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Homicide Trial Opens in 1984 Slaying of Bensalem Girl, 14

July 18, 2017

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Contact: Jennifer Schorn, 215.348.6337,
jmschorn@buckscounty.org

Barbara Rowan edited George Shaw
       Barbara Rowan                George Shaw

A Bucks County courtroom was transported 33 years back in time today as the long-unsolved, 1984 slaying of 14-year-old Barbara Rowan finally went to trial.

Accused of raping and murdering the slight, red-haired Bensalem girl and dumping her corpse in the nearby woods along U.S. 1 is George Shaw, 56, of Geneva, Fla.

Long regarded as a suspect, the former Bensalem resident was not arrested until October 2015, after a Montgomery County man told authorities he was in Shaw's apartment when Barbara was killed and that he helped Shaw dispose of the body that night.

The case is being tried without a jury, at Shaw's choosing, before Common Pleas Court Judge Wallace H. Bateman Jr.

Witnesses who were young adults when the slaying occurred took the witness stand today with heads gone gray or bald and sometimes halting gaits.

They told of a time when transistor radios preceded cell phones; when methamphetamine, not opioids, flooded the streets; and of a night in early August when a shy but trusting young teen vanished from her sheltered world along Old Lincoln Highway in the Trevose section of Bensalem.

On Aug. 3, 1984, Barbara missed her strict curfew of no later than 7 p.m. - a rare occurrence, testified her mother, Patricia Rowan.

"I get alarmed when she's five minutes late," the stay-at-home seamstress added, saying she set out immediately to look for her daughter in the trailer park where they lived, the nearby motel where Barbara's best friend resided, and many points between and beyond.

Her husband, Robert, who scraped out a living as a handyman, joined the search soon afterward, knocking on doors and showing Barbara's photo to everyone he encountered. At one point, he testified, he knocked on the door of Shaw's apartment in a large, cut-up home midway between the trailer park and motel, and asked two men inside about his daughter. 

Something about the men struck him wrong, he said. "I started to walk away and said, `I'm gonna call the cops!'" in a loud voice. "I think everybody had to hear it."

Robert Sanders, 53, of Willow Grove, has admitted to authorities that he was at the door when Robert Rowan confronted him. After years of concealing his role in the crime, prosecutors say, Sanders confessed in 2015 that he and Shaw were meth addicts who had gone to Shaw's apartment to shoot up when the murder occurred.

Shaw told Sanders that he had given his "babysitter" a date-rape drug, court records allege. Sanders told authorities he saw Shaw walk Barbara into his bedroom and close the door behind them.

According to court documents, Sanders said he heard banging noises coming from the room, after which a panicked Shaw emerged, saying repeatedly, "I (messed) up." Sanders told authorities he looked into the room and saw Barbara lying motionless on the bed.

Sanders is awaiting sentencing after pleading guilty in February to two felony counts of hindering the investigation by lying to police and by helping Shaw hide the body. He is expected to testify later in the trial, which prosecutors say will last into next week.

Timothy Johnson, 51, testified that he was 18, living in Trevose and looking to buy a used Chevy Nova from Shaw's neighbor the day Barbara disappeared. After hearing about the car being for sale, Johnson said, he and his girlfriend went after work to the Nova owner's apartment, whose entrance was next to Shaw's unit, and banged on the door.

The neighbor didn't answer, Johnson said. Instead, a young, red-haired girl opened the door of Shaw's unit. "She said her name was Barbara," he said. 

Almost immediately, a burly, shirtless man appeared behind the girl, Johnson said. He described the man as sweating, fidgety and with bulging eyes, comparing him to people he had seen who were high on meth. 

"He just said (the neighbor) wasn't home and the car was sold, like he was trying to rush us away," Johnson said. 

The owner of the rental property, Alwin Gougler, testified that Shaw and his wife, Lori, had moved into the apartment with their young child at the beginning of July 1984. Gougler, who owns an auto body business across the street, said he remembered seeing Barbara playing in the front yard with a small child.

The Shaws moved out without notice in August, Gougler said, not long after Barbara vanished. "They just disappeared," he said.

So did Barbara Rowan, despite a massive search for her, until the evening of Aug. 16, 1984.

David Watkins, who lived on North River Drive, less than a mile from Shaw's apartment, testified that he was searching in the woods that evening for his two dogs, who had gotten loose from his property. After trudging along the Neshaminy Creek, Watkins said, he was walking back from U.S. 1 when "I locked my foot on what I thought was a log or a stick."

He looked down to see the badly decomposed remains of a small body later identified as Barbara's.

Police found the victim's arms bound behind her back with tape, her feet taped together, and a third strand of tape in the neck area, testified Robert Potts, a retired Bucks County detective who worked for Bensalem police at the time. An autopsy determined that Barbara had died of asphyxiation.

Losing their daughter devastated the Rowans, the couple testified.

"How would it affect anybody? That was my only child," Robert Rowan said through tears. 

"Bob always wanted a little girl, and that was what he got," Patricia Rowan said. "She was his companion. Barbara could do no wrong to him ... He became an angry man."

Testimony is expected to resume at 10 a.m. Wednesday.

Approved for release by Jennifer M. Schorn, Deputy District Attorney.    

Office of the District Attorney
Bucks County Justice Center
100 N. Main Street
Doylestown, PA 18901 
Phone: 215-348-6344 
Fax: 215-348-6299

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