Unraveling the mystery

‘On the Case with Paula Zahn’ examines the 1984 murder of 14-year-old Bensalem resident Barbara Rowan

By Samantha Bambino

The Times

A harrowing tale: On Sunday, July 29, the murder of 14-year-old Bensalem resident Barbara Rowan was featured on Investigation Discovery’s On the Case with Paula Zahn. Source: Investigation Discovery

This kind of thing just didn’t happen in Bensalem.

It was Aug. 3, 1984, and 14-year-old resident Barbara Rowan had gone out to enjoy the summer day, baseball mitt and radio in hand. She didn’t tell her parents where she was headed.

“It was a different time,” says detective Mike Mosiniak. “Children would leave the house and they would be gone for the day and they would come home for dinner.”

But as the clock ticked past Rowan’s ironclad curfew time of 7 p.m., a rule she always adhered to, Patricia and Bob Rowan knew something was wrong. Nearly two weeks after the parents put in a frantic call to Bensalem Police, the body of their beloved red-haired daughter was discovered in overgrown brush by the side of a nearby road.

It was foul play, detectives knew, but their investigation hit roadblocks at nearly every turn. In July 2017, more than 30 years later, Rowan and her family finally received justice when Bensalem’s George Shaw was found guilty of third-degree murder.

Why did it take decades to prove Shaw was the man? On Sunday, July 29, the entire country found out when Rowan’s story was featured on Investigation Discovery’s On the Case with Paula Zahn. In the riveting one-hour episode, Zahn sits down with Mosiniak and detective Chris McMullin, the duo that gathered enough evidence to arrest Shaw, and Rowan’s cousin Jackie Zielinski, who shared the terror felt by her family when Rowan went missing.

Zahn opens the show in a solemn tone, telling her audience, “It was here in this peaceful suburban town that a 14-year-old girl mysteriously vanished.” Immediately, viewers are able to get a glimpse into the kind of person Rowan was.

“She loved to read. She loved to draw. She loved music. She truly, truly was an innocent child,” says Zielinski. “I felt like she was another sister.”

According to Zielinski, Rowan wasn’t a typical teenager. She had an innocent, trusting nature about her, which made her more vulnerable than other kids her age. As police began their search for Rowan, she knew something awful had happened to her cousin.

“It was not going to be a good outcome. I was never going to see her again,” she says.

By day break, police learned an alarming tidbit from a friend Rowan played catch with the previous afternoon — apparently she ended the game abruptly, saying she had to meet her “coach.” The concerning part? Rowan didn’t play Little League or any sort of organized sport.

At the same time, a new tip came through that placed Rowan at the “red house,” a nearby multi-family apartment complex, at approximately 5 p.m. playing outside with a resident’s 3-year-old daughter whom she had babysat. The father of the toddler, Shaw, told detectives Rowan arrived at his apartment at 4 p.m. and left at 5:30 p.m. to return the radio she was carrying to a friend. Afterward, Shaw said he and his daughter met his wife at 8 p.m. for dinner. A polygraph showed he wasn’t being deceptive.

Two weeks later, a man looking for his dogs made a bone-chilling discovery. In some thick brush by the side of a nearby road, he stumbled upon the remains of Rowan. According to McMullin, there was physical evidence that her hands and feet had been bound, nose and mouth covered with tape. Rowan was the victim of a sexually-motivated attack.

“The emotions were raw. The neighbors, the family were just all in shock,” says Frank Traynor, who covered the story for KYW-TV3. “Something like this doesn’t happen in Bensalem.”

Rowan

At a dead end, investigators took a second look at Shaw. They learned he recently moved to the area, and his wife was the breadwinner of the family as he stayed home with their daughter. They also made two startling discoveries — his wife was unsure which night her husband met her for dinner, and the radio Rowan was carrying didn’t belong to a friend. It was one of her most prized possessions. Officers got a warrant to search Shaw’s home, recovering a box for an aquarium that had tape on it similar to the type found on Rowan.

The tape was sent to the FBI crime lab to test for DNA, but due to less-advanced technology, it couldn’t be determined if it was from the same source. The case against Shaw crumbled, and the investigation went cold for nearly two decades … until McMullin came along.

Though the detective was unfamiliar with the case, he couldn’t put the file down after his supervisor asked him to take a look at the unsolved murder. He believed it was a solvable case, and so did Mosiniak, whom McMullin enlisted the help of. The two picked up where their predecessors left off, resending the tape to the FBI crime lab for DNA testing and revisiting witnesses from 20 years ago. This time, some of Shaw’s old friends were willing to talk. At least three placed Shaw outside a restaurant with his acquaintance Robert Bobby Sanders at 8 p.m., the same time he was supposedly meeting his wife for dinner.

After being subpoenaed to testify in front of a grand jury, Sanders told the truth of what happened in 1984. He had gone to Shaw’s apartment to get high, but instead witnessed Shaw force Rowan into a bedroom, emerging 30 minutes later to say “he messed up.” Sanders was asked to help Shaw place Rowan’s body in a garbage bag and discard it on the side of the road.

Along with Sanders’ confession, the crime lab proved the tape on the aquarium box was the same type that suffocated Rowan. There was finally physical evidence to connect Shaw to the crime. On Sept. 28, 2015, detectives arrested Shaw, and in July 2017, a judge found Shaw guilty of third-degree murder. He was sentenced to 13.5 to 27 years in prison.

“It wasn’t right to let the rape and murder of a 14-year-old child go unsolved,” McMullin tells Zahn, fighting back tears. “I wanted to finish it for Barbara, her family.”

On the Case concludes with final words from Zielinski, whom Patricia and Bob asked to speak on their behalf. The all-too-short life of Rowan remains too difficult for them to speak about, but they wanted their daughter’s story to be told.

“Where would she be today? Where would my aunt and uncle be?” asks Zielinski. “It’s sad to watch them. It’s like you’re punished and you’re heartbroken twice. My aunt and uncle, they don’t live. They just exist.” ••

The full episode can be viewed at investigationdiscovery.com/tv-shows/on-the-case-with-paula-zahn.