Beaver County Times (PA)
July 11, 2005
Suspect is dead, but did he do it?
Author: Bill Vidonic, Times Staff
BADEN - Shirley Spence knows the pain that Natalee Holloway's mother is experiencing, the tears that fall until her eyes dry out and cannot produce any more liquid, sleep that will not come until her body simply cannot function any longer.
Nearly 47 years ago, Spence's 15-year-old sister, Rebecca Ann Triska, vanished without a trace after a dance in Ambridge. The prime suspect in the case, Frank Senk, was never charged in Triska's disappearance, and her body was never found. Senk died in prison decades later while awaiting a death sentence for an unrelated murder.
"I think of the (Holloway) family and what they must be going through," Spence said Thursday. "It's something no one can quite understand unless they go through it."
But unlike the family of Holloway, 18, who vanished in Aruba on May 30, Spence, of Baden may have some answers soon.
In September, DNA tests will be performed on strands of hair found in Senk's car shortly after Triska's disappearance, to answer the question whether they indeed were hers, although Senk denied ever having been with Triska.
While Spence, 66, would appreciate answers, she said she hopes they won't come at local taxpayer expense.
"I really don't want to have taxpayers pay all this money for a crime we really can't do anything about right now," Spence said. "If they had an unidentified body somewhere and wanted to check, that would be fine. But the person I feel is guilty is gone."
Into thin air
The 5-foot-1-inch, 110-pound, red-haired and freckled Rebecca Triska was quiet and usually obedient to her parents, Frank and Mary Triska, always phoning them if she thought she would miss curfew, according to newspaper reports from the late 1950s.
On the night of Sept. 19, 1958, Triska and two girlfriends headed from her home at 1041 Third St. in Baden to a teen dance at the former Workingmen's Beneficial Union in Ambridge. Becky, as she was called, was wearing a green cashmere sweater, black velvet slacks and black suede tie shoes.
A police officer reported that Triska seemed "fidgety, as if she had something on her mind," as she left the dance hall around 11:30 p.m. She told two friends that she was going to meet a girlfriend in front of the nearby Ambridge Theater.
But two boys who left the same dance said as they talked to Triska in front of the theater, she was alone. An older man, maybe about 35, was standing nearby and offered to drive Triska home, the boys reported, but the boys said they told the man he was too old to take her home, and the man walked away.
By 11:45 p.m., Triska was seen by witnesses in the company of an older man, the pair in a car at a Harmony Township restaurant. That was the last that anyone would ever see of Triska.
By 1 a.m., Spence said, her family began to worry. And as the hours dragged on, the fear intensified that something was horribly wrong.
Spence, then 19, said she questioned dozens of people on her own, trying desperately to find any information that would lead her to her baby sister. Triska's photo was spread to police in eight states surrounding Pennsylvania, in the hopes that she would be spotted somewhere.
Someone recognized the car that Triska was reportedly seen in that night, and within hours, a 25-year-old Ambridge divorcee by the name of Frank Senk was in custody. Senk denied having been with Triska, but forensic evidence, according to news reports, suggested something far different.
Searching for answers
Senk was arrested Sept. 21, 1958, and jailed on a "suspicion of a felony" charge. He was already on parole for a morals charge in Florida.
Investigators said that when they searched Senk's car, they found strands of red hair that they thought matched those taken for comparison from Triska's hairbrush and from her baby book. They also found blood stains in the car.
The hairs were tested chemically and inspected visually, and while investigators said they thought the hair was a match, they couldn't conclusively say so because of the scientific limitations of the time, as sophisticated DNA testing wasn't available.
Senk said that he had three red-haired nieces, and the hairs must have been from one of them, and that the blood in the car was his.
When Senk was arrested two days after Triska's disappearance, according to news accounts, he had scratches on his arms and upper body.
Spence said she was always convinced that her sister inflicted the scratches on Senk.
"She was strong and athletic and feisty," Spence said, "and she used to have very long nails."
Senk's alibi was labeled "near perfect" by a local newspaper, which reported that Senk could produce witnesses who said he had been with his girlfriend the night of Triska's disappearance. But Spence said she always thought that alibi was based on lies.
And as the investigation continued, more suspicion piled on Senk.
Investigators learned that Senk had been a classmate of Margaret Bankowski, 15, of Ambridge, whose body was found in a Hopewell Township slag dump in January 1949 shortly after she disappeared. No one was ever convicted in that killing.
Shortly after Triska's disappearance, a 19-year-old Crescent Township woman came forward and claimed that she had been sexually assaulted by Senk. He was tried in December 1958 and found guilty on sodomy and adultery charges in that case. He was paroled the following June and went to Florida to answer for a parole violation on the morals charge there.
And long after Senk had left the area, there were still no answers to Triska's disappearance. No body was found, and there was no solid evidence pointing to whatever became of her.
The search for answers, Spence said, was frustrating. For the first three months after the disappearance, the phone at the Triska house rang constantly, Spence recalled.
"People were making crank calls, saying they saw her," Spence said. "Police and my family would drive for miles because you had to check out the reports. They would describe her, pick things out of the newspaper and then lie about her. No one ever found anything. They never found anything of hers, not even a trace."
Spence said she questioned her sister's friends and anyone else she thought could help solve the disappearance.
Spence said she even eventually discovered that Senk had been at her parents' house two weeks before her sister vanished, selling knives door to door.
"He drove our whole family crazy," Spence said of Senk. "It was horrible, the whole situation, how one person could upset so many people."
Spence added: "My mother was out of it for nearly two years. She cried every night, screamed every night. One of my aunts ended up getting shock treatments."
She added that her mother never quite accepted Triska's disappearance and always tucked the thought into the back of her mind that her daughter would some day walk into the front door. But Spence said that after a few months, she accepted the fact that her sister was dead.
Besides Spence, Triska is still survived by a brother, Bradley, who was 8 at the time of her disappearance. He lives in California.
Spence said she was always frustrated that local police couldn't keep Senk in Pennsylvania until they had the answers they were looking for.
"I couldn't understand why they couldn't hold him until he confessed," Spence said. "They let him go, and he went to Florida."
In 1967, Beaver County Judge Frank E. Reed declared Triska legally dead, labeling the date of her death Sept. 19, 1965, the end of a seven-year period required for a legal presumption of death.
By that time, Senk was in state prison, having been convicted in 1962 of beating a 13-year-old Columbia County, Pennsylvania, girl to death in the previous year. Initially sentenced to death, his sentence was commuted to life years later. Senk died of cancer while imprisoned in the mid-1990s.
To Spence's frustration, she said, he confessed to the Columbia County murder just hours after he was arrested in January 1962.
"Why did they get a (Columbia County) confession, and not one here? Maybe they could have saved a life," Spence said.
For years, a box of materials related to Triska's case sat in the Beaver County detectives bureau evidence room. Most of the file was collected by Sam McKee, who was Baden's assistant police chief at the time of her disappearance.
Andrew Gall, Beaver County assistant chief detective, still has that file, remembering all the work that McKee, along with state police and other local authorities did, questioning hundreds of people.
"It was good police work back then," Gall, a former Baden police officer, said, "but they just didn't have all the tools."
In recent months, Gall has met FBI agent Sean Van Slyke, who is helping with the unsolved murder of Sarah Boehm, who vanished from her Rochester Township home 11 years ago Monday. Though her body was identified in northeastern Ohio in 2003, no one has been arrested in her slaying.
Gall said that he was unsuccessful in getting state police to retest the hair found in Senk's car.
But thanks to the help of Van Slyke, Gall said, when the FBI opens four regional DNA labs in September, agents there will test the hair, to see whether it indeed was Triska's hair in Senk's car.
Gall said he wants the hair tested because the Triska family and even police officers who are long deceased deserve answers.
"This county is small enough the people deserve to know what happened," Gall said.
Spence said she's willing to give DNA samples that will help in the testing.
"I just hope no one else ever has to go through this," Spence said. "I say it a million times, but there's always someone else (missing) out there."
And of her long-missing sister, Spence said, "We were four years apart in age, but we were at an age where we were still really good friends. I wish I had a sister now."