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On Opposite Walks of Life, Men's Paths Crossed at Mall, Cemetery

Crime: John Baglier had money; Richard Gamble had a record. When Baglier vanished, Gamble took his identity, then his own life.

March 09, 1997|GEOF BECKER | ASSOCIATED PRESS

BUTLER, Pa. — John Baglier was a good-looking kid with a nice car and nice clothes. Richard Gamble was a car thief with a knack for getting into fights.

What brought the two together at a shopping mall one night? How did they end up wearing each other's clothes? Why did Gamble kill Baglier?

Those are mysteries investigators may never solve because Gamble killed himself when police caught up with him in Arizona. Baglier was later found dead, stuffed into a culvert.

But one trooper does have a theory: It may be a case of a man, his own life spinning out of control, assuming the identity of someone who appeared to be much better off.

"My first thought is he wanted to assume the role of John Baglier," says Trooper Raymond Melder. "He took John Baglier's clothes and put them on and traveled on his credit card."

Baglier, 18, and Gamble, 23, grew up in small western Pennsylvania towns on the decline.

Gamble, from Ford City, was barely in his teens when a car crash killed his father, a coal miner. He dropped out of high school, was convicted of threatening a girlfriend and twice was imprisoned for stealing cars.

Baglier was the son and grandson of car-dealership owners near Butler. An only child, he went to private Shady Side Academy, where he was an honors student and captain of his cross-country and track teams. He planned to attend Allegheny College in Meadville to study business or engineering.

"There didn't appear to be an arrogance about him. He would give the time of day to anyone's son or daughter," Melder says.

Police say that in November, just days before he and Baglier would meet, Gamble violated parole by shooting up a parked car and an Armstrong County tavern called Vic's Frosty Mug.

"His violence was escalating," Melder says.

Police say Gamble hitched a ride to the Clearview Mall on Saturday, Nov. 9, and hung out there all day.

Baglier arrived that evening, making arrangements with his girlfriend to get together later that night.

A witness saw Baglier and Gamble heading toward a mall exit about 7:20 p.m. The witness told police they did not appear to be together, just in the same place at the same time.

Baglier was seen in the mall again at 8:45 p.m., without his ski jacket and already late for his 8:30 p.m. date.

Uncharacteristically, he never showed up for the date. About 9:30 p.m., his girlfriend called the Baglier home.

By then, John Baglier probably was dead--although no one would be able to prove that for several weeks.

The next day, Sunday, Western Union phoned police to say there was unusual activity on John Baglier's credit cards, including a request for cash at a motel in Sutton, W. Va.

"That's when I lost it," says Baglier's mother, Judi Baglier.

The Bagliers talked to a Sutton Days Inn clerk and learned the man using the credit card did not look like their son but was driving the 1994 Jimmy truck that John Baglier had borrowed from his father's dealership.

The card also had been used Saturday night at a highway gas station. There, a surveillance camera captured a picture of a man wearing Baglier's sweater and neck chain. The pictures aired on television broadcasts, and an auto dealer who had lost a car to Gamble recognized him and called police.

Authorities followed the credit-card trail for 2,000 miles, to a Howard Johnson motel in Williams, Ariz.

There, Gamble wrestled with police in the parking lot before pulling out a gun and firing two shots under his chin.

Gamble's death left no clues to Baglier's whereabouts, but a pool of blood in the back of the truck suggested his fate.

Hundreds of volunteers and police searched more than a week on the ground and with aircraft.

During the search, Judi Baglier visited Gamble's grave.

"I asked why he did this to my son--what was the purpose. It's all so senseless," she says.

Then the deer-hunting season started, and hunters discovered several bodies. With each announcement, the Bagliers wondered if the body was their son.

Finally, on Dec. 30, a bridge-inspection crew found the body stuffed into a concrete culvert under a country road about a mile from Gamble's boyhood home. Baglier had been shot three times through Gamble's shabby blue Windbreaker.

Police have not learned what brought Baglier and Gamble together.

Drugs apparently weren't a factor. Baglier shunned them, and Gamble had no record of drug abuse.

They two may have met last summer, when Gamble applied for work at the Bagliers' dealership and was not hired. But he also applied to other dealerships, working briefly at one, and he carried no apparent grudge, Trooper Melder says.

"Nothing at this point shows any association between the two," Melder says. "It could have happened to anyone's son or daughter."

The detective believes Gamble wanted a change and decided to swap lives with Baglier.

Judi Baglier believes Gamble was simply a carjacker.

"I think if Richard Gamble had approached my son and said, 'Hey, buddy! My car broke down. Can you give me a lift?' I think John would. I think any kid would," Judi Baglier says.

Her husband focuses on gaps in the times his son was seen at the mall, as if filling in the blanks would explain why John Baglier had to die.

"I think we'll get enough of those answers to accept it in our mind," he says.

In the Bagliers' living room is a collection of photographs of their son. Upstairs on the bed in his room are his school jacket and a pillow that Judi Baglier hugs, inhaling deeply. She calls it her "crying room."

"I don't get to plan his wedding. I don't get to plan his graduation. I don't get to see my grandchildren. Planning his memorial was the best I get, and I feel cheated at that," she says.

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