True Crime: the Unsolved Case of a Missing Michigan Girl (part 2)
Anjanette’s abandoned car is discovered in South Buffalo,
and the suspect is interviewed again in Kentucky.
Editor’s note: This is second and final installment of the story we began last month. Click here to read Part 1.
The prior week, three days after Anjanette Piotrowski disappeared, Ron Erhardt phoned the landlady in Lackawanna to whom he had previously written a check to cover the rent. Anjanette had been scheduled to move in within days.
“She took off, and she’s not coming back,” Erhardt told the landlady. “You can rip that check up. She’s not going to take the apartment.”
At the same time, he was telling Anjanette’s friends that they needed to wait longer before reporting her missing.
On Wednesday, October 26 — two days before Erhardt’s interview with Hamburg Police — Anjanette’s abandoned car was discovered on Hubbell Avenue in South Buffalo, which spans Abbott Road to Southside Parkway. Bisected by McKinley Parkway, Hubbell Avenue is four blocks from Bishop Timon High School. Several parking tickets were tucked under the car’s windshield wipers. Nine days had passed since Anjanette was last seen by Wayne Meeuwsen, the garage owner in Blasdell.
“This makes sense,” Retired Detective Sergeant Tom Best Jr. reflected, believing that Erhardt killed her, then drove away in her ten-year-old car, abandoning it on Hubbell Avenue. “[Erhardt] knows the Metro bus routes. He could have killed her, took the body somewhere, then dropped the car off near Timon, and caught the Abbott Road bus and rode it home. Willet (where Erhardt lived) is just off Abbott.”
Buffalo police impounded the vehicle, and conducted a forensics exam of everything found within. Information came back that two used condoms were discarded in the backseat. DNA technology was still in its infancy, but investigators matched the condoms to Garrett P., the young man whom Anjanette had begun dating. Police questioned him about their relationship.
They had spent the prior weekend together. Both nights, he admitted, they returned to her room at Elvy’s and had sex. The condoms he used were tossed in the wastebasket under the bathroom sink. These were the only two times they had had sex, he claimed. He denied ever doing so in her car. Why would they? he wondered. Anjanette rented a motel room that afforded space and privacy.
So how did those condoms end up in the car?
Erhardt told detectives that he had cleaned out Anjanette’s room on Wednesday. He saw the condoms, and removed them from the wastebasket because he didn’t want the cleaning crew to think that Anjanette was a whore. He admitted putting the condoms in her car.
That is when Erhardt misstated his timeline, Best points out.
“That gets him,” Best said. “Think about it. The car is gone on Monday when she kicked him out. He claims he never saw her again. Then he cleaned out her room on Wednesday, but he didn’t clean it out Wednesday. He cleaned it after he killed her. Because how could he get those condoms in her car if she drives away on Monday and he never saw her again? He’s stuck. He’s guilty as sin.”
Best cobbled this information together years later. By then, Erhardt and his wife were living outside Louisville, Kentucky, with several of his children nearby. If he ever had the opportunity to interview Erhardt, Best planned to confront him with this contradiction.
During every case, certain leads become irrelevant. In his initial interview, Erhardt mentioned that he went hunting on state land in Great Valley, south of Ellicottville, and had a camp nearby. Could Anjanette’s body have been moved there? Searches were conducted, but nothing was discovered. Best and current Hamburg Detective Sergeant Howard Widman believe that was simply a diversion that steered the original investigation off-track.
There was still nothing concrete to prove Erhardt was the killer. Dan Erhardt, who had brought Anjanette to Buffalo when they were dating, was summoned back from Michigan for a police interview. He and his sister, Donna, had no information about Anjanette’s disappearance in 1994, and were not eager to talk. They believed their father was being harassed by police, according to Best’s reading of the file. Norma, Erhardt’s wife, was not cooperative either, believing that her husband was not involved.
The case lingered for several years, with little movement. But then an unusual event signaled that there might be hope.
“In 2001 or 2002, we get a call from Andrew Siff, who was a reporter at Channel 7,” Best said. “He wanted to bring Hamburg Police on board because he had been getting calls from a guy named Doug Erhardt, who lived in Louisville. Doug was Ron’s son.”
Doug claimed that he possessed information to help solve the case. He knew that his father had killed Anjanette.
“Another investigator and I went to the WKBW studios and did controlled calls,” Best recalled. “We worked with Andrew Siff and tried to get this guy to give up more information. ‘We get that you’re his son,’ we said, ‘but how do you know all this?’”
Doug remained frightened by his father.
“If I start talking,” he said, “my father will kill me. He’s nasty and manipulative. If he finds out we’re speaking, I’m dead.”
Investigators’ excitement grew. With an inside track like this, perhaps there was a way to close the case. They spoke a few times, but no breakthroughs occurred.
“Within a week, the conversations stopped abruptly,” Best recalled. “There were no answers, nothing. Turns out Douglas was dead at 40 years old. He was a big guy, 400 pounds, and he was having chest pains at a car dealership. He had a heart attack on the drive home, and crashed into a telephone pole. We looked into whether his father learned that he was talking to police and then killed him, but that didn’t happen. It was good while it lasted, but that avenue was done.”
The investigation halted again. Another decade would pass.
Erhardt’s children, revisited
By 2012, Anjanette Piotrowski’s disappearance had remained unsolved for 18 years. Her family had stayed in contact with Hamburg Police, and Anjanette’s father was battling cancer, nearing the end of his life. Best had mapped out a plan to retire the following year, and yearned to close the investigation, finally bringing answers to the Piotrowski family.
“I took a deep dive into the cold case files,” he said. “It hadn’t been done for ten years. I decided I was going to take a shot and do what I could. I believed that we already had enough within the law for a kidnapping statute against Erhardt, but the District Attorney wouldn’t take it.”
David Erhardt, Ron’s youngest son, was the only family member who remained in Western New York.
“I called him to explain what I was doing,” Best said. “It was unorthodox, but I wanted to show David video from the interview his father gave us in 1994. I was trying to get him to buy in. His father was old and sickly, in his late 70s. How much longer was [Erhardt] going to live? What did we have to lose at that point?”
David had been a teen at the time of Anjanette’s disappearance. In 1994, he had lived in the same house with his parents and her, but claimed to not remember much. Once David visited the Hamburg police station and viewed the interview, he told Best that his father had put up a front in 1994.
“David bought in right away,” Best said. “He saw Ron saying ‘I loved her, she’s like a daughter to me.’ None of this made sense. David said his father was manipulative and controlling, a real nasty guy. Everyone in the family was scared of him.”
Best and a fellow detective, Tom Brown, traveled to Louisville, where Erhardt lived with his wife. Two of his children, Dan and Donna, had homes nearby.
“We knock on Dan’s door and introduce ourselves,” Best recalled. “We tell him we want to talk. He’s on his way to work, so we ask if we can schedule a time to meet. He said, ‘I’ll call off work and we can talk now. Do you mind if I call my sister and invite her over too?’ So now Donna comes. These are Erhardt’s kids who are in their 40s and 50s.”
Once everyone was assembled, Best and Brown explained their mission.
“We presenting you the entire case,” Best told them. “No secrets. We’re holding nothing back. We want your input so we can solve this.”
Dan and Donna watched their father’s original interview in awe, according to Best. Donna, who had not been interested in cooperating with authorities years before, changed her attitude.
“Oh my God,” she said, watching her father on video. “He did it. He did it.”
With prodding, Donna agreed to bring her mother into her husband’s chiropractic office the next day, where police could talk to Norma, without Ron’s interference.
“[Norma] wouldn’t buy in,” Best said. “She wasn’t denying it, but she was afraid. She was intimidated and scared. But all three kids were telling us we’ve got the right guy. Seeing that interview, that wasn’t the father they knew. None of them were saying, ‘Not our father. He didn’t do it. You’re crazy.’ They know he did it.”
Energized by these revelations, detectives knew it was time to confront Erhardt again.
Second Interview: Louisville 2012
Erhardt’s daughter told detectives that on Wednesday, April 25, 2012, her father had scheduled an appointment at a nearby garage to have new tires installed on his car, and that he planned to wait in the lobby while the work was done. Best and Brown met him there, introduced themselves, and invited him to the Louisville Metro Police Station for a voluntary interview. Dressed in plaid pants with dark shoes and white socks, Erhardt wore an overcoat with different colored sleeves and a green baseball cap. Nearly 18 years had passed since his first interview at the Hamburg Police Station. Then, he was upbeat and boisterous. Now 79, he appeared older, physically frail, although his voice remained strong.
Sitting in the interview room, Erhardt was offered food and drink. This is common practice, so a defense attorney cannot allege later that a client has been mistreated. He was recorded alone for a stretch of time before Brown entered. Brown, a big man, spoke with an even demeanor, but was experienced with using his size to intimidate a suspect. Before the day ended, he would employ this tactic as a last resort.
“Like I told you back at the car place, we’re here looking for help from you,” Brown began. “You seem to be [Anjanette’s] closest friend, confidant, the person who knew the most about her. Obviously, Dan brought her to Hamburg. That relationship was done by the time she disappeared. Back then, she was dating a couple different guys. Our whole purpose here is to try to put closure on this thing for her family. I know that you have no good feelings toward them.”
“I have no empathy for her family,” Erhardt agreed.
“A lot of people said you cared for her, tried to get her on the right track,” Brown continued. “You treated her as one of your own. You took her in, knowing she was a wayward soul. You tried to steer her in a direction where she could turn her life around and go down the right path. I don’t know if that was happening.”
Brown seemed empathetic to Erhardt, and Best would share that tactic once he entered the room. We understand you, they wanted to convey. They hoped that this would make it easier for Erhardt to explain his actions.
“Unfortunately, that broke my heart,” Erhardt said. “I had high hopes for her. First off I got her a job, drove her to and from work…”
“Where else can I go?” Brown wondered. “In my mind, I’m considering her dead. For the sake of Anjanette, I think she deserves a proper burial. The way that family has acted since then, they have a great amount of love for her.” Brown paused. His phone occasionally pinged with text messages from others watching the interview on closed-circuit TV, suggesting a specific fact or new line of questioning. “If you, through any means, ever found out where she was, you could tell me and that would be the end of it. If I could just find that body. We don’t care how it got there or who put it there. We just want to help the family bring closure.”
Erhardt did not pause to reflect. His answer came quickly.
“If I knew anything about where her body was, I’d spend every cent I had to find out who put it there. I’d devote my life to it and catch the son of a bitch. He’d get a f—ing bullet in his head. And that’s the f—ing truth.”
Brown noted the hypocrisy. “You said that before, though, and it never happened.”
“Eighteen years ago, well, I couldn’t do anything,” Erhardt explained, providing a litany of health issues he experienced then. “I loved her not in a man-woman way, but I loved her like somebody that comes into your life and you learn to love them for who they are. That was it. It’s hard to explain. I expected great things out of her. If I knew anything, I’d find out, but I don’t know.”
Brown, playing on Erhardt’s sympathy, said that he understood why Erhardt wouldn’t have helped the original investigators because they treated him so poorly. Erhardt agreed.
“I wouldn’t have told them shit. I would have really screwed them up and given them false information or false clues.” Mentioning one investigator by name, he said, “I would have gone out of my way to screw that son of a bitch. They came to my house with a search warrant. That was stupid because they didn’t even look in one of the closets. One of Anjanette’s coats was still there.”
Brown said he was optimistic that Anjanette’s body could be found.
“Good luck to you,” Erhardt said. “I hope you do someday.”
With Erhardt unwilling to admit anything, Brown tried a different tack.
“Do you know why Dan left?”
“He said ‘turn her out like a stray cat,’” Erhardt answered. “She’ll find a home.”
“What if I told you Dan saw you kissing her and fondling her breast?”
“I wouldn’t believe that. I wouldn’t believe that my son would say that.” Erhardt leaned back, as if to put space between himself and the accusation. “I’d call him misinformed.”
“That’s why he got up the next day and took off.”
“Oh no, that never happened. Do you think I would do that? I just don’t believe it. I’d have to see a picture of that for me to believe that.”
“Who’s got a picture of that?” Brown asked derisively.
“I can’t help what he told you. He might have had illusions to that at the time.”
Brown pointed out that such behavior was part of Erhardt’s pattern. He referenced that years later, the old man had made advances on Dan’s wife. Erhardt explained that away, claiming he caught Dan’s wife with another man in Germany and was only trying to help her find appliances for their apartment, until she “turned on him.”
“I never screwed around with Anjanette,” he claimed. “I don’t know… she may have kissed me."
“This was more than a one-way kiss,” Brown insisted. “He feels betrayed to this day because of actions you took that night. Your son, 50 years old now, is betrayed by what you did to him with Anjanette. It broke his heart. He knew it, but didn’t confront you and ran back to Michigan. Your children are all screwed up over this Anjanette thing. Donna lost her career because of her last name… Everything went down in flames. I talked to her yesterday. And it’s going to happen again, and now your grandkids are going to feel it. The reason we’re here is that [Anjanette’s] family has been in contact with our agency and the Erie County District Attorney. Dateline is picking up on it. There’s going to be a media storm. If we don’t nip this in the bud, and get that body and end it, they’re coming to Kentucky. [The media is] going to find out where you live.”
This was a fib. There was no interest from Dateline. Detectives hoped the idea of being exposed on national TV would cause Erhardt to reconsider. Yet he wouldn’t budge. At this point, Brown left the room, and Best assumed the lead role.
“You’re a private investigator,” he said, feeding Erhardt’s ego. “So I’m giving you everything I’ve got. We’re looking for closure. My goal is not to arrest you, ever. We’ll let you live out your life, let you heal your family issues and let Anjanette’s family heal. Let’s end this thing forever. Once we leave, we’re forced to take action. This is going to be presented to a grand jury.”
Best had no authority to promise that Erhardt would not be arrested. Nor were there plans for a grand jury. Using a carrot-and-stick, Best was hoping to glean information through any means possible.
“Dan is a mess,” he continued. “Enough is enough. For the closure of your family, what happened? Where is she? You’re an old man who’s sickly. I know you don’t believe in God, but God is going to deal with you down the line. If it was an accident, fine. We don’t need to know particulars. We just need to know where her body is. Should you not tell me, they’re going to drag you back, maybe never convict you, but you’re going to spend your days in a wing of the Erie County Holding Center under indictment for a murder or kidnapping charge. If you give the body up, we don’t do any of that. This is the deal of a lifetime, for you, for your family, for Anjanette’s family. I don’t think you ever wanted to kill her.”
“I don’t know if she’s dead or alive,” Erhardt claimed. “I had nothing to do with her disappearance.”
“I’m being as straightforward and honest as I can,” Best continued. “We’re not interested in you to prosecute you. Should you pass away, we have nothing. Your son and daughter looked at that tape of you from 1994 and said it was like Jekyll and Hyde. They couldn’t believe that was their father. At 79, you don’t want to go home without giving up where that body is. This is your last chance. I know it’s pride. You got away with it. You lied to so many people. I’m imploring you to say it now, because this is the last chance.”
“I’ll take whatever comes,” Erhardt said. “I don’t know what happened to her. I don’t know where she is… As much as I’m a gentleman, I’d tell you under these circumstances. I’d make you give me a signed statement that I wouldn’t be prosecuted. But I couldn’t do it.”
Erhardt asked Best to get his bag of medicines from the car, so the detective went outside and returned with a grocery bag of pills. Then Best spent 15 minutes going over evidence that Erhardt could not explain, including the contradiction of how used condoms from Anjanette’s motel room ended up in the backseat of her abandoned car. The older man was quiet, sucking his lips, as he contemplated.
“You’ll have to prove that in court,” Erhardt said.
“Easily provable, Ron,” Best said. But Erhardt still refused to confess.
“I’ve got to take my hat off to you,” Erhardt said. “I think you’re serious and I don’t think you’re scamming me. I have nothing to lie about, either.”
Brown returned to the room for a final attempt to sway Erhardt. This time his tone was sarcastic and aggressive. Brown leaned forward, employing his size to lessen the distance between them.
“You asked me in the car if I thought you were guilty,” Brown said. “I told you yes.”
“I accept that,” Erhardt said.
“You got away with it. You were able to avoid prosecution for 18 years. I give you credit for that. I think you take pride in being smart and calculating. You treated her like a girlfriend. She was your mistress. In your heart you felt for her like you felt with the other women you had on the side. But [because you were impotent] you couldn’t pull the trigger. You couldn’t have sex with her. Hug her, kiss her, fondle her breasts. In return, you got your ego fed. A 61-year-old guy who had a 21-year-old girl on his arm. I think you did her in. If you couldn’t have her, nobody else could. You’re going to get away with it until this District Attorney brings you back to Erie County.”
“And I’ll get away with it then,” Erhardt boasted. “If I was that smart, I’ll get away with it again. There’s no f—ing evidence.”
“We’re going to send you to ECMC three times a week to keep your old ass alive [on dialysis],” Brown needled. “Because you’re such a great guy, you’re going to make your family pay for it too.”
“I know that Erie County can’t afford that,” Erhardt taunted. “They’re in debt. They’re raising taxes. So you can prosecute me all you want.”
“They’ve got money for this, Ron,” Brown said. “Even the guys who are long retired, this case haunts them. You beat them. Good for you. You’re a smart guy. What’s the point if you can’t get the credit for getting away with it?”
“A person who does that wants to brag to someone about what they did,” Erhardt insisted. “Do you think I would have told somebody?”
“Who are you going to talk to? You don’t talk to your wife. You boss her around. Your kids don’t like you. They all want you gone, one way or the other. That’s why you have zero relationships. Your family always stays in the other room because you’re a miserable old man. Do you notice that your wife gets a lot more interaction with your kids than you do? They come and visit Norma, and not really Ron. Now, your three remaining children all know. We’ve showed them all the evidence that their father was responsible for this girl’s disappearance.”
“I’m going to call them all tomorrow and have a big conference and let them know the truth,” he said.
Brown hammered at him again, mocking him for claiming to be a colonel in the state of Kentucky. The title meant nothing, Brown spat, except to make Erhardt feel important. Brown promised that an indictment was coming.
“The day I get indicted, I’ll be dead the next day,” Erhardt said. “I’ll never get indicted.”
After several hours, it was clear that detectives were no closer to a confession. It wasn’t going to happen then. Reluctantly, Best helped Erhardt gather his bag of medicines, gave him another drink of water, and walked him outside, where he handed Erhardt his card.
“There had to be an ending point,” Best said. “Once Brown went in again, we knew that was our ending point. When [Erhardt] said ‘I’d have you put in writing that I won’t be prosecuted,’ I thought he was going to go. But he never did.”
Maybe upon arriving home, the old man might change his mind. Detectives were now relying on hope. Best is certain that Erhardt spent the next month “on pins and needles,” nervous about an imminent arrest and extradition back to Erie County.
“In the back of my head, I hoped that he would confess through a letter, or maybe even a letter that we would discover after he died. I know we got him thinking. Offering him no prosecution is unheard of.”
If Erhardt had confessed in Louisville, amid the promises Best and Brown made, could he still have been charged?
“It would have been interesting if he gave it up,” Best reflected. “What would our bosses have said to us? What would the media have done? Could the District Attorney even try charging him? Anjanette’s mother kept checking in with us. We were trying to get answers before Anjanette’s father died. I can’t imagine a family going through what they did, knowing their daughter is dead but not having answers.”
Back in Hamburg, a few weeks after their interview, Best and Brown each received an envelope with a return address from Kentucky. Inside, a form letter explained that the detectives had been nominated by Ronald Erhardt for their outstanding work. Because of that, Best and Brown had been awarded the title of colonel in Kentucky — the very thing Brown had mocked him about.
“Our interview was like a game to him,” Best recalled. “Cat and mouse. We went on for two or three hours with him, just battering him with details. When playing ‘good cop’ didn’t work, my partner tried to intimidate the guy by leaning across the table and raising his voice, but it was all a game. Erhardt had this aura like I’m beating you. Shortly after we got back to Buffalo, he wrote a letter saying ‘Recently I had an encounter with two Hamburg detectives, whose professionalism and dedication was impressive.’ He said we were polite and engaging. What a weirdo. He was playing sociopath.”
Ron Erhardt died in 2016, at age 83, of natural causes. All his secrets died with him. Anjanette Piotrowski’s body has never been found.
The case still lingers, unsolved. It bothers investigators. Officially, Anjanette is a missing person, although everyone is certain that she is dead. But that cannot be proven without a body or a confession.
“I was at the gym recently and started talking about being a retired detective,” Best said. “A guy asked me, ‘Do you have any regrets?’ I saw a lot on the job: murders, chopped-up bodies. None of that ever affected me like this. This case bugs the shit out of me. Where is she? Is she in the Niagara River? Probably not. Is she buried at his hunting camp? Probably not. If I was him, I’d have put her body near where he lives on Willet. Her death could have been an accident. He wasn’t known to have killed anybody else, and lived a decent life otherwise.”
Before Anjanette disappeared, Erhardt once told a co-worker that if he ever killed someone, he would bury the person in the median of a highway, because no one would ever search there. Did he find a secluded spot and park his car there to dig a grave? Is that when weeds and foliage were snagged against the undercarriage?
Anjanette’s DNA has been entered into federal databases. Whenever an abandoned body is discovered anywhere in the nation, it is tested. To date, there have been no matches with Anjanette.
“The more we talk and the more we consider, the body is around here,” Widman reflected. “There is no doubt in my mind that it’s somewhere in this area. If you believe in God, you have to believe that we’re going to get a chance to find this body. That’s probably what’s going to happen someday. It’s not like this is Jimmy Hoffa. Someone out there knows. It’s terrible that we’ve let this go for so long and that the Piotrowski family still doesn’t know what happened.”
Widman went so far as to consult a psychic, displaying photos of the people involved. After a reading, the psychic suggested it was time to re-interview David Erhardt, Ron’s youngest son. While not involved, the psychic believed that David was privy to everything that had happened in that house in 1994, watching the entire saga unfold in real time. Perhaps he knows more information that has not been revealed.
“So I talked with him a few months ago,” Widman said. “David said this whole experience still haunts his family. I’m not 100 percent sure that he’s told me everything he knows. He may be leaving something out.”
Hamburg Police wonder if this story might serve as a tipping point. Perhaps it will jog someone’s memory or trigger valuable information to resurface. Despite the passing time, they remain hopeful that the case might still be closed, despite Erhardt being dead.
“As a cold case investigator, the last thing I’d like to do is go to Kentucky,” Widman said. “I’d like to talk to Norma again. Now that his reign over her is done, he can’t physically hurt her or mentally abuse her anymore. Maybe we can pull at her heartstrings. Maybe she has a little bit of something that just doesn’t fit. That would be my last try at figuring this out.”
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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