It’s been said there’s nothing more powerful than the elements: sun, moon, wind, or rain. But there is something stronger than the force of nature. It’s a mother’s love.
So it was that Mary Neese braved today’s scorching heat and high humidity to dedicate a bench to her daughter, Skylar, at a little piece of paradise along a narrow country road behind Blacksville. With the temperature hovering above 90-degrees, Mary and Dave Neese led the group of more than forty people in a solemn procession—not unlike that of a funeral—from Clay-Battelle High School.
Friends, family, and strangers who have become both to the Neeses in the 11 months and 13 days since Skylar was murdered July 6, 2012, gathered around the 15-year-old girl’s final resting place. They placed a hand-made bench at the site they have turned into a tribute to the former University High School student.
Some of the people in attendance got to meet Mary and Dave for the first time. Others have made the trek before, clearing away debris, planting flowers, and placing mementoes.
Tears were shed, hugs and laughter was shared. Not even the heat could mar the small ceremony. The only thing that could do that was the knowledge that a Greene County coroner—who apparently does have more power than the elements—refuses to let the Neeses spend just ten minutes alone with Skylar’s remains.
When I spoke with him yesterday afternoon, Gregory Rohanna, an elected official, told me his office isn’t “releasing any information because we’re still in an investigation phase.”
When I said the Attorney General’s office in Pennsylvania told me that officials there are not pursuing charges in this case, Rohanna said, “I don’t care who’s prosecuting, the coroner’s office would be in charge of the deceased’s remains. Until we conclude everything we need, we would not release those remains.”
When I pointed out that the Neeses have been unable to have a measure of closure in their daughter’s murder, Rohanna said that’s because the FBI kept her body for so long. “We just received some of the remains back from the FBI within the last couple of days. I have not had the remains. The FBI has had them. But we’re still investigating because we need to do the things we need to do,” he said.
I then asked if his office has tried to work with the Neeses at all, in this regard. “I had a request in January not to contact them. We went along with that request,” Rohanna said, adding that his first contact with them occurred Friday night. He refused to say who had directed him not to talk to the Neeses.
Even though Monongalia County Prosecutor Marcia Ashdown has said Skylar was stabbed to death, I asked Rohanna if the FBI has done an autopsy or determined the cause of death. Rohanna said he couldn’t comment about that. But he did say this: “There has been no official cause of death issued,” and that since Skylar’s body was discovered in Greene County, he is the person who must issue the official cause of her death.
Rohanna wouldn’t say how much more time he needs to complete his investigation.
Life continues to be filled with one surreal day after another for the Neeses, as Mary grieves for the daughter she hasn’t seen since Skylar kissed her goodnight last July 5. Hoping to see the fulfillment of the promise they say federal agents made them, to sit and grieve with a closed package containing Skylar’s remains, Dave says he plans to picket the coroner’s office Monday and says he doesn’t care if he is arrested for doing so.
A call to the FBI’s Pittsburgh field office about the matter was directed to the agency’s media line, but a recording said no one is available until Monday.
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My next book, Guilt by Matrimony, about the murder of Aspen socialite, Nancy Pfister, comes out November 17. My memoir, Sister of Silence, is about surviving domestic violence and how journalism helped free me; Cheatin’ Ain’t Easy, now in ebook format, is about the life of Preston County native, Eloise Morgan Milne; The Savage Murder of Skylar Neese (a New York Times bestseller, with coauthor Geoff Fuller) and Pretty Little Killers (also with Fuller), released July 8, 2014, and featured in the August 18 issue of People Magazine.
For an in-depth look at the damaging effects of the silence that surrounds abuse, please watch my live TEDx talk, given April 13, 2013, at Connecticut College.
Have a great day and remember, it’s whatever you want to make it!
Editor’s Note: Daleen Berry is a New York Times best-selling author and a recipient of the Pearl Buck Award in Writing for Social Change. She has won several other awards, for investigative journalism and her weekly newspaper columns, and her memoir, Sister of Silence, placed first in the West Virginia Writers’ Competition. Ms. Berry speaks about overcoming abuse through awareness, empowerment and goal attainment at conferences around the country. To read an excerpt of her memoir, please go to the Sister of Silence site. Check out the five-star review from ForeWord Reviews. Or find out why Kirkus Reviews called Ms. Berry “an engaging writer, her style fluid and easy to read, with welcome touches of humor and sustained tension throughout.”