This story appeared in the April 14, 2018 edition of the Cortland Standard. To become a subscriber, email us, or call us at (607) 756-5665. Back issues available by request.
Bethanie Dougherty looked out the window above her sink where she was washing dishes in the early morning before her shift at a Dryden gas station. A car turned into her driveway. The mother of three nonetheless grabbed her cigarettes and headed out to greet the visitor.
She was never seen again. That was 10 years ago April 1.
She left behind the unfinished dishes in the sink and a pack of cigarettes on the porch, helping private investigator Michael Bidwell envision Dougherty’s last moments. He’s been trying to solve the case for a decade and it still haunts him each day.
Binders full of Bidwell’s paperwork on the case sit above his desk. Pictures of the missing Killawog woman look down at him, reminding him daily of the mystery.
But Bidwell doesn’t think it will be unsolved much longer. Just weeks ago, he met with the Broome County sheriff’s detectives assigned to the case about a year ago. He is confident it will be solved before the year is out.
The facts of the case
Dougherty was 40 years old when she disappeared the morning of April 1, 2008. She was in training to be manager of Xtra-Mart on Route 13 in Dryden, where she worked the early shift at 6 a.m.
Living in Killawog, that required a commute, so it was not unusual for her to be up early in the morning, said Broome County Sheriff’s Detective Matthew O’Brien.
She did not turn up for her shift that morning. Her work clothes were still laid out on her bed, and her purse, cell phone, shoes and car were left at her home.
Dougherty, who also went by “Buffy,” stood about 5 foot 10 and was listed as 160 pounds; she had red hair and was last seen wearing purple pajamas.
Got a tip?
Tips about Bethanie Dougherty’s disappearance can be made to:
• Broome County Sheriff’s Department tip line at 607-778-1196
• Check Mate Private Investigator Mike Bidwell at 607-753-3327
Around 3 the morning of her disappearance, a neighbor several hundred feet away from Dougherty’s house, reported to police what sounded like a woman screaming. A state trooper investigated, but found nothing, something O’Brien said is a “common occurrence” with similar complaints.
“If nothing’s there, it’s not like you respond out there, ‘someone’s missing,’” he said.
Dougherty’s son, Logan, then 18, was home and heard nothing, police said. Her other children, Samantha and Josh, were not home.
Dougherty was separated from her second husband, Bill Dougherty, at the time of her disappearance.
Bidwell says Bill Dougherty is not now a person of interest because it appears he has an alibi.
Bill Dougherty could not be reached for comment.
A witness knows something
As Bidwell investigated — hired by Dougherty’s father — he is certain some people know more than they are saying.
“I have interest in a witness close to the case that I am certain — based upon my interrogation skills as a certified forensic interviewer — is holding knowledge to her disappearance,” Bidwell said.
He won’t say more; O’Brien is also limited on what he can say.
“There’s people that know exactly what has happened, what took place, and some of those people just have not yet came forward,” O’Brien said. “It’s best for those people to come forward first rather than us coming looking for them later on down the road once the puzzle pieces are put into place.”
Even people who have information they think is not important should turn it over, O’Brien said. It might be critical.
After all, he added, Killawog is small and close-knit; news travels fast and people hear things.
O’Brien and his partner, Detective Brian Kittle, have been on the case since November 2016. O’Brien wants to get the case solved “as soon as possible” to give Dougherty’s family closure.
Over the years, Dougherty’s family had fundraisers and other events to raise money for a reward and to keep Bethanie Dougherty in the public mind. The reward was at one point $15,000 for any information that would lead to the discovery of Dougherty, alive or dead.
That amount has dwindled to a couple of thousand dollars, said Dougherty’s father. And today, he’s reluctant to award it at all because the tips should have come a decade ago.
Her disappearance was featured on television programs, including “America’s Most Wanted” and “Without a Trace.”
Police surveyed the area around the Killawog home by helicopter, boat and foot, and explored suspects and leads, but never found anything. They searched the waters — Jennings Creek runs past her house and the Tioughnioga River is nearby. They were high and rushing the night of her disappearance. A dig in Lisle in May 2017 ended without fresh evidence being discovered.
Bidwell said Dougherty’s life had many layers, many friends and she knew many people. He suspects a potential love triangle may have led to her disappearance because he says he learned she was involved in several romantic relationships at the time. Conflicts over drugs were also a possibility, he said.
Dougherty’s father, Terry Curtis, has his own theories on what happened. He believes his daughter went willingly into a car early that April morning.
“I think somebody came to the house and she knew who it was so she went outside so she didn’t disturb the dog or Logan,” Curtis said. “And somehow they lured her into the vehicle and she got into it to get out of the cold and they took off once she was in the vehicle.”
The cigarettes were left behind; the dishes weren’t finished. Clearly, he said, his daughter didn’t plan to leave. It was cold that morning and she was in her pajamas. He theorizes that she would have gotten into a vehicle. If that was indeed her scream that night, she might have screamed from some other location than the house and that might explain why a neighbor heard it, but her son didn’t.
A fresh perspective
To O’Brien, Dougherty’s disappearance is not a 10-year-old case.
“I look at it as I’ve had it for about a year now and as far as I’m concerned that’s a year too long,” he said. He and Kittle bring fresh eyes and a new perspective, he said. They review the information, re-interview people and revisit everyone connected to the case.
“It’s simply looking at what have they been doing the last 10 years, where are they now, what’s their lifestyle been like, what are they involved with, and look at it from that type of perspective,” he said.
The three children — Samantha, Josh and Logan, now 24, 26 and 28 — still live in the area, said Curtis.
Dougherty’s case joins thousands of others nationwide. As of Dec. 1, 2017, the FBI’s National Crime Information Center contained 88,089 active missing person records. Of those, 46.6 percent are people under 21.
During 2017, 651,226 missing person records were entered into the database, an increase of 0.6 percent from the year before. All but 11 of those cases were purged because either the person returned home, law enforcement found them, or the case was found to be invalid.
Of those cases entered that year, about 96 percent were classified as runaways, with abductions or kidnappings making up the minority of cases, and “adults” — its own category — accounting for 3 percent, or 10,485.
O’Brien has one objective now.
“My main concern now is getting some answers on where Bethanie Dougherty is,” O’Brien said. “And hopefully her discovery of where she is will lead us down the road for possible arrests and to hold someone accountable for something ultimately.”
Toll on loved ones
Avis Amidon, Dougherty’s mother, lives in Ohio now. She moved to escape a constant impulse to search for her daughter.
“New York is just not where I want to be, I was looking for her all the time,” Amidon said, in creekbeds and by the sides of roads.
Amidon still can’t escape the images in her head: Buffy being carried downstream by the Tioughnioga River or in someone’s garage, or worse. She often has dreams that she’s talking to Buffy and she’s coming home.
Then she wakes up.
The long search “rips you apart,” she said. “It’s like you get some hope and then it’s crushed out of you. It’s even worse (than knowing she’s dead) because you just don’t have any answers.”
Curtis, who hired Bidwell so many years ago, said the years took their toll, but not his hope. His expectations, however, have evolved.
“Now I hope for a resolution. I want it resolved,” Curtis said. He prefers the word resolution to the word closure because he says closure makes it seem like it’s closed and then you move on.
He has learned to live with the loss that in the first few months virtually drove him crazy, then to feel that crazy maybe wasn’t so bad.
“I think about it all the time,” he said. “It’s always at the forefront of my mind but it doesn’t agitate me the way it used to.”
Amidon too wants answers, and then peace. Without knowing, hope sparks in her soul whenever a missing person is found. She noted the 2013 case in which Amanda Berry was discovered alive in Cleveland after missing for 10 years.
Amidon still hopes Buffy is alive.
Loving daughter,steadfast friend
At Cortland Seafood on Pendleton Street, a frayed and faded missing person poster still hangs on a refrigerator for customers to see. Tammy Niver, whose husband owns the shop, is an old friend of Dougherty’s and said she won’t take the poster down until there’s some news of what happened.
Niver used to baby-sit Dougherty’s children when they were young, she said, then the two drifted apart. They had just reconnected a few months before her disappearance.
Niver would visit Dougherty at the gas station, to chat and fill each other in on their lives. Just days before Dougherty’s disappearance they had made plans to catch up over a meal.
“A few days before she went missing we both had tears in our eyes and couldn’t wait to get lunch,” she said. “Now I just wish that we’d gotten together sooner.”
Detective: Not every case of a missing person is a crime
There is nothing criminal about a person taking off and starting a life somewhere else without notifying anyone, said Broome County Detective Matthew O’Brien, so a missingperson investigation rests on a number of criteria.
The case will prompt a faster police response if:
• The person is a child.
• The person has special needs.
• The person is elderly, has health issues or dementia.
• The person has left behind necessary medications.
• The person has left behind all their belongings — as was the case with Bethanie Dougherty.
Missing children are a special circumstance, he said, because parents and caretakers usually know their schedule and where they should be.
However, the response would be different if a 25-year old suddenly takes off after a falling out with family.
Cases in which an adult has taken some items with them and disappeared without any contact are very rare, said O’Brien, and would only merit police involvement if they were missing and without contact for 30 days.
As long as there is contact, even if it is unwanted contact, such as telling a relative who calls to stay away, police will not get involved, he said.
“As an adult, people don’t have to justify their actions,” he said.
However, if it appears that person has disappeared without any belongings, left a car, cellphone, purse and clothes behind, that creates an extenuating circumstance.
It does not mean police automatically treat the case as a potential abduction or foul play, however, O’Brien said. Sometimes, people disappear because of a medical emergency or feel suicidal.
Either way, the police will start searching immediately, he said.
The search for Dougherty began just hours after she disappeared because her car, purse and all her clothes were still at home. She left the house in her pajamas, and in 10 years, there has been no use of her Social Security number or any financial information like her credit history, O’Brien said. It’s unlikely she simply took off and created a new life somewhere.
“Unless she totally went off the grid, which is highly unlikely given the circumstances,” he said.
Even so, as a detective, O’Brien won’t rule out any theory, no matter how unlikely.
“Once we’re able to locate her then we’re comfortable saying we can rule this out, or we can rule this out,” O’Brien said. “Unless we can totally debunk something, I don’t necessarily rule it out, even if it might sound unlikely.”