BUTLER COUNTY, Ohio (FOX19) - More than 20 years after she disappeared and was later found dead, Laney Gwinner’s murder remains unsolved, but now, a retired detective who worked on the case is sharing new information in hopes it could help investigators track down the killer.
By all accounts, Alana “Laney” Gwinner was a young woman bursting with passion and personality. Her loved ones said she had a smile that could light up a room.
“She loved country music," Patty Hall, Gwinner’s aunt, said. "She loved line dancing, and she loved animals.”
The college student still had years of life ahead of her when her life was taken by a cold-hearted killer. It was December 10, 1997 when Gwinner disappeared while leaving the Gilmore Bowling Alley in Fairfield.
The 23-year-old, investigators say, walked outside to her parked Honda Del Sol around 1 a.m. and was never seen alive again.
“She had finished her finals. She was out with a friend. They were playing pool, and she was leaving to go to her boyfriend’s house, but she never made it there," Hall said.
When Gwinner did not show up for work the next day, her family and friends were alarmed and alerted authorities. They spent weeks searching for Gwinner.
A month after she disappeared, rescue crews made a dreadful discovery.
“A month later, she’s found [dead] in the river down in Warsaw, Kentucky," Frank Smith, a retired Butler County Cold Case Detective, said.
Smith said an unrelated search in the Ohio River led rescuers to Gwinner’s body in January 1998. It was devastating for Gwinner’s loved ones.
“She had her whole life ahead of her, and we’ll never see her get married, have children, graduate college," Hall said.
Investigators deemed Gwinner’s death a homicide. They worked quickly to narrow down the pool of suspects, Smith says, knowing that there were hundreds of people at the bowling alley that night.
“We interviewed, we polygraphed, we background’d so many people in this case, and we firmly believe that when she walked out of there that night, she walked out by herself and probably was grabbed before she even got into the car," Smith said.
Smith says that all signs point to a parking lot abduction. He believes Gwinner was attacked by a stranger who was motivated by a disturbing sexual desire.
“My own personal opinion in the case of Laney - it probably was sexual assault, but when whoever the suspect is attempted to take her, he had his hands full because she definitely was a fighter, and at that point he couldn’t complete the sexual assault, so he completed an act of homicide," Smith said.
Gwinner’s vehicle, Smith says, vanished the same night she did. To this day, the car has not been found.
Several local agencies, including Texas EquuSearch, have never stopped looking for the vehicle. Smith said that overall, they have spent thousands of hours searching and scanning about 150 miles of water, as recently as within the last year and a half.
“It’s the worst game of hide and seek that you can ever play," Dave Rader, the Director of the Ohio Chapter of Texas EquuSearch said. "How can one or two know what a thousand can’t find?”
Since the beginning of the investigation, detectives have said that the car is a critical piece of evidence.
“Wherever that car went in at, whoever was driving that car, it obviously wasn’t Laney, then that suspect probably knew that area very well, and by that right there, really could be a game changer for us," Smith said.
Although more than two decades have passed, Gwinner’s family members and friends have not forgotten her and never will.
Her parents fought for the truth until the very end. Hall says they both died broken-hearted, without answers and without justice.
“It pushed them into an early grave from the mental and physical stress of the whole episode, so I really feel like I didn’t just lose Laney, I lost them too," Hall said.
Retired detective Smith believes that someday soon, there will be an arrest. He suspects the person who ends up in handcuffs will be someone who still lives nearby. He also believes the killer may have done this more than once and could, if not caught, do it again.
“I have a feeling that one of these days it will get solved," Hall said.
Investigators with the Fairfield Police Department have not shared any new information on the case.
Gwinner’s case is on the Butler County Sheriff’s Office’s website, where it is listed as a cold case that is being actively investigated.
Students at Mason High School have been studying Gwinner’s case as part of a cold case class to try to help shine a light on it. The teacher, Randy Hubbard, says the latest information they have gathered is that a witness saw Gwinner speaking to someone outside of the bowling alley the night she disappeared.
The witness told them the man was wearing a dress shirt and dress pants and was about 5 ft. 9. Hubbard says they are looking for other people who may have witnessed the same thing. If you can help them, email Hubbard at firstname.lastname@example.org.
If you have any information on Laney Gwinner’s murder, call police.