Handwriting on note leads to arrest of Pennsylvania man in wife’s 1984 murder

LANCASTER COUNTY, Pa. — Analysis of a note written in 1984 has led Pennsylvania police investigators to charge a man with killing his estranged wife, who vanished that year without a trace.

Jere Musser Bagenstose, 68, was arrested Thursday and charged with criminal homicide in the disappearance of Maryann Bagenstose, authorities said. Maryann Bagenstose was a 25-year-old nurse’s aide when she vanished from her home in Willow Street, an unincorporated area of Lancaster County.

The couple were separated at the time and shared a 2-year-old son. Maryann Bagenstose’s body has never been found.

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Jere Bagenstose still lives in the home from which his wife disappeared.

Lancaster County District Attorney Heather Adams said in a statement that the arrest has been a long-awaited one.

“This begins the criminal process in a 38-year-old case, and we hope it brings relief to Maryann’s family and friends,” Adams said. “We will do everything we can to see that justice is done in this case.”

Watch authorities announce Jere Bagenstose’s arrest below.

Adams said that the Bagenstose case, unlike many of the cold cases solved in recent years, does not revolve around DNA. Instead, it has been solved through “decades of hard work and dedication” by law enforcement, beginning with the Pequea Township Police Department and ending with the Pennsylvania State Police.

“It was their dedication to the pursuit of justice in this case and their willingness to devote resources to this investigation, combined with the review and analysis of the decades-long investigation and evidence compiled … by attorneys in my office, that culminated in and led to this arrest,” Adams said.

In June 1984, Maryann Bagenstose, her young son and a boarder all shared a home at 167 West Willow Road in Willow Street. Jere Bagenstose had moved out of the house when he and Maryann separated, and he was staying with his parents, the Lancaster New Era reported.

Maryann Bagenstose had been granted custody of their son, Jeremy, in April, two months before she vanished, and a formal custody hearing loomed on the horizon. Despite their split, Maryann and Jere Bagenstose still spoke often, and Jere Bagenstose occasionally bought things for his estranged wife, according to reports.

In the days leading up to her disappearance, Maryann Bagenstose’s loved ones said she looked forward to going with her estranged husband to trade in her car and buy a new one.

Jere Bagenstose later told police that he arrived at the West Willow Road home on June 5 to pick up his wife and son, but that Maryann Bagenstose was not yet ready, according to authorities. He said he took his son to a nearby park to feed the ducks for a while before returning to the house.

When they got back, he said, Maryann Bagenstose was gone. He told investigators she had left a note telling him she was walking to a Turkey Hill convenience store about a mile from her home.

Maryann Bagenstose was never seen alive again.

The missing woman’s mother, Geraldine Engongoro, told reporters in interviews that she didn’t think her daughter would have walked to the store. The young mother had a slight limp from a car crash and needed to wear a lift in one shoe.

Despite their plans for the day and the fact that all his wife’s belongings remained at home, Jere Bagenstose never reported her missing. He told authorities he’d thrown away her note, which was not found during an initial search of the property.

Maryann Bagenstose’s mother reported her missing on June 7 after she could not reach her daughter, whom she spoke to by phone each day.

“Maryann was described as a devoted mother to her son, who people say would have never been left behind,” prosecutors said in a news release.

On June 15, 10 days after she vanished, Maryann Bagenstose did not appear at the custody hearing. Jere Bagenstose was awarded custody of their son.

By that point, he had already moved back into the home on West Willow Road, where police officers spoke to him several times. On June 8, the day after the investigation into Maryann Bagenstose’s disappearance began, a Pequea Township officer noticed something odd.

“The officer observed a piece of carboard covering freshly dug dirt during a check of the garage,” according to prosecutors. “He lifted the cardboard and observed a digging area that measured approximately 3 feet by 5 feet.”

A search warrant was executed at the house on June 13. At that time, the area of disturbed earth was dug up to reveal what resembled a grave: a 5-foot-deep hole measuring about 3 feet by 6 feet.

Maryann Bagenstose’s body was not in the supposed grave, authorities said.

Detectives did find a crumpled-up note inside a wooden nail keg in the living room.

“Had to run a quick errand. Be right back,” the note read.

The note was seized and kept in evidence storage at the Pennsylvania State Police’s Lancaster post.

Investigators were unable to make a case against Jere Bagenstose, who they allege gave inconsistent statements about a number of things, including how he received an unexplained injury to his left arm. He also gave inconsistent details of what the note from Maryann Bagenstose said, the reason he went to the house on June 5 and why he dug a hole in the garage days after she disappeared.

Witnesses at the Turkey Hill store told police they’d not seen Maryann Bagenstose, who was a regular customer, the day of her disappearance. Maintenance workers at the park Jere Bagenstose said he’d visited with his son said they did not recall seeing them or his truck that day.

Jere Bagenstose also had an unexcused absence from his job on June 5.

Despite the circumstantial evidence, Jere Bagenstose denied involvement in his wife’s disappearance and professed his belief that she was still alive.

“In 1985, Jere told investigators that people had relayed to him they recently saw Maryann. The defendant never reported this information to police,” prosecutors said. “Multiple notes and postcards sent to Jere purportedly from Maryann were never relayed to the police by the defendant.”

Lancaster Online reported last week that those postcards were sent to Jere Bagenstose by detectives and a private investigator on the case. Adams said last week that the move was designed to “provoke something new in the case.”

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Jere Bagenstose never told police he had received the cards, which were sent as early as September 1984 and as late as 1998.

The case eventually went cold. Engongoro died in 2016 before anyone could be held accountable for her daughter’s death.

According to Adams, Pennsylvania State Police investigators began reworking the case in late 2016. Their focus was the note seized at the Bagenstose home during the June 13, 1984, search.

“Investigators searched online databases to obtain public records and other documents containing the writing of the defendant,” Adams said. “This initial gathering of data led to the execution of a search warrant at the same residence on Sept. 20, 2022.”

Troopers focused their new search on the garage, where they once believed Maryann Bagenstose had been buried, but they also focused on items that contained samples of Jere Bagenstose’s handwriting.

The handwriting samples were sent to the Pennsylvania State Police Bureau of Forensic Services’ Harrisburg Regional Laboratory for analysis.

“The analysis compared handwriting contained on a note recovered by police on June 13, 1984, purportedly explaining her whereabouts, to the items seized on Sept. 20, 2022,” prosecutors said. “The findings in the report stated the note recovered by police in 1984 was written by Jere Bagenstose.”

Jere Bagenstose was arrested at his home last week without incident. He was booked into the Lancaster County Prison, where he is being held without bail.

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