To this day Paul Gustafson remains convinced there are people out there who know what happened to Lori Ceci Bova.
That knowledge, he believes even now in retirement from the Lakewood-Busti Police Department, could finally help bring closure to a family that remains haunted by Lori’s disappearance nearly 25 years ago.
“I truly believe to this day that there are a few individuals in our community that could make that happen with the information they have,” Gustafson said of bringing that closure to the family.
When it comes to the June 1997 disappearance of then 26-year-old Lori, an event that brought the community together through numerous searches and which remains one of the more prominent cold cases in the county’s recent history, few have more insight than Gustafson. Although he retired as a sergeant investigator from Lakewood-Busti police in 2013, there isn’t a day that goes by he doesn’t think about Lori or the events that led up to her disappearance from her New York Avenue apartment in Lakewood.
“In my career I had many cases that I remember to this day,” he told The Post-Journal, “some high-profile and others not. Many things that I saw that I will never forget. With that said, the Lori Ceci Bova case is at the top and something I will never forget or stop thinking about.”
SEARCHES TURN UP EMPTY
Gustafson had a role in the case from Day 1 when, as a patrolman, he took a call around 11:15 a.m. on Sunday, June 8, 1997, to come to the office and take a missing person report. The report was filed by Lori’s husband, Tyrone Bova, a man who would become a person of interest in the case and remained so until his death in a 2018 vehicle crash in Utah.
Lori was last seen in public around 10:30 p.m. on June 7 when she, her husband, her sister and her brother-in-law went to dinner at Red Lobster on Fairmount Avenue in Lakewood. Tyrone Bova told Gustafson that he and Lori had gotten into an argument hours after that meal, around 2 a.m., prompting her to go out for a walk for which she never returned.
As the initial investigation unfolded, Gustafson was assigned as the case manager by then-Lakewood Busti Police Chief James Young. He handled the day-to-day leads and interviews with John Bentley, who in 1997 was a lieutenant with the police department and would later become its police chief.
“There were a number of officers and agencies involved and assisting in the investigation early on,” Gustafson said. “The investigation expanded very quickly in the early days with several leads and searches taking place. Information was being learned as to what developed up until the time Lori went missing and what may have been the cause for her disappearance.”
“As leads came in, they were followed up on and, in several circumstances, additional interviews and searched took place depending on the information,” he continued. “Over time, my position in the police department changed to the investigator to eventually a sergeant investigator; however, I remained the point person responsible for this investigation up until my retirement in October of 2013.”
The case took police to different parts of the county.
A dive team searched a portion of Chautauqua Lake near Lakewood the morning of June 10, 1997. On June 15, about a week after Lori was last seen, more than 120 volunteers gathered in the Chautauqua Mall parking lot for a morning search. Though nothing was found, the family expressed appreciation to the community.
“We were just overwhelmed,” said Bova’s sister, Renee Shutters, in an interview afterward. “People who had never met us and didn’t know us were there. I can’t believe how good it went off.”
She added: “We really need a break. We need a lead to really go somewhere. Right now, we’re just shooting in the dark. It’s hard to lead a big group without a place to go.”
The amount of public assistance didn’t go unnoticed by police.
“In the early days of the investigation we had a lot of support from the community as well as friends and family of Lori Bova,” Gustafson said. “Numerous searches were conducted across the region, both by law enforcement and community members. Search dogs were routinely involved as well as aerial searches.”
“The fact that we had a large amount of community support made a huge difference in what we were searching and accomplished at the time,” he continued. “The same goes for the leads that were coming in. Pieces of the puzzle were put together by the leads and different people that we talked to. Of course, as in any investigation, there were leads that led us to false outcomes and that was frustrating for not only us in law enforcement but also for the family and their hopes of finding Lori. But nevertheless, each lead was important and followed up on.”
Around June 21, just two weeks after Lori went missing, Tyrone Bova hired a Buffalo attorney, and by July Lakewood-Busti police said he was no longer cooperating with authorities. He would eventually move out of New York state.
Toward the end of July the family hired a psychic, Carol Pate, who was well-known at the time due to appearances on several nationally televised programs including “Unsolved Mysteries.” Pate told the family she didn’t believe Lori was still alive.
About two years later, the family sought the assistance of Sylvia Brown who said in an episode of “The Montel Williams Show” that Lori was in a pond in Connecticut.
All tips were appreciated. As Bentley said in July 1997 regarding Pate: “It is interesting and I’m willing to give any investigative tool a try.”
Investigators thought they had a solid lead in late September 1997 after a fisherman found what was believed to be human hair and a sweatshirt from Chautauqua Lake. The discovery led to extensive dragging operations that ultimately did not yield any new information to police.
Then in September 2006, hunters came across skeletal remains on state forest land in the town Arkwright. Dental records ultimately confirmed the remains were those of Yolanda Bindics, a 25-year-old Jamestown mother of four who had gone missing in August 2004.
Gustafson said there have been multiple persons of interest over the years. He added that because no body as ever been recovered, the case remains an open missing person investigation.
QUESTIONS LEFT UNANSWERED
For Bova’s family, it’s the not knowing that has been the hardest part. Jennifer Shields, Bova’s sister, noted that the years have gone by fast the last 24 years — leaving many questions still to be answered.
“You just go on doing everyday things like work, life in general,” Shields said. “Every birthday, anniversary date of her disappearance and holidays are the hardest — wondering who she would be today, what her kids would have looked like, what career would she have chosen. In my mind, she still is 26.”
Shutters said she and her husband put their lives on hold for four years when her sister went missing. She assumed a big break in the case was always just around the corner.
“There were so many different leads (it) seemed like it was going to bring us the answers,” she said. “We finally had to come to the realization that we may not ever find Lori. At that point, we finally decided to start a family of our own.”
But the biggest source of frustration over the years is “not knowing where she is and no solid leads,” Shields said.
Added her sister: “The not knowing, which provides no closure. There is no good way to pursue prosecution without a body, and the chance of double jeopardy should you not win the case.”
Shields said her fondest memory with her sister involves their time working together at Kay Jewelers. She said the pair had “the best time together and always laugh.” She said her sister had a great personality.
“She was the pillar of our family,” Shields said. “Life hasn’t been the same without her.”
Shutters admitted that Bova was the favorite in the family. She noted that her sister was always fun to be around and could “always make you feel better if you were down.”
She added: “She was so easy going, selfless and funny. My favorite memory of Lori was when she was 2 years old she decided to follow me to school after I left to walk to school because she missed me too much. She was my little shadow while growing up.”
IMPACT STILL FELT
Shields and Shutters said their sister’s disappearance has had a profound impact on the family. Shields now goes by the motto: “Life is too short to worry about the things that don’t matter. … Always remember life can be taken in a second.”
Shutters said the impact has been immeasurable.
“I saw my parents’ lives tore apart with grief,” she said. “Losing a child is devastating for anyone, and not having the closure just makes it that much more harder to cope with. I learned that this type of case is not as uncommon as I thought. I know that when she first went missing it was like I was watching my life as a spectator. It was so hard seeing life go on when I wanted everyone and everything to stop until we found her. Learning to trust God in all of this took my faith to a new level.”
The sisters hope someone with information regarding Lori and where she might be located comes forward — both to help finally move the case into a new phase and to bring some sort of closure for the family.
“Our family could not begin to repay anyone who has any information that could help us bring closure,” Shutters said.
Gustafson said any bit of information — even if it might seem trivial or not relevant to Lori’s disappearance — is valued by investigators. He said police depend on leads “in any type of case investigated.”
“Often people may not think that what they know or maybe saw is relevant, when in fact it may be a very important piece of the investigation,” he said. “Often, over my career in law enforcement, I would hear people say that they didn’t want bother the police with their information because they didn’t think it was relevant, or perhaps they were afraid to come forward.”
“I would urge anyone with information to relay that to law enforcement in a timely manner no matter how small or big it may be,” he said.
The Lakewood-Busti Police Department is located at 20 W. Summit St., Lakewood. Anyone with information regarding Lori Ceci Bova’s disappearance or know where she might be located is asked to contact the police department at (716) 763-9563. Information can be disclosed anonymously.