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Crime News Murders

What Happened to Lisa Ziegert, the Young Massachusetts Woman Kidnapped from Work and Killed?

Lisa Ziegert was kidnapped from her job and murdered in 1992. More than two decades later, Gary Schara confessed to the crime in a hand-written letter to his girlfriend. 

By Elisabeth Ford
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On Easter Sunday of 1992, the sleepy town of Agawam, Massachusetts was struck with devastating news. Lisa Ziegert, a 24-year-old teaching assistant, was found dead in a wooded area off Route 75, four days after she went missing.

After 25 years of tirelessly investigating her death, police finally got a break in the case when Ziegert's killer confessed to the crime in a letter to his girlfriend after authorities came knocking on his door. 

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Who was Lisa Ziegert?

Ziegert was a teacher’s aide at Agawam Middle School who worked part-time at a local card and gift shop before she went missing.

“I tell my kids she was the coolest person I ever knew,” Ziegert’s brother David Ziegert said of his late sister on a 2020 episode of NBC’s Dateline.

“She was kind of a big kid herself,” David continued, adding that his sister had a knack for relating to the children in her classroom. “She was ready to enjoy life and see the silliness in things.”

But on April 16, 1992, Ziegert never showed up for her shift at the middle school.

“April 16th, the school calls, Lisa hasn’t come in,” Dee Ziegert, Ziegert’s mother, said in a statement at Springfield District Court, according to Springfield, Massachusetts station WWLP. “The call from Lynne, her sister, Lisa is missing. [Store employee] Sophia has called, to report Lisa’s car, her coat, pocketbook and artwork are at the store but she is not. Fear strikes. Lynne and I went to the store hoping it was a mistake.

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The front and back doors of the store where Ziegert worked part-time were found unlocked. She had been working alone on the evening of April 15. Sophia Maynard, another store clerk at Brittany’s Card & Gift Shoppe, clocked in the next morning, finding Ziegert’s belongings. However, Ziegert was nowhere to be found.

Where was Lisa Ziegert's body found?

After search parties spent four grueling days looking for the recent college graduate, who was believed to have been kidnapped, a grim discovery was made. Shortly after 2 p.m. on April 19 of 1992, Ziegert’s body was found about 250 to 300 yards off Route 75, less than a mile from the card shop that she worked at and was last seen at, MassLive reported.

How did Lisa Ziegert die?

An autopsy revealed that Ziegert died of a single stab wound to her neck, according to MassLive. Retired Agawam police Sgt. Wayne Macey, a detective at the time, described the grisly scene, which was on a dirt path off the side of the road. “She is partially clad, she has a pair of boots on and some of her clothing had been pulled down,” Macey told Dateline, adding that there were signs of sexual assault. Ziegert was also found with deep defensive wounds on her hands, a sign that she fought for her life before she was killed.

Who killed Lisa Ziegert?

Ziegert’s case remained unsolved for 25 years. Macey, by then, had long retired, but fresh eyes and new forensic technology was the catalyst for a major breakthrough in the investigation.

Newly-elected Hampden District Attorney Anthony Gulluni led the investigation into a new technological tool called “DNA phenotyping,” which narrowed down what the suspect’s features would look like, including hair color, eye color, facial structure, skin tone and geographic ancestry, according to MassLive.

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Massachusetts State Police Trooper Noah Pack told local newspaper The Republican that by 2017, investigators had 11 suspects on their radar. Each suspect was alive, matched the phenotype and refused to provide a DNA sample to police.

After a grand jury granted petitions to subpoena DNA samples from suspects, investigators went door to door with hearing notices, MassLive reported.

On September 13, 2017, police knocked on then-48-year-old Gary Schara’s door in West Springfield. He wasn’t home, but his roommate promised to pass along the information.

A booking photo of Gary Schara

Who is Gary Schara?

Schara had been on investigators' radar since early on in the probe into Lisa Ziegert's death. In March of 1993, Schara’s ex-wife, Joyce Schara, gave investigators her ex-husband’s name after noticing his behavior when news aired on Ziegert’s death. “Anytime the news was on and the story came on, he would come running in from the other room to see what was being said on TV,” Trooper Pack told Dateline of what Joyce revealed to authorities.

When detectives brought Schara in for questioning 10 years after Ziegert was killed, Schara said he didn't remember much about the case. But 15 years after that, Schara gave in to the pressure of the investigation.

How was Lisa Ziegert’s killer found?

After hearing of the September 13, 2017 police visit to his home, Schara drafted a few neatly written letters. Schara’s girlfriend found the three documents in her home on September 14, and immediately handed them over to authorities. They consisted of his confession to killing Ziegert that was written to his girlfriend, a last will and testament and an apology to the Ziegert family.

“I’ve been dreading the day I’d need to write this letter for almost as long as I can remember... ,” Schara’s confession began, according to The Republican, which obtained the letter. “They will tell you I abducted, raped and murdered a young woman approximately 25 years ago. It is true. All of it.”

He described his attack on Ziegert as an anomalous action that he never committed again, which investigators confirmed.

“I hated what happened. I despised myself. I thought of turning myself in hundreds of times over the years, but I truly am a coward,” the letter read. 

He wrote that he was “fascinated by abduction and bondage from an early age.”

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Before signing his confession, Schara wrote that he would take his own life that night. On the dashboard of his vehicle, which was found at a Connecticut hospital, detectives found another letter: “To whomever finds my body, I apologize for any psychological trauma incurred. Call Mass State Police. Thank you. GES."

What happened to Gary Schara?

Schara was located in a hospital emergency room after taking a number of over-the-counter pills, Pack told Dateline. While he was recovering in the hospital from a near overdose, detectives matched his DNA with a sample found at the 1992 Ziegert crime scene from Schara's toothbrush taken from his home.

On December 8, 2017, Schara was charged with first-degree murder, aggravated kidnapping and aggravated rape, WWLP reported. While the kidnapping and rape charges were dropped, Schara pleaded guilty to first-degree murder in September of 2019 and was sentenced to life in prison without parole.

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