BY ROBERT L. BAKER
and BOB KALINOWSKI
NICHOLSON – It was five years ago Saturday that Shelva Conrad Rafte left her daughter’s graduation party, never to be seen again by family and friends.
Grieving sisters and children, other relatives and friends many in the family didn’t realize still cared returned to the location of that party about three miles northeast of the Nicholson Bridge to give voice to the horror of her disappearance.
“We need to remind the people of Pittston, that she is not forgotten,” Shelva’s sister Joanne Decker said as she gave the opening remarks at a 6 p.m. vigil.
Decker reminded the 125 or so gathered near Nicholson that her sister helped plan the original party, was in good spirits and left at the end of the night with a male friend without an indication anything was wrong.
Then, she vanished.
Five years later, Rafte’s disappearance remains a missing person’s mystery.
“It’s been a surreal nightmare with a great big void,” Decker said about the disappearance.
“This is where we last saw Shelva, and with so many here in spirit, I hope we can give meaning – and express how we feel about how much we want her back. I can’t tell you how hard it’s been… just not knowing.”
Pastor William Hagenbuch of the Harford United Church of Christ spoke of the “beautiful” running water of the Tunkhannock Creek less than 200 yards away from the site of the vigil.
He said, “water sustains life, but it also helps to wash away some of the anger, frustration, anxiety in just not knowing. But God knows. What unites us all is to have Shelva home where she belongs.”
Among the songs specifically selected for the evening included Carol King’s ‘So Far Away,” sung by friend Barbara Kernick, and “Have You Seen Her?” which was prompted by Decker calling on a niece and nephew.
Shelva’s daughter Janelle Fox of New Milford, who recently got married on Mother’s Day in her mom’s honor, and son Josh Darrow of Great Bend unveiled a larger than life poster-sized photograph of their mom, while struggling to keep their emotions in check.
Another sister of Shelva’s, Shirley Masters of Kingsley put it bluntly when she said that “Not knowing has been truly difficult for all of us. Every time we hear a news account about a body being found, we’re faced with a new anguish about ‘Could it be her?”
Masters said the point of the vigil and another at 8 p.m. to which the group caravaned To Pittston with a school bus load of supporters as well as many who followed in their own vehicles was to draw attention to Rafte’s case.
“We hope we can create an entire community awareness and get the word out for any possible leads,” Masters said.
The second location of Riverfront Park in Pittston was chosen because it’s a public place near her former Cleveland Street home and family members are hoping concerned citizens come participate.
“It’s the job of the family of any missing person to create awareness, and keep it in the public’s eyes,” Decker said.
Rafte’s case is profiled on various online missing persons websites. Her case is also featured by Pennsylvania Crime Stoppers, which is offering a reward of up to $2,000 for information that would help solve her disappearance. The family has pledged an additional $3,000 to the reward.
Authorities said Rafte’s friend, Tom Para, and Rafte went to his Jenkins Township home after the graduation party five years ago.
After an argument, she left and was last seen at Market and River streets in Jenkins Township around 1 a.m. on May 29, police said.
But, police have told the family they have few clues in the case.
“They consider it a cold case at this point, but an active case,” Decker said.
“Another reason why we need to keep this in the public eye is maybe she is out there,” Decker said. “Maybe she had a nervous breakdown or someone took her. The bottom line is she could be out there and needing help.”
“You think of her every day. You’re so filled with emotion and anxiety,” Decker said.
Anyone with information about the case is asked to call Pittston police at 570-654-2424 or Pennsylvania Crime Stoppers tip line at 1-800-4PA-TIPS.