Elderly couple found frozen to death after getting lost during drive

By Mary Pat Flaherty
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 13, 2011; 12:00 AM

Jo Rinehart arrived at her parents' home and knew the empty driveway and locked house were bad signs. When she went inside, she saw that her mother's cellphone had been forgotten on a kitchen counter. It was filled with worried, frantic and plaintive messages from Rinehart and her siblings, all left in the previous 12 hours.

"Did you make it home?"

"Where are you?"

"Call us."

"We're coming to your house."

Rinehart's parents, William Fresch, 85, and his wife, Betty, 79, had not been seen or heard from since about 5:15 p.m. Friday, when they left Rinehart's home in Mechanicsburg, Pa., for what was usually a 40-minute drive back to their house in Shippensburg, Pa., 25 miles north of the Maryland border.

The grown children had brokered a deal that might sound all too familiar to adult children trying to protect - and yet, respect - aging parents. The Fresches could keep their car, but drive only to Rinehart's home or around Shippensburg, and only if they called to say they had made it back home safely.

It was a trade-off, but one that seemed to have worked over the past couple of years, Rinehart said.

After she didn't find her parents at their house, Rinehart, 54, and her husband called police, who put out a regional alert for the couple. Rinehart and her husband talked to reporters, posted her parents' pictures on Facebook and searched roadways themselves, even going up in a private helicopter Tuesday to scour the area.

By 11 a.m. Tuesday, their wait was over,

Her parents' bodies had been found. Authorities think William and Betty froze to death in a steep farm field off rural Gene Hemp Road in Frederick County, Md.

A passerby who had spotted the couple's red Honda Accord, stuck in a field with a deep pitch and a ravine, tracked footprints and found the bodies a few hundred yards away from the road, said Cpl. Jennifer Bailey, a spokeswoman for the Frederick County Sheriff's Department.

The couple overshot the route to their home by about 60 miles, winding up south of where they had intended to go.

Their bodies were lying there, separated by about 30 yards. She was farthest from the car, which she had been driving, as if she had gone for help as the sturdier of the pair, police said. When she didn't return, her husband of 58 years apparently went looking for her, leaning on a cane he used to get around, said Cpl. Jason West, the lead investigator on the case.

She was still in her peacoat, jeans and pink sweat shirt. He was in a brown suede coat, pants and a blue baseball cap with a canoe logo.

An open gate in the fencing at the field might have looked like a driveway to a lost couple, "but we'll never know," West said.

Their bodies showed no signs of violent injuries and were found near the still-upright car, where Betty Fresch's purse was untouched inside, Bailey said. Given those details, neither foul play nor an accident was suspected, Bailey said. The Maryland chief medical examiner in Baltimore is expected to determine the causes of the deaths after autopsies Wednesday. Temperatures were in the mid-20s overnight Friday in Frederick.

"They went off the road. We don't know how long they were there or how they got there, but from what we know now, it appears they froze to death," Bailey said. "We want to bring cases to resolution for families, but this one is so tragic, even for us."

As she spoke from her parents' home, Rinehart said once, and then again: "We didn't realize it was time to do more. We didn't realize it was time. . . . Oh, the second-guessing that is running through our minds."

Decades ago, the Fresch family lived in Rockville and ran the Rockville Trading Post. They sold the business and eventually moved to Shippensburg.

During the summer, signs of forgetfulness had surfaced in William Fresch, so his wife started doing more of the driving. They had gotten lost on a trip to see their son Paul, 50, in Ohio, Rinehart said.

The Fresches were almost to their son's home but drove for hours before asking for directions. Even then, they could not find the house, so they turned around and drove overnight to get back to Pennsylvania, Rinehart said.

That is when the negotiating started.

"It's hard to get people to do something they don't want to do," Rinehart said, "but we thought we had a system."

For big events, the family would gather at Rinehart's home, with the three surviving siblings and their families. The Fresches would drive there, and they agreed to call immediately after getting back to Shippensburg.

They made that trip for a quick visit at least once a week. The family can recite which roads and turns they usually took and where and how long they might be having dinner if they had decided to stop on the way home. There had not been any big problems, Rinehart said.

The family had planned a birthday party for William Fresch for Sunday, but the couple got confused about the date and showed up Friday instead, Rinehart said. They played a board game with Rinehart and her husband, one that William Fresch had devised and carved from wood that was similar to Parcheesi, she said.

"We laughed and had a good time, and then they decided to go home," Rinehart said. "Mom always was up for staying for dinner and overnight. Dad was the one who would say, 'I'd like to get home to sleep in my own bed.' "

Until Tuesday morning, Rinehart said, "I thought the waiting was the worst part."

On Wednesday, her father would have turned 86.

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