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Criminal: Finding Sarah And Philip

illustration of grass
Julienne Alexander
Finding Sarah and Philip

Some mysteries take years to solve, and a certain type of person to solve them. In this week's Criminal podcast we'll hear of a steadfast woman who made it her personal mission to find the missing bodies of two children she'd known only from stories on the news.

Host Phoebe Judge recounted the crime: Manuel Gehring of New Hampshire was embroiled in a bitter custody battle with his ex-wife. Their children, Sarah, 14, and Philip, 11, were staying with their father for the weekend, but he never returned them home. He shot the children, and drove their bodies into the Midwest, where he buried them in unmarked graves.

Judge said the FBI caught Gehring, but they couldn't find the children's bodies.

"Manuel forgot where he buried them," said Judge. "They never found the bodies and Manuel killed himself in his jail cell."

The children's mother, Teri Knight, launched her own search for their remains. She drove around the Midwest holding press conferences, hoping to enlist help from the public. Around that time, the Bureau released a crude map Gehring had drawn of the burial site.

The story caught the interest of an Ohio woman named Stephanie Dietrich.

"He gave them a list of about 10 things that they would find on the property: A pile of dried firewood, some slabs of irregular cement, six-foot-tall grass. There was a pump with a green handle. There was a chain-link fence," Dietrich recalled. "When you get out and start looking for this stuff, it's amazing the places that have all the same things."

Dietrich was no detective; she worked part-time at a grocery store. Still, she thought the crime scene sounded like some of the sites around her home in rural Ohio. So when she went for walks with her dog, Ricco, they dedicated their outings to the search effort.

Dietrich would carry a shovel on her jaunts around these empty lots, digging for clues. She admits to eventually becoming obsessed, sometimes giving up work shifts to continue the hunt. Dietrict frequently called updates in to incredulous investigators at the FBI.

"When you get a man detective they're like, 'Why are you doing this? What interest do you have in doing this?" Dietrich recounted. "They just didn't understand it. A lot people don't understand it. I just think it's the way some people are wired. People that understand it understand it and people that don't never will."

She and Ricco explored open lots in nearby Ohio towns for months, until one day she recognized a tree that looked especially like one Manuel Gehring had described to authorities. Ricco began acting strangely, and Dietrich began to dig.

It was then that she uncovered a garbage bag wrapped in duct tape. She called the police, who exhumed the bodies of Philip and Sarah Gehring.

Jeffery Strelzin is the senior assistant attorney general and chief of the homicide unit at the New Hampshire Attorney General’s Office. He said Stephanie Dietrich's unconventional dedication to the search made all the difference in finding them.

"Typically people just read stuff online and don't really do things," said Strelzin. "What Stephanie did is she got out there and then she put her feet to the ground. She didn't just read stuff online, she got out there and looked at places. That's pretty unique."

Phoebe Judge said the discovery of the children's bodies brought some closure to Teri Knight, who'd been looking for her children for years. Knight visited Dietrich in Ohio, and brought Ricco a bone as a token of gratitude.

You can hear more about Stephanie Dietrich and her dog, Ricco, on this week's Criminal podcast.

Criminal is recorded at WUNC.

Eric Hodge hosts WUNC’s broadcast of Morning Edition, and files reports for the North Carolina news segments of the broadcast. He started at the station in 2004 doing fill-in work on weekends and All Things Considered.
Phoebe Judge is an award-winning journalist whose work has been featured on a numerous national radio programs. She regularly conducts interviews and anchors WUNC's broadcast of Here & Now. Previously, Phoebe served as producer, reporter and guest host for the nationally distributed public radio program The Story. Earlier in her career, Phoebe reported from the gulf coast of Mississippi. She covered the BP oil spill and the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina for Mississippi Public Broadcasting and National Public Radio. Phoebe's work has won multiple Edward R. Murrow and Associated Press awards. Phoebe was born and raised in Chicago and is graduate of Bennington College and the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies.
Rebecca Martinez produces podcasts at WUNC. She’s been at the station since 2013, when she produced Morning Edition and reported for newscasts and radio features. Rebecca also serves on WUNC’s Inclusion, Diversity, Equity and Accountability (IDEA) Committee.
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