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Disappearance of Rose Marie Gayhart still a mystery decades after she went missing from Florida town in 1985

NBC News logo NBC News 3/7/2021 Andrea Cavallier
a man wearing glasses © Provided by NBC News

Florida was supposed to be a new beginning for Rose Marie Gayhart. The 23-year-old Dansville, New York woman had been through a tough few years, which included the loss of her baby at six months old and the choice to give up her second baby for adoption.

But things seemed to be turning around for Rose when she moved to Fort Myers, Florida with her boyfriend, Bob Paddock and his mother, Dorothy Rittenhouse.

Rose’s sister, Laurie Travis, told Dateline that Rose seemed happy in her new life.

“She sounded happy where she was,” Laurie said. “And she just begged and begged for me to move down to Florida to be near her.”

Laurie and Rose, only a year apart in age, were always extremely close.

a man and a woman posing for a photo: Rose and her sister, Laurie. (Laurie Travis) © Laurie Travis Rose and her sister, Laurie. (Laurie Travis)

“We shared a bedroom and listened to the same music,” Laurie told Dateline. She was 22 years old when her sister went missing. “We were so very close. I miss her so much.”

Laurie told Dateline she considered moving to Florida, but worked two jobs in their hometown of Dansville and didn’t feel she could uproot her life at that moment.

So the sisters kept in touch by writing letters to each other. On March 5, 1985, Laurie received a letter from Rose in which she sounded happy but lonely. Rose wrote that they were hoping to buy a house in Cape Coral and continued to ask Laurie to move down or at least come visit.

In the letter, which Laurie shared with Dateline, Rose also wrote that she wanted to come home to New York while Bob was away for two weeks in the National Guard, but that he wouldn’t let her.

“He is afraid I won’t come back,” Rose wrote. “I would like to get away from Bob’s mom too because she is losing her mind.”

Laurie explained that at the time, Rose, Bob and Bob’s mother were living in tight quarters in a trailer and that there might have been tension between the three.

Rose’s letter was the last time Laurie heard from her sister. Laurie responded to Rose, but her letter was returned.

a person smiling for the camera: Rose Marie Gayhart (Laurie Travis) © Laurie Travis Rose Marie Gayhart (Laurie Travis)

On March 19, Laurie said their mother received a letter from Bob’s mother, Dorothy Rittenhouse. In that letter, also shared with Dateline, Dorothy stated that Rose was missing and that she had not appreciated all Dorothy had been trying to do to help her.

According to a Cape Coral police report, a neighbor told authorities she witnessed an argument between Rose and Bob on March 17 where Rose indicated she was pregnant and wanted to have the baby, but Bob wanted her to have an abortion. The argument ended with Dorothy letting Rose call her mother before throwing her out of the house and telling her to not come back.

In the letter, Dorothy also stated that she had later tried to give Rose a bus ticket back to New York, but Rose refused to take it. The ticket, which was purchased on March 17, was enclosed in the letter to her mother.

On March 19, Rose was hired at Big Howie's Hot Dogs diner on 47th Terrace in Cape Coral, Florida. On her third day of work, Rose’s boss reportedly watched her get into a red pickup truck with an unknown white male. She never returned for her paycheck and hasn’t been seen since.

After receiving the letter and not able to reach Rose, her parents reported her missing to the Livingston County Sheriff’s Office in New York. The department then requested assistance from the Cape Coral Police Department in Florida since that is where she was last seen. Both agencies continue to work the case.

Detective Thomas Kortright, who has been on the case since 2018, told Dateline that Rose’s disappearance is a cold case, but as new information comes in, detectives continue to investigate.

“Rose's case is still very much under investigation and we’re doing all we can to solve it,” Det. Kortright said, who added that investigators do suspect foul play was involved in the 36-year-old case.

“With how much time as passed, we do suspect something happened to her,” he said. “Unfortunately, we don’t know what happened, and without a body, it’s been difficult to move forward.”

a woman wearing glasses

Detective Kortright told Dateline that many people have been interviewed and re-interviewed over the years, including her family, friends, co-workers, and her boyfriend Bob Paddock and his mother Dorothy Rittenhouse.

Detective Kortright added that no one has been cleared of being a person of interest, and until Rose is found, or someone comes forward, her disappearance remains a mystery.

“Our hope is that someone from that area remembers something from that time and comes forward,” Det. Kortright said. “Any bit of information could help.”

According to the detective, Rose had left behind a metal box that contained a scrapbook with important documents of her firstborn baby who had died and the second baby who she placed for adoption. Her family doesn’t believe she would have left it behind.

Rose’s sister Laurie told Dateline her family has always suspected that foul play was involved in her disappearance.

“She would never just take off and not ever contact us,” Laurie said. “We were best friends, she would’ve reached out to me.”

Laurie told Dateline that Bob Paddock and his mother returned to New York after Rose’s disappearance. While she still sees Bob around town, the two are not in contact. Dateline attempted to reach Bob by phone, but calls went unanswered. Bob’s mother, Dorothy, has since passed away.

Laurie said her family just wants answers after all these years, especially her parents, who are both in their late 70s and battling cancer.

“They deserve to know the truth before they pass away,” Laurie said. “We all just want to know what happened to Rosie. And we want justice.”

a person holding a baby: Rose and baby Joel. (Laurie Travis) © Laurie Travis Rose and baby Joel. (Laurie Travis)

In 2018, Rose’s past emerged bringing a bit of happiness to the family. The baby she gave up for adoption, Joel, was back in their lives. Married with two daughters, he had been searching for his birth mother for years.

“It was a bright spot in the darkness we’d been living in,” Laurie said. “And now we have a part of Rosie back again.”

Laurie, who helps run the Missing Rose Marie Gayhart Facebook page, recently posted a photo of Joel’s daughters writing, “Rose these are your beautiful granddaughters.”

This month will mark 36 years since Rose disappeared, but Laurie told Dateline she won’t give up until she finds her sister or at least finds out what happened to her. Three years, ago, Laurie finally did what her sister always wanted - she traveled to Florida.

“I wanted to see the place my sister loved so much - the place where she was happy,” Laurie said. “I know I may never get to bring her home, but I just hope to find out what happened to her.”

Anyone with information that could help solve Rose’s case is asked to call the Cape Coral Police Department in Florida at (239) 574-3223 or the Livingston County, New York Sheriff's Department at (585) 243-7120.

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