The following is part of a weekly series on unsolved homicides and suspected homicide cases in Fayette County and the surrounding area.
CANONSBURG — Sherry Coffey has a small, framed photo of her deceased mother on her desk that she cannot bear to look at while typing on the computer.
Betty McClellan was murdered March 22, 2009 in her Greene County home. Her 75th birthday would have been today.
“I can’t look at mom’s photo, at her face,” said Coffey, 44, of Canonsburg. “Seeing her face makes me sad and reminds that she is gone. I think about mom all the time. Seeing her picture brings back all those memories. Maybe it is best not to look at her so that I don’t have to deal with those feelings and be reminded that she is gone.”
Police continue to seek answers to a home invasion that left McClellan dead and her husband Jacob shot in the neck and face inside their home along a rural stretch of Richhill Township.
Police said a man approached the residence seeking aid. When Jacob McClellan suspected something was wrong, police said, he and the intruder got into a fight. Jacob McClellan was shot twice, left for dead. The armed man then went inside and shot Betty McClellan.
Jacob McClellan survived his injuries, so he hid behind some bushes and watched as the murderer fled the scene in a 1980s Ford Econoline van. He went back inside to see his wife dying in their bedroom.
Jacob McClellan would be treated and released from Allegheny General Hospital. Family members said he moved to West Virginia and they have not heard from him in a long time.
A shocked community mourned Betty McClellan’s death.
“There were over a 1,000 people who came through at the funeral home – that’s Greene County,” Coffey said. “There were three walls covered from floor to ceiling with flowers. There were people who said they waited in line for three hours to get in.”
Coffey’s older sister, Lisa Gerhart, 49, of Houston added, “I’ve never seen that many go through a funeral home. I was amazed at how many people came through the doors that knew her and I didn’t even know they knew her.”
A friend to all
Family members described Betty McClellan as someone who was everyone’s friend.
“I cannot tell you how many people said to me, ‘she was my best friend.’ So many people said that,” Coffey said.
Gerhart said, “She put everyone before herself.”
Family members said their mom served on countless class reunion boards for her alma mater, Claysville High School, which she graduated from in 1956. She was a West Greene High School marching band booster for 16 years.
“She supported us so much with that,” Coffey said. “She was at every game, concert.”
Betty McClellan’s first husband, Terry Amos, divorced her in 1976, so she had to raise four children — Sherry, Shelly, Lisa and David — on her own. Family members said times were tough, but their mom always prevailed.
Coffey recalls when the family moved to a new mobile home after her father left. The family was still waiting for electricity and water to be hooked up to the trailer.
“I remember that first night in the trailer with our mattresses on the floor,” she said. “There was a cooler filled with ice to keep milk cold. We camped out that first night. I will never forget that. I was 7 years old. ... She made an awful situation so great. That trailer had so many memories there.”
Graysville General Store is nestled at a crossroads deep in Greene County.
“Just mention her name there and they’ll tell you how much they loved her,” Coffey said.
The store’s old wooden floors have seen countless generations come and go. Memories of Betty McClellan echo to the present.
“She was a good person – everyone knew who she was,” said Stacie Marshall, a clerk at the store. “I’ve never heard anyone say anything bad about her.”
Pam Tucker, a longtime clerk and Betty McClellan’s cousin, described her as the type of person who “would give you the shirt off her back.”
The day before Betty McClellan was killed, she hosted an 80th birthday party for her sister, Waneta Wright, that dozens of family members and friends attended at the Graysville fire hall.
“She was one of those people that everyone knew, so it was a shock what happened,” Tucker said.
Tucker lives not too far from the crime scene on Stringtown Road.
“It scared everyone,” Tucker said. “You hear about that sort of thing in big cities. Here, we don’t have that.”
A photo of Betty McClellan still hangs on the wall of the restaurant that she managed for more than 20 years in Waynesburg. Donation cans are still on display for anyone wanting to contribute to the reward fund.
“Betty was the best of the best,” said Patty Friend, a longtime friend. “She loved people and being around the (Pennsylvania Livestock) auction. She was always there for the underdog and did her best to help those in need both spiritually and emotionally.”
Friend said she was devastated when she heard Betty McClellan had been killed.
“It doesn’t make any sense for this type of person to be murdered,” she said. “Betty really was a caring person for everyone who knew her, whether it was in Graysville or at the auction.”
A Christian woman
Family and friends described Betty McClellan as passionate about her faith. She attended Enon Baptist Church in West Finley for decades where she served as a deaconess, taught Sunday school, sang in the choir and published the church’s news letter and bulletin.
“She loved God and everyone knew that,” Coffey said. “She was not ashamed to let everyone know that. Every time we talk with people about mom, her love of the Lord comes up.”
Elmer Ealy, a deacon at the church for many years, said Betty McClellan rarely missed a church service.
“I think she got a lot of joy out of going to church,” said Ealy, 68, who grew up with McClellan. “It was a great shock to me and everyone else when this happened.”
Helen Dittman was a longtime pianist at the church before her family moved to Maryland.
“We grew up together, played together and worshiped together,” she said.
“Betty was sort of the sister that I never had. So when this happened, it was very much a shock. We were very close. I don’t understand how this could have happened.”
Dittman said she may have been the last person to talk with Betty McClellan before the tragedy.
“We talked for a good half hour or so,” she said. “She was telling me about some of our old friends that had been to her sister’s birthday party. It never occurred to me that this would be the last time I ever talked her again. Even though it has been a few years, I’m still sad about what happened and that she is gone. I feel sure that because of devotion to the church and her faith, that she is in a better place now.”
Betty McClellan’s faith helped to preserve her family.
“We all have strong faith in God,” Gerhart said. “I even had a friend who asked me, ‘Aren’t you mad at God for doing this?’ And I said, no, God is the only thing that got me through this and my church family.”
Coffey added, “If it was not for my faith, I don’t know how I would have gotten through this.”
The family is hopeful the case will be solved. Family and friends have raised more than $5,000 for a reward fund for information leading to an arrest.
“We’re trusting the police,” Gerhart said.
“We’re hopeful,” Coffey said. “There is some anxiety that if an arrest is made, and this goes to court and all, then we’re going to have to sit through all the details and live through that all over again.’
Coffey’s twin sister, Shelly James of Oakdale added, “But it’s closure. We want justice to prevail. That offers a sense of relief that somebody is not getting away with murder.”
The family patiently waits for answers, but hopes closure will happen sooner than later.
“I just hope we don’t have to wait 30 years like when you see those stories in the news where 30 years later the guy is caught,” Gerhart said. “I hope we don’t have to wait that long.”