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May 13, 2013

Altoona man confessed to killing woman in ’99, police say

PITTSBURGH — An Altoona man confessed to killing his daughter-in-law, who was last seen in 1999, and led police to her remains on his property over the weekend, state police said Monday.

Kenneth Leighty, 65, of Altoona, was arraigned and ordered jailed without bond in the death of Sherry Leighty. He waived his right to a preliminary hearing, acknowledging there’s enough evidence for the case to move to trial or a guilty plea.

Search warrants issued last month for Leighty’s Huntingdon County property show police suspected he had buried her there. On Friday, Leighty confessed and on Saturday he helped investigators find the woman’s remains on land he owns in Warriors Mark Township, about 60 miles northeast of Johnstown, according to the complaint charging Leighty with criminal homicide.

Huntingdon County District Attorney George Zanic wouldn’t say if Kenneth Leighty acknowledged how or why he killed the woman.

“No, we do not have additional information at this time as to how she died,” Zanic told The Associated Press. “The investigation is still active. I do not anticipate charging anyone else, but there are a lot of loose ends to tie up.”

Leighty’s attorney, Thomas Hooper, also wouldn’t divulge how or why the woman was killed, but confirmed his client “did, in fact, lead authorities to recovering the remains of the deceased.”

Hooper wouldn’t say specifically why Leighty confessed, but added: “We’ve been working at this for a number of weeks. It was really a myriad of all those things, the legal advice and his conscience.”

Leighty has been jailed since Altoona police tried to question him last month about the woman’s disappearance, but police said he instead fought with officers and was arrested.

Zanic said earlier this month that some possible human remains and clothing were found on or near the 150-acre tract Kenneth Leighty owns in Warriors Mark Township, but Zanic said Monday that clothing isn’t related to the investigation and that the bones weren’t human.

State police and other investigators had begun searching the land April 20, the day after Leighty was jailed.

The woman’s husband – the defendant’s son, Aaron – told investigators he at first believed she might have run off to Maine with another man. Aaron Leighty said he began to doubt that when Sherry Leighty, whose divorce from him was finalized days after she was last seen, didn’t contact their children in subsequent weeks, months and years.

Zanic confirmed Monday that investigators have looked into whether Kenneth Leighty may have had a romantic interest in his daughter-in-law, but wouldn’t say if that related to her death.

A team of Mercyhurst University forensic anthropologists have custody of the remains and will examine them to confirm the identity and, if possible, the cause of death, Zanic said. It’s expected they will confirm the remains are Sherry Leighty’s, he said.

Authorities have said in search warrants that Kenneth Leighty was the last person to see his daughter-in-law alive when he drove her to work in October 1999.

Sherry Leighty’s family said she was 23 when she was last seen and that her father got full custody of the couple’s three children, then ages 7, 3 and 1, shortly thereafter.

Kenneth Leighty had told police he took Sherry Leighty to work the day of her disappearance, then went to work himself. Police have since determined, however, that he was off work at the time.

Aaron Leighty has cooperated with police and spoke twice to his father last month in phone calls that were recorded by investigators, according to a search warrant for Leighty’s home and computers.

In one of the calls, Kenneth Leighty allegedly made incriminating remarks, including, “I did it ... It was an accident,” according to a search warrant. He went on to tell his son that the body would likely be found along a fence row on his Huntingdon County tract.

Police believe Leighty had researched “search warrants, disposal of human remains and/or police tactics and techniques related to searching for buried human remains,” the warrant showed.  

Sherry and Aaron Leighty’s now-adult son has told police he recalls his parents fighting a lot and said he had heard his mother’s remains were buried under an unused outhouse on Kenneth Leighty’s property, according to the warrant.

Although it’s possible Sherry Leighty was killed in Blair County, Zanic said his office will handle the prosecution because of where the remains were found.


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