Indiana, PA - Indiana County

New book tries to unravel mystery of IUP student's 1987 death

by CHAUNCEY ROSS chauncey@indianagazette.net on October 23, 2011 2:45 AM

A worrisome mystery shrouded the Indiana University of Pennsylvania campus and neighboring community late in October 1987.

Where was Jack Davis Jr.?

Davis had gone out partying with friends the night of Friday, Oct. 16, 1987, and his roommates expected the 20-year-old sophomore from Penn Hills to return to his off-campus house that night, but he didn't.

The answer came Oct. 21. Searchers found Davis dead at the bottom of an exterior stairwell of Weyandt Hall, within view of Oakland Avenue.

Following an autopsy by Indiana Hospital pathologist Steven Griffin the next morning, Indiana County Coroner Thomas Streams determined Davis had walked down the stairs, collapsed due to intoxication, regurgitated, then inhaled his vomit and died. Streams attributed the death to asphyxiation and ruled the manner was accidental.

But instead of ending a mystery, the findings inspired a series of questions from a doubting family, a second autopsy, a national television report, an unflagging investigation by a newspaper reporter who covered the story, and now a book that chronicles the tale of those five mysterious days.

Marlene Gentilcore, a former freelance writer with the Greensburg Tribune-Review, has published a book that lays out a more sinister sequence of events that led to the death of "the kid in the university stairwell."

"I just thought it was important to put it out there and tell what happened to this family and this student," Gentilcore said.

In "Justice Wanted," Gentilcore recounts what surfaced -- and reveals what remained beneath the surface -- after Indiana authorities first concluded the investigation.

Three years after Davis' death and at the insistence of his family, Indiana County District Attorney William Martin agreed to reopen the investigation. He gained Allegheny County Court approval in November 1990 to have Davis' body exhumed for an autopsy by Pittsburgh pathologist Cyril Wecht.

That exam showed Davis suffered three fractures of his skull and bleeding inside his head, injuries that were overlooked during the original autopsy. Wecht said he found Davis had several days of beard growth, some evidence of pneumonia and no alcohol in his blood.

Wecht rejected the findings that Davis choked on his vomit or that he died on the night he disappeared. And although Wecht said Davis' head injuries were more consistent with a fall than a blow, Martin declared the manner of death was suspicious rather than an accident.

The case was reopened. But other than a downtown Indiana tavern and a bartender being cited in 1988 for allegedly serving Davis, who was a minor, no one was ever charged in connection with Davis' death.

Enter Marlene Gentilcore, then known as Marlene Gentilcore-Brennan.

"In 1990, I happened to meet Jack's stepbrother John Lynch. He found out I was a reporter and he started to talk to me about his brother's death," Gentilcore said. Together, they dug for evidence and reviewed records in Indiana.

"I just kept on investigating and we found a lot of information about how the case was treated. … It was just a strange case all around."

Gentilcore, of Pittsburgh, said she pursued the people who knew or associated with Davis in Indiana. What she learned only cast more shadows over the official version of what happened.

"I don't know why this happened the way it did," she said. "It's just like somebody was protecting someone."

Among others, Gentilcore said, she found irregularities in the way the accused bartender was prosecuted for allegedly serving alcohol to Davis.

Some IUP students of the late 1980s agreed to talk to Gentilcore, but only when she promised to not reveal their names.

They told Gentilcore that Davis' fraternity, Sigma Tau Gamma, was not recognized -- "they were like a renegade fraternity" -- and had some unsavory members. She was told that Davis' "big brother," an older student assigned as his mentor, "was a major cocaine dealer on campus."

"And when Jack's body was found, he was wearing that person's fraternity jacket," Gentilcore said.

In the mid-1990s, the NBC-TV series "Unsolved Mysteries" profiled the Davis case, and appealed for informants to come forward. An online transcript of the program (http://www.unsolved.com/ajaxfiles/une_jack_davis_jr.htm) quotes Brennan's theory that Davis was mortally hurt in a skirmish between two rival fraternities.

For a decade and a half, Gentilcore said, she only has wanted to clear the air.

"I've not only been investigating this case for 15 years, I've also been trying to help this family find justice," she said. "His mother is still hoping that one day somebody will walk up to her and tell her what happened to her son."

Six years ago Gentilcore was ready to take her story to the public, but she hesitated.

"I decided in 2005 … and there were reasons I had to put it away. Fortunately, that was a good idea, because since that time, a retired Indiana Borough police officer contacted the family and said Jack came to him for protection two weeks before his body was found," Gentilcore said. "That changes the whole story.

"That meant that Jack knew he was going to be harmed, he knew who was going to harm him, but just being 20 years old he didn't know they meant business," Gentilcore said.

One answer she didn't get, Gentilcore said, was why police didn't share that information with Davis' family or act on it when he was reported missing.

"I think the whole Indiana Borough police knew what was going on," she said. "And I don't understand why they sat there and let the coroner say this was an accidental death."

Gentilcore's book, "Justice Wanted: The Kid in the University Stairwell," was published July 14 by Word Association Publishers, of Tarentum. The publisher lists it at $19.95 (www.wordassociation.com/book/177/justice-wanted/); Amazon.com offers it at $19.95 for paperback and $12.99 digital for Kindle.

Maybe now is the right time for her book to come out, Gentilcore said.

"One of my hopes is the people that may have been involved or know something about this -- they're older now and maybe they would say something. Maybe they're not afraid anymore," Gentilcore said. "Maybe they're ready to clear their conscience or help this family have closure.

"As far as justice is concerned, that would be wonderful if that would happen. I think the family just wants to know what happened to their child and why.

"There are a lot of things in this case that are just wrong," Gentilcore said. "And if you're asking why I did this for 15 years, that's why. It's just wrong."

"Justice Wanted" proposes that the case wasn't what Indiana officials said in 1987.

"The true story takes readers from idyllic campus scenes haunted by images of senseless and brutal death, to the coroner's examination room, all while questioning how we treat the dead -- and how we treat those who survive," according to the publisher's promotional material.

Gentilcore said that her book stops short of spelling out exactly what the evidence shows about Davis' death.

"I'm a reporter. I tell you what I found and I tell you how it fits together, but I would never sit here and tell you who did it, or why or what. That's not my job. My job is to give you the facts.

"When you read the book, you come to your own conclusion of what happened and why."

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