned Hambrick’s case in 2017 when she was first entered as a missing person. Simon is there as are two members of the Mahoning Valley Human Trafficking Task Force; James Ciotti, who works for the Mahoning County Sheriff’s Office, and Officer Kelly Jankowski, the department’s officer assigned to the task force. Also on hand is fire department Capt. Kurt Wright, the department’s fire investigator who also is a member of the county homicide task force and assists on cold cases and missing person cases.
Joining them are coroner’s investigators Kelsey Simon, no relation to Jason, and Theresa Gaetano. Kelsey was the coroner’s investigator on call when the remains were found; Gaetano helped to piece them together in the morgue.
Before the presser, Sweeney speaks to a reporter on the Fourth Floor in one of The Bureau’s ancient interrogation rooms. There is a pair of rusted handcuffs bolted onto a table that is heavily scratched and three or four well-worn chairs. The lights in the room are bright, and it is a bit warm. It is hard not to think of countless interviews in the room over the years by generations of detectives trying to wring the truth out of someone cuffed to the table while sitting in one of the chairs.
One of the main reasons for the presser, Sweeney says, is to ask for help from the public. Over the years, investigators have gotten breaks in cases by going to the press, and Sweeney, Barber, and the rest are hoping that holds true again.
“Now is the time for people to come forward,” Sweeney says.
But Sweeney also adds that some questions during the presser can’t be answered — because the answers are unknown.
“Some questions we won’t have answers to,” Sweeney says. He also hopes the press conference can prod people who may know something about the fate of the other 14 missing persons’ cases he has to call him. One of those cases goes back to 1969.
Today, Sweeney is in a jacket and tie because of the presser, instead of his patrol uniform. Barber is also wearing a jacket and tie topped off with a new, spiffy pair of shoes.
It’s a bit jarring to have Hambrick’s relatives present. Typically, the presser is not occupied by people outside of the media or law enforcement professions. They serve as a reminder of why the presser is being held. One of them can be heard saying: “We waited five years and now we have more questions.”
Will they speak? media members speculate. No one knows. A couple of minutes after 11, Brown walks into the room with Davis, and everyone stops chit-chatting and turns their attention to the front of the room.
The presser is underway.
Leading off is Brown, who gives his condolences to the three family members on behalf of the city. Then Davis is next, thanking all who helped in the search and investigation and also saying he hoped the family could begin healing now that Hambrick’s remains were found.
“The end result will hopefully bring some closure for their loved one,” Davis says.
Simon is next, reading from what seems like a prepared press release and giving a bare-bones recitation of what happened since he was called out to Thorn Hill Road. He, however, omits that a curtain was used to cover her body and the curtain was bound in duct tape. At the time, detectives did not want anyone to know that detail.
He recounts some of the efforts that were made to find her, including search warrants and searches with cadaver dogs and chasing down sightings out of the state and one out of the country. When he is finished, before the media can ask for questions, Brown steps in, saying he does not want the family members to have to hear some of the details media members may talk about when they question investigators, so the presser pauses so Simon can take the three upstairs to the Detective Bureau, but not before he ends his remarks by asking for help from the public.
“At least one person knows,” Simon says.
A sort of awkward silence follows, because typically press conferences do not stop in the middle and pick up steam. Simon returns in 10 minutes and begins to take questions from reporters.
When asked how long the remains were in the woods, Simon gives the best answer he can, because no one really knows: “We believe the remains have been there for some time,” he says.
“There’s still as many questions now as there were before,” he adds, before taking other questions.
But a lot of the questions are a rehash of previous ones, so in less than 10 minutes, the presser is over. The reporters put away their notebooks and microphones, and the cameramen fold up their tripods. It’s just before lunch, and there are more stories to get to.
In the weeks that follow, there is work on the case, but not a lot of movement. Barber sends in samples from the curtain and duct tape to BCI to see if DNA can be found. There are follow-up calls and interviews, yet investigators are still puzzled.
What happened to Amy? Was it an accident? Did someone panic and hide her body? Why Thorn Hill? What happened to her clothes? Did she ever make it to North Jackson, where she was supposedly going before she disappeared?
If anyone has any information, they can call detectives at 330-742-8911 or CrimeStoppers Youngstown at 330-746-CLUE.
UP NEXT: Amy’s mom, brother and sister, and brother talk about what kind of person she was.
You can read all of the stories in the series on WKBN.com.