Tips on whereabouts of LGH nurse missing since 2009 give family some hope

Toni Lee Sharpless, a nurse at Lancaster General Hospital, has been missing since 2009.

Someone has been talking to investigators - a lot - in recent weeks about a missing Lancaster General Hospital nurse.

Within the past month, investigators have received a flurry of tips about Toni Lee Sharpless, the nurse who disappeared in August 2009 after an evening out with a friend in Philadelphia.

Phone tips placed Sharpless or her car in Toronto and also South Dakota.

A cryptic letter tied Sharpless' disappearance to a New Jersey police officer, who supposedly fought with her, caused her death and later got rid of her car. (See below for the text of the letter.)

Police, however, have found no evidence of Sharpless or her car. They think at least two of the tips were hoaxes, and likely came from the same person.

Investigators and Sharpless' family are back to the same spot: stumped and hoping that Sharpless is alive and will surface.

"I just pray that she is," said West Brandywine Police Chief Walt Werner, whose Chester County department is investigating Sharpless' disappearance. "I don't want to assume anything at this point."

"It's like a roller coaster of emotion," said Sharpless' mother, Donna Knebel, of West Brandywine Township, who is caring for Sharpless' 15-year-old daughter.

The tips spurred hope, briefly, that some new information would surface about her daughter.

"It's just that your heart will skip a beat, you know," Knebel said. "I'm hoping this leads us down the right path."

Sharpless, then 29, disappeared in August 2009, after a night out with a friend. The two had gone to some nightclubs and then to the home of then-Philadelphia 76ers basketball player Willie Green.

The two women left Green's home, got into a disagreement and Sharpless ordered her friend out of her car and drove away.

Sharpless, who was living with her mother and stepfather at the time, has not been seen since early that morning, despite investigations by police and even a search of the nearby Schuylkill River by a search-and-recovery team that looked for her car.

A month after Sharpless' disappearance, a camera mounted on a police car parked in Camden, N.J., recorded a passing vehicle with Sharpless' license plate number, but the camera could not determine what state the plate was from. Police searched the area but never found her car, a black Pontiac Grand Prix.

Since then, an Investigation Discovery TV series has featured Sharpless' case, which has prompted some alleged sightings and tips.

A private detective, Eileen Law of Kennett Square, has taken on the case and fields periodic calls about it.

The recent tips about Sharpless all happened during a one-week period in early December, and came in the form of the letter, sent to Law, and two telephone calls, placed to West Brandywine Police.

Law said the one-page, unsigned letter, postmarked in Trenton, N.J., arrived in her mail Dec. 1. She opened it and found a sheet of lined yellow legal paper with an unusual tale.

The letter writer said a friend offered the writer $5,000 to move a car, a black Pontiac Grand Prix, from Brooklawn, N.J., to Boston, Mass., in September 2009.

The writer said a friend of his, "a cop in Camden got into a fight with a girl, she died and he needed to get the car out of Jersey."

In addition to the money, the letter writer also was offered the car's license plates and a Social Security card, which could be passed onto someone who wanted to "paper trip," or assume someone else's identity, the writer said.

The writer provided the last five numbers of the vehicle identification number from Sharpless' car, as well as her cell phone number and her license plate number.

"What happened to Tony," the writer said, misspelling Sharpless' first name, "I don't really know all I know is that she had a run in with the police and I was paid much needed cash to get the car to a shop in Boston."

Law said she knows of no Camden police officer connected to Sharpless.

Law turned over the letter to West Brandywine Police and also notified the New Jersey State Police and the New Jersey attorney general's office.

A New Jersey state police spokesman declined to comment, saying the investigation into Sharpless' death is not being conducted by the department. The attorney general's office said it forwarded the information to the Camden County District Attorney's office.

A call to a spokesman at the DA's office was not immediately returned, nor was a call to the Camden city spokesman.

Werner said West Brandywine police still are looking into the letter.

He also said police were able to debunk two telephone tips that they received from the same man, within the same week as Law received the letter.

In the first call, the man claimed to be from the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, an agency similar to the CIA, in Toronto.

The man said agents had found a car parked on their lot and traced the car to Sharpless, and that agents also had found someone who they believed to be Sharpless, and who matched her description.

The man provided an email address and phone number, and asked for photos of Sharpless.

The address and phone number, however, turned out to be false. Werner said police called the Toronto Police Department and could find no record of a woman matching Sharpless' description being detained or found there.

"They said it looks like a false complaint," Werner said. "I was pretty excited. I thought we had something going on. The guy had all the right answers. He was talking the police lingo, and he knew what to say."

Several days later, an officer in West Brandywine's radio room fielded a call that allegedly came from a sheriff's deputy in South Dakota. The deputy claimed that officers had recovered Sharpless' car there.

The man promised to fax information but never did. Police contacted the man's alleged department, but officers there had no knowledge of the car or the man.

"We did get a copy of the recording," Werner said. "It was the exact same guy I talked to (in the call from Toronto). He had an interesting voice, just the way he sounded."

Police and Law also both received another tip around that time, this one from a woman who had allegedly seen Sharpless in a Reading discount grocery store. But police checked a videotape from the store and could not see Sharpless on it.

Law said the recent tips have been a little disarming.

"I don't know if the letter is truthful," she said. "I just don't know."

She wonders how the letter writer got Sharpless' VIN and cellphone numbers.

Werner said the VIN is included in law-enforcement reports and is available to those who have access to them.

Knebel wonders if the false tips came from someone who heard about her daughter's case and has too much time on their hands.

But there's another possibility, too, she said.

"I'm hoping it's someone with a guilty conscience, who's coming forward," she said. "Hoaxes come in but they usually don't come in that late. It's been a little over three years. I'm hoping that they're sincere and there's something to them."

Somebody, she said, knows something.

Text of letter sent to private investigator

The following anonymous letter was sent to private investigtor Law. The letter is as it was received, with errors in capitalizations, punctuation and spelling. In two places, a phone number and vehicle indentification number have been omitted.

Dear Eileen law,

The police in Pa do not have a tip line. I tried calling the philly police where I live but they said it was not in their jurisdiction. One of the detectives pulled me aside and gave me your name and address. In the last few days of Sept. 2009 a friend in Camden called me and offered me money to move a car from Brooklawn NJ to Boston Mass. He told me he would pay me $5,000 dollars cash plus I could have the plates. He asked if I new anyone 27 or 29 that wanted to paper trip so he gave me a social security card. I drove the car a black 4 dr. Pontiac Grand Prix and drove to a auto body shop outside of Boston Mass. I took off the plates and with a black magic marker wrote down the last five digits of the VIN number and cleared out the glove box. I came back to Camden a day later and he told me that the car was not stolen but missing. He said a friend of his a cop in Camden got into a fight with a girl, she died and he needed to get the car out of Jersey. About a month ago my daughter was playing in the garage and found the box with the plates & S.S. card I had forgotten all about it. The plates are DND7772 the S.S. card.(Sharpless' cell phone number was written here) and the last 5 digits of the VIN are (the last five numbers of Sharpless' vehicle's identification number was written here). Because of hurricane Sandy I had to visit Jersey to help friends clean up. I decided to drop you this letter. What happened to Tony I don't really know all I know is that she had a run in with the police and I was paid much needed cash to get the car to a shop in Boston.

cstauffer@lnpnews.com