Trial opens in rape, killing of teenager - 33 years later

Robert Sanders, George Shaw, charged in connection with 14-year-old. Photos at time of arrest.

Robert Rowan remembered the day he had to identify the remains of his 14-year-old daughter.

“Just a skeleton,” he said in emotional testimony in Bucks County Court. “How would it affect anybody? Your only child.”

It’s been 33 years since the day Barbara Rowan’s body was found.

On Tuesday, the trial of George Franz Shaw, 56, of Geneva, Fla. began in the 1984 rape and killing of the teenager.

It was a cold case that detectives had prodded for years, until a 2015 grand jury investigation provided evidence that allowed prosecutors to file charges. In October 2015, Shaw was arrested.

Rowan and his wife, Patricia Rowan, both recalled on the witness stand the day Barbara went missing, and their frantic search for their only child by foot and car.

Barbara Rowan, 14-year-old victim of 1984 killing.

It was Aug. 3, 1984, and Barbara had been playing outside in the trailer park on Old Lincoln Highway where the family lived. Her father was at work laying concrete, her mother was inside sewing curtains for the trailer. But Barbara’s curfew came and went that night, and she did not come home.

“Everybody come out looking for her,” Robert Rowan said.

It wasn’t until 13 days later that her badly decomposed remains were found in a wooded area of Bensalem Township.

The family was “a total mess” when they found out, said Barbara’s aunt, Ruth Zalinski, beginning to cry on the stand.

Barbara Rowan was a shy, immature girl who was petite and behind others her age in behavior, preferring to play with younger kids, said her parents and others who knew her, all testifying Tuesday. She sought attention and was chatty, but she was naive.

“She was just sweet, you know. She was innocent,” said Jessie Disney Diaz, 48, who became best friends with the victim in the year before the killing. “She was nonthreatening.”

Witnesses Tuesday described several incidents that placed the victim in the company of Shaw or an older man.

Her friends and family said that she sometimes babysat, and Shaw’s landlord, Alwyn Gougler, said he had seen the girl playing with a younger girl at the building where Shaw lived with his wife and 2-year-old daughter.

On the day Rowan disappeared, witness Timothy Johnson said, he came to the apartment building to purchase a car from a tenant, when he encountered a girl who introduced herself as Barbara coming out of Shaw’s front door. Then, he testified, an older man came out behind her, wearing no shirt, sweating, and looking as if he was on drugs.

On Aug. 16, David S. Watkins Sr. discovered the body in a wooded area on Route 1 near his house while he was looking for his dogs who had gotten loose. “I [hit] my foot on what I thought was a log or a stick,” Watkins said in court. “I looked down, saw the body, came to a realization of exactly what I was looking at. … I got sick to my stomach.”

The body was decayed, with hair off the skull, and only wearing a shirt. The arms and legs were tied with tape and there was duct tape above the shirt collar, testified retired Detective Robert Potts, who responded to the discovery that day.

After Rowan disappeared, Shaw’s family moved out of their apartment without giving notice, although they had only begun their one-year lease the month before, testified Gougler.

Shaw maintains that he’s innocent. Although the families had lived near each other, he had nothing to do with the crime, said his attorney, Louis Busico.

“He didn’t do it. It wasn’t him,” Busico said after Tuesday’s proceedings. “This young girl sadly and horrifically was killed by someone else.”

Shaw wore a black suit in the courtroom Tuesday, with several family members watching. One of them waved to him before the proceedings, and he blew her a kiss.

The charges against Shaw are based on the grand jury testimony of Robert Sanders, of Willow Grove, who had long kept mum to investigators, but revealed in the grand jury investigation that he had been in Shaw’s apartment when Rowan was killed and that the two men had put her body into the trunk of Shaw’s car.

Sanders, 53, pleaded guilty in February to obstructing the long investigation and awaits sentencing.

He is expected to testify at Shaw’s trial by judge, which is set to continue into next week.