Authorities say there was never physical evidence at the scene of Kathleen Shea’s disappearance in 1965. No left-behind backpack, lunch box, pencil, or any other item the six-year-old may have been carrying on her walk to school.
“Her disappearance was never witnessed by anyone,” Trooper Dana Martini of the Pennsylvania State Police Cold Case Unit told Dateline. “She went missing from a small, otherwise very safe community. Despite it being 54 years later, her name is mentioned quite consistently.”
Kathleen Shea was last seen in Tyrone, Pennsylvania around 12:10 p.m. on March 18, 1965. Kathleen was in the afternoon Kindergarten class at Adams Elementary School. The school was a short, four-block walk from her family’s home, and walking to school alone was Kathleen’s daily routine.
“There were multiple other children in the neighborhood walking to school that day who saw her,” Trooper Martini said. “Based on witnesses, we are able to verify that she made it approximately halfway. She was about a block and a half away from the school when she disappeared.”
Authorities would later learn that when Kathleen didn’t show up to class that day, her teacher assumed the young girl was out sick and therefore did not alert Kathleen’s family of her absence.
“But when she failed to return home from school, her parents called her teacher,” Trooper Martini said. “After they realized she had never made it to school, her parents immediately called authorities.”
Trooper Martini, who was assigned the case in 2016, told Dateline that authorities in 1965 conducted extensive searches to find Kathleen. Local and state investigators – along with the FBI, fire crews, tracking dogs, and volunteers – scoured the area.
Bob Alberts, whose parents were close friends with Kathleen’s parents, told Dateline that he and Kathleen had had a playdate scheduled for that afternoon.
“My mother sat me down and told me what was going on. My memory is very vivid because it has haunted me, even to this day,” Bob told Dateline. “Our Boy Scout troop, at the time, went out and was looking. Everyone in town was looking.”
The community of Tyrone, Pennsylvania – a small, safe, upper-middle-class town, as Bob described it – was shaken by the young girl’s disappearance.
“People didn’t let their kids go outside to play anymore,” Bob said. “The police were everywhere. Patrolling. State and local. That’s all you saw.”
“They really did extensive work on this at the time,” Trooper Martini said. “The witness statements led us to one area where she disappeared from. Even the dogs tracked her scent to that area.”
Authorities also interviewed people who saw Kathleen walking to school in those final minutes before she vanished.
“There were persons of interest that were described by multiple children. Not all of those people were able to be identified. The ones who were, though, were interviewed and were cleared,” Trooper Martini told Dateline. “There was a vehicle that was named by a couple children who were crossing guards. They were children, though, so their descriptions lacked anything that was significant enough to identify the individual car.”
Trooper Martini told Dateline that when she got assigned to Kathleen’s case in 2016, the case notes were already a thousand pages long.
“This case, because it got so much attention in the community, has had countless tips that have come in,” she said. “This is definitely a case that has had consistent work over the years.”
Kathleen’s parents were also interviewed at the time of their daughter’s disappearance, and were quickly cleared. Kathleen had younger brothers, too, but Trooper Martini said they were too young to help with the investigation.
Kathleen’s mother and father died in 1997 and 2006, respectively, but the town hasn’t forgotten Kathleen.
“People, to this day, would still like to have closure,” Kathleen’s childhood friend Bob told Dateline. “It’s something that never leaves your mind. She was just an innocent little girl. So full of life. Always with a smile, always laughing, and always holding a little doll.”
Modern technology such as cell phone tracking or surveillance footage, had it been available at the time, could have helped investigators find answers in Kathleen’s case, Trooper Martini said. Perhaps the most crucial factor in a missing persons case even today, though, is calling authorities as soon as possible.
“Time is really important – getting it reported as soon as possible,” Trooper Martini said. “Any delay in initiating an investigation can be difficult to overcome. In this case, it was no fault of her parents or the teacher. I can’t put the blame on anyone.”
Kathleen Shea would be 60 years old today. If you have any information on the circumstances surrounding her disappearance, please call the Pennsylvania State Police at 814-696-6100 and ask for Trooper Dana Martini.