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Episode 19: The hopes of Heaven

The Mountain Mysteries

Episode 19

The hopes of Heaven

The Mountain Mystery of Alana Laney Gwinner

There’s a quiet little place in Butler County Ohio called Westchester, only about 36 square miles, with about 65,000 that call it home, but oh you know what they say about packing a lot of punch in a small frame. It’s about 18 miles North of Cincinnati, and it was March 18th, 1974. A Monday when she came into this world bringing with her passion, love and determination. Oh, and that determination would pay off. No doubt about it, she wasn’t afraid to work for whatever goal she had set for herself, and work she would, and work…she did. She didn’t just study hard, but she loved much, had dreams and inspired dreams in others, she was the kind of person that others wanted to be around, and some wanted to be more like. But that all came to end one cold December night and almost a quarter of a century later, investigators are still searching for answers, answers that are as hard to find as a needle in a dozen haystacks. Maybe you can help? These are The Mountain Mysteries, and this is episode 18, The hopes of Heaven, The Mountain Mystery of Alana Laney Gwinner.

Everyone who knew her said, Alana “Laney” Gwinner was a young woman bursting with passion and personality. She loved country music, line dancing, and animals. Everyone said she had a smile that could light up a room. Gwinner's aunt, Patty Hall, describes her niece as a very sensitive young woman; she recalled the time Gwinner rescued a dog off the road. She enjoyed country line dancing, and ''she loved rodeos and cowboys,'' Hall said. "She'd come into a room and light it up.''

Laney was born in Westchester, Ohio March 18, 1974. From the very beginning, she was smart, beautiful, outgoing, and unstoppable. After graduating from Lakota High School in 1992, Laney worked in communications at two different jobs. While holding down her day job, she spent her evenings taking classes at Raymond Walters College for a Degree in Business and Accounting. She had taken an interest in line dancing which family said all but consumed her. Most Thursday through Sunday nights you could find her at the Cheyenne Cattle Company dancing the night away. Her beauty, her grace, and her personality elevated as she danced. Everyone around her could see and feel it. Laney made a lasting impression on people. Those lucky enough to have been considered a friend by Laney, now have a place in their heart that will remain forever untouched.

The college student still had years of life ahead of her when her life was taken by a cold-hearted killer.

On December 10th, 1997, Laney went out to celebrate her new job promotion and completion of her final exams. “She's an excellent pool player, she likes to shoot pool seriously,'' said a friend, Angie Smith. She entered the bowling alley with a male companion, described by acquaintances as a ''good friend'' of Ms. Gwinner's. They had driven in separate cars. ''She was attractive, and people noticed her,'' recalled Pat Edmondson, co-owner of the bowling alley with her husband, Chuck Edmondson.

''We have a lot of regular customers here, but nobody remembered seeing her in here before.'' Customers estimated it was about 1 a.m. when Ms. Gwinner walked out of the bowling alley alone.

''I believe someone intercepted her,'' said Suzi Damen, a friend of Ms. Gwinner's.

When Gwinner disappeared she was last seen heading for her car to go to her boyfriends roughly 2 miles down the road. Laney was never seen alive again. She would be missing for nearly a month until her body was found in the Ohio River. She had been murdered. Her black Honda Del Sol has never been found. To date, Laney's death remains unsolved.

It is estimated that she left the bowling alley around 1:00am. By 10:00am the next morning, friends and co-workers began talking; it was unlike Laney not to let a friend know where she was, let alone, to not call into work. As day turned to night, we became more concerned for her, but we had faith that she would walk through the door at any moment. Although the news reports were heart-wrenching, they never swayed us into considering the worst-case scenario. On January 4th, the Cincinnati news channels were buzzing about Officer Mike Partins who fell from the Clay Wade Bailey Bridge while chasing a suspect. We all took a break from our own sorrow and turned our thoughts to his young wife, Lisa, and their daughter.

A woman's body was spotted floating in the Ohio River, about five miles east of Warsaw in Gallatin County. body was clad in jeans, a blouse and jewelry. Ms. Gwinner's driver's license was found on the body. The coroner could not determine a cause of death but ruled she had died before being put into the river. Based on the condition of the body, it appears she was in the river for a considerable period of time.

“A month later, she’s found [dead] in the river down in Warsaw, Kentucky," Frank Smith, a retired Butler County Cold Case Detective, said. Found January 11th, 1998

“We interviewed, we polygraphed, we background 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. The only witness account told them of a man wearing a dress shirt and dress pants who stood about 5 foot 9.

“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.

She was not raped, and robbery was definitely not the motive,'' Smith said. He added that he believes that it was an attempted sexual assault that turned deadly. Gwinner was probably accosted in the alley's parking lot, killed, and put in her car, which was then rolled into the Ohio or Miami rivers from a slope or embankment, Smith said. Two days before she was found, the Ohio River rose to flood stage because of rain and melting snow. "We feel that at that time, her body was probably forced out of the car,''

To date over 1200 interviews have been conducted and over 100 polygraphs have been given by Det. Smith who is also a certified polygraph examiner. One hundred and twenty nautical miles of the Ohio river have been sonarred with the intention of locating Laney’s black Honda del Sol. No expense has been spared as Detective Smith relentlessly tracks down every single piece of information, closing in on a killer.

Dustin Faul, a cat-fisherman, said he is more than happy to donate his time and his tools to help with the search. Using sonar technology, their mission is to find the missing car. “I can see a tree limb laying in the bottom of the river. I can see tires laying in the bottom of the river and count them,” Faul said. “A lot of times I can see a fish and stop and zoom in on it and tell you exactly what kind of fish that is.” Faul said he has experience in the area. A couple of years ago, he said he found three vehicles in the water. “One of them which had the deceased body of an 80-year-old man that had been missing for 16 years,” Faul said. On Wednesday, the team loaded up a boat at Tanner’s Creek Boat Ramp in Lawrenceburg, Indiana and started searching the river. Faul said in total, over the course of several searches, he expects they will cover at least 300 miles. “We’re gonna search from Portsmouth all the way down to Louisville,” Faul said. “The end goal is to bring closure to the family”

Her car, a black 1993 Honda Civic CRX Del Sol, has never been found. The license plate was an Ohio plate with the plate number AKP-3607

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.

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