True Crime: the Unsolved Case of a Missing Michigan Girl (part 1)
Updated: Feb 19
In Hamburg, a 21-year-old disappeared after Sweetest Day weekend in 1994. No body was ever found, and the prime suspect is dead.
What bothers investigators is that this story has no ending. There is a beginning and a very long middle, a stretch of 28 years between then and now. Yet the case lacks a satisfying conclusion. No one was arrested or charged, so justice has yet to be served.
Retired Detective Sergeant Tom Best Jr. is haunted by the facts: a 21-year-old girl went missing in a Buffalo suburb in October 1994. He knows what likely happened. Police have pinpointed the man they believe killed her. Their suspect, Ronald Erhardt, never confessed or served time. In 2016, he died of natural causes at age 83. So as investigators see things, Erhardt got away with murder. A new generation of detectives occasionally revisits the details, and have reached the same result.
Despite widespread searches across New York State, Anjanette Piotrowski’s body was never discovered. Her disappearance, therefore, remains an open case.
“His whole family knows the guy was a murderer,” Best said, reflecting on his encounters with Erhardt. “It’s intriguing. The problem I have with this story is, how do you tell it? I don’t know how you write an ending. Anjanette has never been found. But to any investigator, there’s no debate whether he did it or if someone else did it. He did it.”
Best, now 54, retired from the Hamburg Police Department in 2013. Although he was not involved in the original case, he reinvestigated it once he became a detective in 2000, becoming well-versed in its events and chronology. During his final year on the job, he pushed hard to clamp down this cold case, to forge a conclusion that would bring answers to a missing girl’s family. After traveling to Kentucky, where Erhardt lived in 2012, to re-interview him, investigators came away empty handed… again.
The Erie County District Attorney never believed there was enough evidence to bring charges, so the case simply sat, as it still sits today, waiting for new evidence to emerge.
Father or boyfriend?
In autumn 1994, Bill Clinton was serving his first term as president, several years before Monica Lewinsky became a household name. A few months earlier, O.J. Simpson had led Los Angeles police on a very public freeway chase, broadcast live on network TV, and the saga of Simpson’s murdered wife fascinated the nation. Friends and ER were weeks into their inaugural TV seasons, while The Shawshank Redemption played in theaters. Locally, the Buffalo Bills, led by future Hall of Fame players Jim Kelly, Bruce Smith, Andre Reed and Thurman Thomas, had played in the last four Super Bowls. Expectations were high for the Buffalo Sabres as well, who boasted star players Dominik Hasek, Pat LaFontaine and Alexander Mogilny. It was against this backdrop that the story unfolds.
Anjanette Piotrowski grew up in Saginaw, Michigan, having been adopted into a family with other children. By October 1994, Anjanette had recently turned 21, and moved to Willet Road in Lackawanna the previous February with her boyfriend, Daniel Erhardt. Dan, then 33, had met Anjanette while living in Michigan.
“They started dating,” Best recalled. “That winter they agreed to move back to Hamburg to start a life here. She was a mix of white and Hispanic. They moved in with his parents for a while to get on their feet.”
Anjanette accepted two jobs: working at McKinley Mall’s Olive Garden on weekends, and logging overnights at Polymer Conversions in Orchard Park. But an odd twist in her burgeoning romance with Dan shifted an entire family dynamic.
“Dan is sleeping on the living room sofa, and wakes up one day to discover his father making out with his girlfriend,” Best explained. “He was embracing her, and had his hand on her exposed breast. This was more than a kiss. Ron’s son saw what was going on and got pissed off, but he never confronted his father. Instead, he just left, said ‘I’m done,’ and went back to Michigan.”
With her boyfriend gone, Anjanette remained at the Erhardt’s house. Ron Erhardt had recently retired after working as a security guard at a manufacturing plant in Tonawanda as part of Pinkerton’s Detective Agency. He claimed he had been a private investigator. At 61, Erhardt experienced myriad health issues, including a past heart attack, prostate problems, skin cancer, and, as he later admitted to detectives, impotency.
If Ron’s wife, Norma, harbored any suspicions about infidelity from her husband, she did not reveal them. Yet once Dan moved back to Michigan, according to Best, Erhardt’s wife made it clear that their son’s ex-girlfriend wasn’t going to remain a permanent occupant in their home.
Anjanette briefly moved into an apartment on Aldridge Place in Buffalo with two other girls who worked at Olive Garden. Within a short time, however, Erhardt helped her secure a motel room at Elvy’s on Southwestern Boulevard, near the intersection of South Park Avenue. (The motel is now called the Stadium View Inn.)
“Ron Erhardt was a big braggart,” Best said. “He bragged about being a private investigator. He bragged about being a colonel in the state of Kentucky. He was also a bully. He had three sons and a daughter, and his kids were all afraid of him.”
Anjanette, meanwhile, had moved on from her relationship with Dan. A timeline assembled by investigators shows that she dated three different young men between June and the time of her disappearance in October.
“She started meeting other people, which was natural for a 21-year-old,” Best said. “But Ron got jealous. She’d be hanging out with a guy, and [Erhardt] would bust in and fly into a rage.”
One afternoon, at at her apartment on Aldridge Place, Anjanette was in her bedroom with a male friend. The two relaxed on her bed, fully clothed, when Erhardt stormed in.
“What are you doing with this scumbag?” he shouted at Anjanette. Then he turned to the young man. “You’ve got five minutes to leave or I’ll cut your balls off!” he threatened.
So was Erhardt an overprotective father figure, viewing Anjanette as a vulnerable daughter, or was he in love with her, despite being 40 years older? He tried to clarify their relationship to Hamburg Police, but his explanation never rang true.
“This was his son’s ex-girlfriend,” Best reflected. “The whole thing was bizarre.”
Best believes that despite working two jobs, Anjanette relied on Erhardt to help her gain a foothold in life. At 21, she was essentially on her own, with no family in New York. When he paid for the motel room in advance, Erhardt told the manager that he was her uncle, although the manager soon began to doubt that. In early October, she signed a lease to rent an apartment in Lackawanna. Erhardt accompanied her, co-signing the contract and telling that landlord that he was Anjanette’s father. He provided a check for the first month’s rent. Before October was over, Anjanette planned to move from her one-bedroom efficiency to her own apartment.
That never happened.
Sweetest Day occurs annually on the third Saturday in October. In 1994, that fell on October 15. The morning before, Erhardt had taken Anjanette to a downtown clinic to be checked for venereal disease. At that time, they agreed to meet for breakfast on Monday.
On the eve of Sweetest Day, Anjanette had gone on a date with Garrett P., a Franklinville native who was close to her age. (Garrett’s last name is not included here because he was never considered a suspect in Anjanette’s disappearance.) Investigators pieced together her actions over the course of those few days.
“She goes out with Garrett on Friday night,” Best explained. “They come back to her place at Elvy’s and have sex. On Saturday, they go out to a drive-in, come back to her place and have sex again. That’s two times. They used condoms both times. That’s going to be important later. Now we get to Sunday. She worked a shift at Olive Garden during the day.”
While Anjanette was at work, Erhardt stopped by Elvy’s Motel, where he let himself into Anjanette’s room with the key he kept, and left chocolates for her. He did not see her then. Also on Sunday, Erhardt encountered car trouble. His 1984 Ford LTD was unable to shift into park, and its undercarriage was littered with weeds and debris. Erhardt called a tow truck, and the vehicle was towed to Wayne’s Auto, a garage on Lake Avenue behind Blasdell Village Hall, where it was left in the parking lot. The garage was closed, but Wayne Meeuwsen, the garage owner, stopped by that evening to feed a cat that lived in his shop. He recognized Erhardt’s car angled in the lot and wondered what was wrong. The diagnosis and repair would wait until his garage re-opened on Monday.
“Anjanette is supposed to work at Polymer Conversions that night at midnight, but never shows up and calls in sick around 1:30 a.m.,” Best said. “She’s not seen again until Monday morning.”
Police were unable to confirm if Anjanette made the call herself, or if someone called on her behalf.
Monday morning, October 17, Norma Erhardt left for work. With his wife gone, Anjanette visited the Erhardts’ house, where she had previously lived. Now she and Ron were alone. Anjanette phoned a friend, who later confirmed that she had spoken with Anjanette on Monday morning. Erhardt claimed that the pair ate broccoli omelettes and toast, while drinking coffee and orange juice. Erhardt said he woke up that day feeling good, because he looked forward to seeing Anjanette. Over breakfast, she offered him two gifts: a long, thin, tapered blue candle, and a Buffalo Bills shirt. The shirt was a joke. Despite the team’s success in the early 1990s, Erhardt did not like the Bills. He did, however, take frequent walks from his home on Willet Road, going south along Abbott Road, where he would circle the stadium and return.
In cursive script, Anjanette wrote on the card:
“This present is for you, only because I know what a Bills fan you are, and the candle is for friendship. Whenever you need a light in your life, and I’m not there, light your candle and you’ll be fine.”
“In other words, she was saying goodbye to him,” Best summarized. “I think she was trying to distance herself. She’s got this new boyfriend, who’s about her own age. She just had sex with Garrett twice that weekend. [Erhardt] was busting into places she went, threatening people she talked to. People thought he was a protective father, but he’s really a jealous boyfriend. At this point, she wants him to go away. She came to Buffalo to start a new life and that’s what she was trying to do.”
Investigators have a sense of what happened next, but were never able to confirm enough details to warrant charges against Erhardt.
Aside from the killer, the owner of the auto shop where Erhardt left his car that Sunday may have been the last person to remember seeing Anjanette alive.
“Wayne Meeuwsen knew Anjanette and saw her that Monday morning,” Best said. “Ron pulled up to Wayne’s Auto around 9:30, driving Anjanette’s car. She was in the passenger’s seat. Ron got out and explained the problem with his vehicle.”
Come back this afternoon and it will be fixed, Meeuwsen told him.
“Wayne said Anjanette was alive,” Best said. “But she wasn’t bubbly like she usually was. He had met her before. Usually, she’d get out and talk to him, but she didn’t that morning. We wondered if she was drugged up in the car.”
Meeuwsen provided testimony to police during their initial investigation. (“Wayne was a character,” according to Best. He has since passed away.) Erhardt’s car would not shift into park. Weeds and greenery clung to the underside, lodging in wheel wells. Where had Erhardt driven his car to cause this type of damage?
“What was he doing?” Best wondered. “Was he off-road, digging a grave or something?”
Meeuwsen removed the foliage from Erhardt’s car and tossed the weeds in a clump along the side of the building. (Police collected them later to run tests, but could not pinpoint a location of origin.)
After leaving Wayne’s Auto, Erhardt later told police that he and Anjanette drove to Broderick Park, located along the Niagara River within view of the Peace Bridge, and went for a walk. No witnesses ever confirmed this, and police wonder if Erhardt fabricated that detail to throw them off-track. Erhardt claimed that they fought, and she insisted that he leave.
“She screamed, ‘get the f— out of my car or I’ll call the police,’” Erhardt told investigators. “Last I saw her, she was driving up Ferry Street to Niagara Street. I looked all over the West Side for her.”
“He claims he started walking, went to Main Place Mall and talked to a security guard, but that could never be verified. He then caught a Metro bus to get home. We couldn’t verify him on any bus, either, but it was the 1990s, and there weren’t cameras on buses. When he shows up around 2 p.m. at Wayne’s Auto, he’s changed into different clothes from what he wore that morning. Wayne razzed him for wearing yellow. Wayne said he looked like Captain Kangaroo, and they both had a laugh. How many people change clothes in the middle of the day? According to Wayne, he thought it was bizarre that Ron showed up after walking down the street.”
When Anjanette did not report to Polymer Conversions that evening, one of her friends called Erhardt to let him know.
“Anjanette is missing,” the friend relayed. “She never showed up to work. We went over [to Elvy’s] and her car’s missing. She’s not there. This isn’t like her, to not tell anyone where she is. What should we do? Should we call the police?”
“No, no,” Erhardt replied. “A missing person has to be gone at least a few more days. I know, because I’m an investigator. Give it a few more days. You can’t report her missing now.”
This was a huge red flag for investigators. Why would Erhardt not want police involved immediately? Soon Garrett P. also contacted Erhardt, asking if the older man had seen his girlfriend.
“He’s telling everybody to wait to report her missing,” Best said.
Another week passed before co-workers finally contacted the police. As part of the initial investigation, police then contacted Erhardt, who admitted he had cleaned out Anjanette’s room at Elvy’s and had brought her personal items back to his house. He suggested she may have returned to Michigan to visit a sister there, or gone south to Mississippi, where another sister lived. He even suggested that she may have found a new guy and gone off with him, because she had a history of doing that.
Betty Nadarewistsch, the manager at Elvy’s, told police that Erhardt had paid cash to cover the bill for Anjanette’s room several times, claiming she was his niece. But Nadarewistsch doubted that, because she knew that Erhardt had stayed in the room overnight, sharing Anjanette’s bed. The day after Anjanette went missing, the manager claimed that Erhardt had removed items from the room, loading her personal effects into a black pickup truck.
“He said he cleaned the place out on Wednesday,” Best said. “She’s been gone two days. Why would you clean the place out? He claimed he went to Elvy’s and they told him he would need to pay for another week, so he’s got all her belongings at his house, including a check from work. There was still $3000 in her bank account. If someone was leaving town, they wouldn’t leave any of this behind.”
Suspicions grew. From Anjanette’s friends, police learned of Erhardt’s controlling nature. Being the last person to see her, Erhardt became a person of interest in the disappearance.
First Interview: Hamburg 1994
At 5:35 p.m. on Friday, October 28 — 11 days after Anjanette was last seen by Wayne Meeuwsen — Hamburg Police welcomed Erhardt into the basement of Town Hall to sit for an interview about her disappearance. Lasting more than two hours, the discussion did not go well for law enforcement.
Erhardt, then 61, was bald and potbellied. He wore an open neck white golf shirt, khaki pants, and glasses. He began the interview wearing a black bomber jacket, but soon removed it, revealing a scratch on his right elbow, claiming the injury occurred a few days earlier during a construction project, which he said his brother-in-law could confirm. Erhardt also wore a gold watch and ring. He had a commanding voice, full of energy.
When asked, Erhardt provided his birthday and address. He was retired, he explained, and had just applied for Social Security the day before.
“Do you know why you’re here?” he was asked.
“Concerning the whereabouts of Anjanette Piotrowski.”
“We’re investigating the issue as a missing person. Maybe foul play. Did you have anything to do with any foul play involved?”
“When was the last time you saw Miss Piotrowski?”
“A week ago Monday about 10 o’clock in the morning.”
Erhardt tried to explain their connection. He said his son Daniel had planned to marry her, but when Daniel moved back to Michigan, Anjanette remained in Western New York. She had briefly moved into a home in South Buffalo last July with two other women who worked at the Olive Garden.
“I have all the names and dates written down,” Erhardt said.
“What kind of relationship did you have with her? You seem to kind of take care of her.”
“Well,” Erhardt explained, hesitating. “She was a very good companion. She needed somebody. She was very fragile. As far as I know, she is still a very fragile person.”
Speaking of Anjanette in past tense — which Erhardt did several times — then catching himself, was not lost on the interviewers. Nor was his controlling nature. Why would he write down names and dates involving his son’s ex-girlfriend? Detectives also noted his body language: the times he leaned forward, bounced a leg, or crossed his arms.
“See, a lot of people didn’t understand,” he continued. “I’m 40 years older. [Her friends] didn’t like her relationship with me. She was only 20 years old [when she came here], so whenever she went out on a date, I had her give me the name of the guy and where she was going to be… But she always told me she was a 30-year-old woman in a 21-year-old body. I could relate to her and she could relate to me. I gave her support, and she fed my ego, let’s say.”
Erhardt was confident and curious. He told Hamburg Police he had been a manager at Pinkerton’s and was working part-time as a bill collector, tracing skips who had written bad checks. He had also taught an interrogation class for the FBI back in the 1960s, he said, although the truth was more nuanced: he had once participated in a class demonstration as an interview subject.
During the interview, investigators wondered if there was a death involved in Anjanette disappearance.
“A death?” Erhardt repeated, as though the idea had not occurred to him until then. “Gee, I sure hope not. I realize that may be a possibility because she hasn’t shown up.”
Howard Widman, a Detective Sergeant for the Town of Hamburg Police Department, is responsible for the cold case today. Like Best, he was not involved in the original investigation, but has reviewed the files and recorded interview from 1994. He sees missed opportunities during this questioning.
“[Investigators] were using the Reid Technique,” Widman explained. “It was taught in the 1990s. It’s been updated since, and it does work, but it was brand-new to these guys. They had just come off a class, and were trying to institute it.”
Best explained the Reid Technique.
“Say you stole something. I’d ask, ‘did you steal it?’ You’d say, ‘No.’ ‘Did you ever think of stealing it?’ ‘No.' ‘Say someone did steal, what should the punishment be if they get caught?’”
“A normal answer would be that the person should go to jail,” Widman said. “But if that person did it, they might say, ‘Well, you should go easy on him the first time.’ Those are clues to us that they’re probably involved.”
Best and Widman both agree that the Reid Technique works when detectives have pieced together what actually occurred. But these investigators did not know the full story yet, and were searching for answers. They even fibbed to Erhardt, claiming that witnesses had seen him and Anjanette at Broderick Park before she went missing. Broderick Park had been mentioned by Erhardt, but he may have lied about being there. If so, then the detectives were way off base.
“During this interview, not only are cops talking to Erhardt, but he’s trying to figure out what they know,” Widman said. “He knows she’s dead. Because he did it. He wants to know where we are. If they’re wrong, he’s going to laugh in his head. He’s going to be confident going in. He’s going to think, They have no idea what I did. [Erhardt] knew his stuff. He was trying to figure out what we knew.”
Erhardt inquired whether a body had been found. Police said no, they were looking at possibilities. They tried to pinpoint Erhardt’s whereabouts on Sunday night, the evening before Anjanette disappeared. Erhardt was detailed with answers to most other questions, but claimed to draw a blank about what occurred Sunday.
From their exchange:
Erhardt: “I don’t recall going out that night, Sunday. I really don’t. I’m being truthful. Why would I go out Sunday night? Hey, Lieutenant, it wasn’t significant at that time. I didn’t see Anjanette that night, that’s for sure. I don’t know if I went out to get gas, but if I did, I go out before 9 o’clock. But I don’t think I was out late that night.”
Interviewer: “You would remember. You’re 61 years old. You’re a guy that remembers."
Erhardt: “I have a good mind.”
Interviewer: “You have a very clear mind. You’re an investigator. You documented everything but you don’t remember Sunday? Where did you go?”
Erhardt: “I’m racking my brain, but I don’t recall. Sometimes I go see my sister in the city. If it was significant, I sure as hell would have remembered.”
“He’s able to vividly remember what he made for breakfast Monday morning, but he’s not able to remember Sunday night,” Widman noted. “What they’re trying to do is establish that he’s remembering specific things all the time, except when it comes to the disappearance. Suddenly he can’t remember a thing. That’s usually a telltale sign that he blocked it out or he’s not going to tell you what he’s done. The investigators are trying to establish that he remembers every little bit of everything else, but he can’t remember those four hours when she’s gone.”
It is not clear why investigators focused on Sunday night. Anjanette was alive on Monday morning, according to Meeuwsen and a friend who received a phone call from her. Was Sunday the night when Erhardt dug a grave, preparing to kill her?
A few minutes later, Erhardt continued:
“Anjanette one time said, ‘I don’t have a father. You’re the closest thing I had.’ I didn’t fight with her. I never laid a hand on that young lady. She said, ‘Ron, I can go any goddamn place I want.’ I had an empty pit in my stomach when she told me to get the f— out of her car. I don’t think she’s dead, goddamn it. I think she still might call me.”
Investigators turned aggressive, sometimes talking over each other, cutting Erhardt off, as they spat accusations.
“She was going to leave you, wasn’t she? Was it an accident that you killed her?”
“Killed her?” Erhardt yelled. “You’re full of shit. I loved her. She loved me. You’re barking up the wrong tree.”
No confession emerged, nor was there enough evidence to hold Erhardt. So after several hours, he was free to leave.
The case was no closer to being solved.
End of Part 1. The story's conclusion will be published on Buffalo Tales in mid-March. The next installment concerns the discovery of Anjanette’s abandoned car, and a second interview with Erhardt in 2012.
Do you have additional information about Anjanette Piotrowski’s disappearance, or know someone who does? If so, contact Detective Sergeant Howard Widman in the Town of Hamburg Police Department at 716-648-5111, extension 2603, or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Text © 2023 by Jeff Schober. Special thanks to Sydney Best, David J. Nistor, Chris Falgiano, and Teri Schober for their contributions.
Jeff Schober has a journalism degree from Bowling Green State University and a master’s degree in English and History from the University at Buffalo. He teaches English and Journalism at Frontier High School and is the best-selling author of ten books, including the true crime book Bike Path Rapist with Det. Dennis Delano, and the Buffalo Crime Fiction Quartet. Visit his website at www.jeffschober.com.
Steve Desmond is an award-winning photographer. With his son, Francis, he is the author of A Life of Purpose, which raises money for Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy research. To view more of Steve's work search Facebook, under "Steve Desmond" and "Desmond's PrimeFocus Photography," or on Instagram at "Stevedesmond9."
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