WARREN — Like everyone else living through a pandemic, the Bish family has been forced to adapt.
“We’re just adjusting to our new normal,” Heather Bish said.
But nothing has been normal for the Bish family since that day 20 years ago when 16-year-old Molly Bish was abducted from her job as a lifeguard at Comins Pond in Warren. Her remains were found three years later by a hunter, in a section of Palmer just 2 ½ miles from where she was taken.
Since June 27, 2000, the day Molly disappeared, the idea of normal stopped for the Bish family.
Her abduction and murder, and the knowledge that the killer is still out there and so far has escaped justice, has left the family to bear the twin weights of tragic loss and a lack of closure.
“It’s 20 years later but it still seems like yesterday,” Heather Bish said. “I’m still living with my sister’s killer still being out there.”
Each year for the last several years, the Bish family has arranged a public vigil in remembrance of Molly.
This year, with people quarantined and practicing social distancing because of COVID-19, the Bish family is trying something new, to both remember Molly and and remind people that her killer is still at large.
On the evening of the anniversary, Heather Bish will drive her parents, John and Magi, along the route from their home on South Street in Warren to Comins Pond.
It is the same route taken 20 years ago when Molly was dropped off for work, just her eighth day on the job.
To mark the anniversary, the community is being asked to light the way for the family.
Residents along the circular route to and from the pond, along Main Street and Crouch Street, are being asked to have candles in their windows or outside lights turned on when the Bish family drives by.
Also, throughout the day, children and families are invited to make “kindness rocks” — stones that have been painted and then inscribed with an inspirational message — and drop them off at the Bish home on South Street.
Magi Bish will use them to decorate her gardens.
“It’s just a nice way to memorialize Molly,” she said. “She was kind and outgoing.”
And people are invited to share their memories and thoughts of Molly on social media throughout the day, using the hashtag #justiceformollybish.
Heather Bish said the effort is an opportunity to remember Molly and publicize the fact that her murder remains unsolved. But it is also intended as a way for people to show appreciation to her parents for the work they have done as advocates for child safety in the years since Molly’s death.
John and Magi Bish founded the Molly Bish Foundation, which has worked to raise awareness of child safety and abductions. The foundation has helped to have fingerprint and photo records of thousands of children.
They’ve helped create the Molly Bish Center for the Protection of Children and the Elderly at Anna Maria College in Paxton. And they have testified before the state legislature about laws involving sex offender registration and notification, and redesigning state license plates to make them easier to see and to remember.
In recent years, as both her parents developed health issues — John Bish had a stroke in 2007, Magi Bish had back surgery two years ago — Heather has taken a large role in carrying on her parent’s mission.
She runs the foundation and serves as the main spokeswoman for the family in their non-stop mission to find Molly’s killer.
Magi Bish dropped Molly off at the pond around 9:45 a.m. as she had each morning during her daughter’s week as a lifeguard.
About 25 minutes later, the first swimmers arrived and found no lifeguard.
Her shoes, a medical kit, water bottle and police radio were found on the lifeguard chair but Molly had disappeared.
What happened in those 25 minutes remains unknown.
The initial story in the June 28 edition of The Republican describes police searching in the pond, and the woods and trails nearby. A helicopter and police dogs aided in the search but found nothing.
In that first story, Molly’s absence is described as a disappearance, and not necessarily as a criminal act, although the state police captain in charge of the search said, “The possibility of abduction is there.”
The same article quotes a friend of Molly who said he did not think she should have been working alone. He said a middle-age man in a white Chevy Corsica that no one knew had been seen hanging around in the parking lot in recent days, staring at Molly.
Magi Bish would recall later that on the day before Molly disappeared, a man smoking a cigarette was sitting in a white car when she dropped Molly off. One of the unanswered questions in the case is what if the same man came back the next day and abducted Molly?
With the help of a sketch artist, Magi Bish described a middle-aged man with a mustache and hair combed off his forehead.
Based on the sketch, police questioned several men. One of them was a man named Rodney Stanger, who used to fish and hunt in the area. Stanger in 2010 was sentenced to 25 years in prison for the fatal stabbing of a woman two years earlier.
Massachusetts authorities have interviewed him several times at his prison in Florida, but he has denied involvement in the Bish case.
Heather Bish said that looking back, an abduction was perhaps the furthest thing from anyone’s mind. It was a different time.
Heather Bish said police on that first day did not think to preserve the crime scene. Indeed, they did not think at first that there had been a crime.
“They assumed she had gone off with one of her friends, even though she did not take her shoes,” she said.
Today, a teen missing under mysterious circumstances would trigger a different police response, perhaps even an Amber Alert, which would broadcast information to police and the media across the region. That’s what happened in a recent Springfield case, in which an abducted girl was rescued hours later.
At the time of Molly’s abduction, Amber Alerts were still three years away from being rolled out across the country.
“In 20 years, we have learned so much,” Heather Bish said. “In 20 years, so much has come out — but unfortunately not the guy responsible.”
‘I’m hopeful it will be solved’
The Bish case remains an active investigation in Worcester County, and work is ongoing in trying to find Molly’s killer, said District Attorney Joseph D. Early Jr.
“The Molly Bish case is turning 20 years old, but the tips still come in every week and every tip is followed up on,” Early said. “We have had many items tested for DNA over the years and we continue to do so. This case is very active and a tremendous amount of work is being done. I’m hopeful it will be solved.”
He said investigators with his office are continually thinking of the Bish family, saying “They motivate us each and every day.”
Anyone With information about the Molly Bish case should call the State Police tip line at 508-453-7575.
Heather Bish said, of course, she followed the turn of events in the investigation into the 1992 abduction and murder of Lisa Ziegert in Agawam.
Ziegert was taken from the shop where she worked, and her body was found in the woods a few days later. The case had been unsolved for 25 years until a breakthrough with DNA led investigators to charge a suspect, Gary Schara, in 2017.
In September, Schara pleaded guilty to first-degree murder and was sentenced to life in prison.
Heather Bish said she loved the work the office of Hampden District Attorney Anthony Gulluni did to identify and convict Ziegert’s killer. She continues to hope a similar breakthrough will emerge in her sister’s case.
Through the Molly Bish Foundation, she has been petitioning the legislature to change the law regarding how police may use DNA to identify suspects.
As it stands now, police run a sample of DNA through a national database to find an exact match. If an exact match is found, it can be used to identify a suspect.
Bish favors amending the law to allow police to use partial matches, or what are known as familial DNA matches, when searching through the DNA database.
Say, for example, that a DNA sample does not lead to an exact match in the database, but returns a hit on a DNA record that is pretty close — so close that it’s likely a family member, a possible brother, cousin or offspring. With that information, investigators could use the partial match to narrow their search.
“It’s a tool for pointing police in the right direction,” Heather Bish said.
Fourteen states allow familial DNA searches. Massachusetts is not one of them.
She is hoping the legislature takes up the bill in its next session.
Now 20 years since she last saw her sister, Heather Bish says she is constantly reminded of Molly.
She sees her both in the face and in the mannerisms of her daughter, who turns 21 next month. And she sees her in the faces of Molly’s friends, who are now all grown up and have families of their own.
“I miss my sister as much today as I did the day after she went missing,” she said.
As long as the question of who killed Molly remains a mystery, Heather Bish said, it is as if the family is locked into a story “that continues without an end or an answer.”