Community Columns

Nearly 30 years later, still hoping for answers

Roann was the quiet strength that appeared to hold the family together. Jerry, her husband, was a no-nonsense disciplinarian; his word was law, whether dealing with his employees, a vendor or one of his three children.

The Schweitzer family came to Modesto in the early '70s looking for a business investment and found a vacant ice skating and roller rink. Purchasing the property at Stoddard Avenue and Tully Road in 1971, they began renovations. The Olympic Gold Ice Skating Arena opened to long lines of eager skaters in the winter of 1972. I worked as a skate guard in those beginning days, telling kids to slow down and helping people who had fallen. Everyone seemed to relish the family atmosphere.

The Schweitzers had three children. Larry was 11 and enjoyed giving orders and threatening to go to dad if he didn't get his way. Debbie was a quiet 15-year-old blonde with beautiful blue eyes who did as instructed and aimed to please her parents. Yet it appeared that the family's focus was centered on 13-year-old Daria. The ice arena had been purchased with her future in mind. The family hoped Daria would earn a spot on the 1978 Olympics U.S. ice skating team.

A couple of years into the ice rink venture, Jerry adapted the facility so it occasionally could accommodate rock concerts by some fairly well-known bands, Fleetwood Mac and Iron Butterfly among them. It was after one such concert in March 1976, at 4 in the morning, that Schweitzer got the call that the rink was fully engulfed in fire. The cause never was determined; the rink was gone.

Larry says the rink was like home to him, and the family was devastated. Jerry Schweitzer swore to rebuild, but never did, saying the insurance coverage, which he had cut in half the year before, would not cover the cost of the repairs. The property eventually became a student parking lot for Modesto Junior College.

The Schweitzer family stayed in the area, and eventually Debbie moved to San Francisco. Daria represented Stanislaus County at the Miss California pageant, and performed with the Ice Follies after a back injury sidelined her Olympic dreams.

Late on the evening of Feb. 2, 1979, Daria was flying out of San Francisco to visit her fiancé in Cleveland. She and her mother stopped to visit Debbie at her apartment on Jones Street in the heart of San Francisco. The women walked the three blocks to the Canterbury Hotel on Sutter Street for dinner.

At dinner, Debbie started to suffer from inexplicable anxiety that resulted in her becoming physically ill. Daria stayed with her sister while their mother walked back to get her car. Roann never returned.

After a time, Daria called her father. Though police encouraged him to go home and wait for news, Schweitzer knew he couldn't do that. He spent the night driving the streets of San Francisco looking in vain for his wife of 22 years.

Roann's body was discovered the next evening in a remote area of San Mateo County, near Candlestick Park. She had been hit in the back of the head, then shot in the back, her body dumped from her car before the car was driven back to San Francisco and abandoned a few blocks from where it had been parked.

The police called it a probable robbery gone wrong. It wasn't until more than a year later that police released the information that Roann had been raped before she was killed. The information had been suppressed in the hope that it would be a fact only those responsible would know if an arrest were made. Jerry Schweitzer felt the assault information should have been released immediately.

The forensic evidence available at the time determined that there were two assailants, one of whom was believed to be of mixed ethnicity.

The crime has the unfortunate distinction of having been committed during the same weekend and in the same county as California's only unsolved triple murder, known as the Payless murders. (Modesto resident Ardis Olson Lionudakis, the widow of one of the victims in that case, moved with her infant daughter to Modesto soon after that crime was committed in 1979. There is a $75,000 reward offered in that case.)

With the advent of DNA testing, new hope surfaced in the Schweitzer case. One investigator opined, "Surely people who would commit such a heinous crime could not have kept their noses clean for almost 30 years; this was probably not their last crime."

The DNA evidence was entered into the national database in 2002 but there were no hits. Three different San Mateo County detectives have been assigned to the case over the years. The first is retired, the second has died and the current one, Detective Sgt. Linda Gibbons, said, "It is still an ongoing police investigation."

In the meantime, Jerry Schweitzer remarried, for a time, years ago. Daria and Debra married brothers and now call Ohio home. Daria teaches children the sport that was so important to her family, ice skating, and Debra heads a faith-based ministry and is a motivational speaker (Themuteswan.org). Larry is the only one from the family still living in Modesto; he guards his privacy.

I've contacted the Sund- Carrington foundation about this case and have approached the Fox television series "America's Most Wanted" about producing a segment on the death of Mrs. Schweitzer and the other unsolved murders that occurred that weekend.

Those fun times working at the Olympic Gold Ice Arena and the fond memories that accompany them come back to me now and again -- every time I park in the MJC lot to watch a football game in the nearby stadium, every four years when the quest for ice skating gold is at a fever pitch during the winter Olympics, every time I am digging for something in my closet and have to move aside a pair of dull, aged ice skates that I haven't worn in decades but just can't throw out. I think about laughing crowds, the chill of the ice, a fire and the tragic taking of a sweet, quiet life.

Thirty years is too long to wait for answers.

Johnson is a teacher at Davis High School.

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