State police had a suspect in their sights for months in the killings of two of Alburtis' best-known residents, but very few knew it.
With the tiny town on edge after its first homicides ever, police tried to calm residents while they followed a trail of $100 bills from Pennsylvania to Florida.
The trail led them to Brandin Lee Kasick, 26, an unemployed man they say shouldn't have had that kind of money, who had been in Althea Walbert's Cobblestone Court home many times over the years in his job as a carpet cleaner.
Police interviewed Kasick by phone on March 17, less than a week after Walbert, 82, and her 59-year-old mentally challenged daughter, Jeannette, were found dead in their home. He denied knowing the Walberts, telling police he did "work for a lot of people" in the Alburtis area.
That day, police spoke to Kasick's girlfriend, who told them she was just about to dump a garbage bag containing the last of Kasick's belongings. The couple had two daughters from an on-again, off-again relationship, but she kicked him out of her Orefield home on March 11, the day the Walberts were found dead.
Police say that inside the garbage bag, they found a pair of blood-speckled sneakers. Last week, DNA experts confirmed that the blood belonged to one of the victims, and state police went to Florida to get Kasick.
On Sunday night, Kasick was arrested by Sarasota police, and he agreed Monday to be extradited to Lehigh County, where he will be charged in the killings and face the death penalty.
"We understand the anxiety these shocking deaths had on the tight-knit community of Alburtis and the public's need for answers in the deaths of two women who were well known and part of the fabric of the small community," Lehigh County District Attorney James B. Martin said at a Monday news conference.
"We are grateful for the public's patience while state police tracked leads, interviewed witnesses and collected evidence to ensure there was sufficient evidence for an arrest and a solid case."
Martin said he will seek the death penalty for Kasick, citing two aggravating circumstances — the number of victims and the commission of additional felonies.
Martin, state police Capt. William Teper and Alburtis police Chief Robert Palmer called the arrest one of the most satisfying in their many decades in law enforcement.
"This is a day many people have been waiting for in Alburtis," Palmer said.
The killings, the first in the borough's nearly 100-year history, led to fears among the residents about their safety and rumors about a murderer on the loose.
Since the Walberts were found the morning of March 11 in their home at 122 Cobblestone Court, almost no details were released on how they were killed. At Monday's news conference, authorities called it "a brutal scene" on the first floor and gave the official cause of death as sharp force injuries to the neck.
"The Lehigh Valley has had its share of unspeakable crimes, but this is one of the worst cases I have seen in 14 years as district attorney," Martin said.
Investigators allege Kasick burglarized the Walberts' home between March 8 and 11, killed the two defenseless women and fled to Florida with thousands of dollars from Althea Walbert's purse. Police would not say if the Walberts struggled with their killer.
Besides the DNA hit, a Lehigh County grand jury heard testimony from witnesses and dozens of investigators collected evidence and conducted interviews. Kasick will be charged with two counts of homicide, robbery, burglary, theft and receiving stolen property.
Court records detail how Kasick became a person of interest in the case, less than a week after the bodies were discovered.
According to the arrest affidavit:
Investigators looked into contractors who had worked at the Walberts' home and found that Kasick had done work there from 2005 to 2009 as a carpet cleaner. Investigators also learned that Kasick spoke to many people about the Walberts.
Kasick, who lost his job with the carpet-cleaning company and then lost his unemployment benefits in February, told people the Walberts kept lots of cash in the house and wrote about how easy it would be to rob them.
In a February text to an unidentified person, he wrote:
"Hell yeah, just gta walk rite in tape the 2 bitches mouths get purse n roll out 2 min job."
A trooper called Kasick on March 17 and told him he would like to speak to him about the Walberts because he was talking to all contractors who had done work at their home. The trooper described the victims, their home and the area, but Kasick denied knowing them.
During the phone interview, Kasick initially told the trooper he was in Philadelphia, but then admitted he lied and had been in Florida for a week.
That day, police spoke to Chantiel Schanerberger, the Orefield woman who had the daughters with Kasick over 10 years. Schanerberger, who no longer lives in Orefield, told police Kasick had lived with her since February because they were trying to reconcile.
She said that on March 9, Kasick borrowed her car for the whole day because he said he had a job interview. That day, he gave her a gift of jewelry and three $100 bills.
The Walberts were last seen alive on the night of March 8 by a neighbor who had visited them. Police also confirmed Kasick never had the job interview.
Schanerberger also told police that Kasick left her home on March 11 and she told him never to come back. On March 16, she called Kasick and told him he needed to get the rest of his belongings out of her home, but he said he did not want any of it and told her to throw his things out.
Schanerberger said she gathered his items, which included clothing and sneakers, into a garbage bag, but had not thrown them out yet. Police took those items that day, and on June 22, the sneakers and some other items were submitted to the state police crime lab for testing.
Teper said investigators also interviewed Kasick in the spring while he was in Port Charlotte, Fla.
Police learned that Kasick paid $800 cash for a van and gave another man $700 to buy and register the van in that man's name. The van broke down in South Carolina and Kasick paid a tow truck driver $500 in $100 bills to take him the rest of the way to Florida, authorities said.
A woman who went to Florida with Kasick said she also saw him with large amounts of money. Kasick's only other source of income was working as a driver for $40 to $50 a day, police said.
Martin said no arrest was made then because all the evidence at the time was circumstantial and did not place him at the Walbert home at the time of the killings. It wasn't until police got the DNA hit Wednesday that charges were approved.
State police again traveled to Port Charlotte to arrest Kasick on Thursday. That day, Kasick was stopped by highway patrol officers in Sarasota for riding a bike on the highway. He was released but was arrested around 7 p.m. Sunday by Sarasota police, authorities said.
Public records show Kasick previously lived in the Lehigh Valley, with addresses in Allentown, Whitehall Township, Orefield and Breinigsville. His rap sheet includes mostly traffic violations, but also a guilty plea to child endangerment charges for a November 2003 case in Allentown. He received a sentence of time served, almost two months, in that case, according to court records.
Police did not say what connection he has to Florida.
At his first court appearance Monday afternoon in Florida, Kasick agreed to extradition. Local authorities did not say when they expect him back in Lehigh County.
Relief was the overriding sentiment in the borough on Monday. Michele Keppel described the days and months following the Walberts' deaths as "very, very very, scary."
That all changed Monday. "It's a happy day in Alburtis," one man could be heard yelling from his Franklin Street home shortly after Martin's news conference.
"Wow! Awesome!" Tom Kern, 82, said after hearing the news at Norm's Shell gas station on Main Street.
Days after the crime, police tried to put fears at ease by telling the public it was an isolated incident, but residents remained fearful. Rumors about what happened to the Walberts and why were rampant. Many believed whoever killed them were after their money.
Althea Walbert was known to stop every now and then at Frey's Country Store and at Norm's. Many who knew her said she would carry a "wad" of bills with her.
Residents like Elsie Bako, who lives about a block from the Walberts' home, chose to have security systems installed on their properties. Inez Walbert, who said she wasn't related to Althea and her daughter, said she always believed the killer was an outsider.
"I thought it was nobody that lived in Alburtis," she said. "I always said that. I just didn't think anyone from the area would harm her."
She and others were happy to put months of rumor and supposition to rest.
Sharon Trexler, the borough's secretary, happily pulled down a flier inside the borough announcing a reward for information leading to information about the crime.
The $50,000 reward was being offered by Longswamp United Church of Christ, which was willed all of Althea Walbert's assets. The Rev. Katherine Brearley, pastor of Longswamp UCC, said church members who live in Alburtis had been anxious about the crime as the months wore on.
"A double homicide is something you want to have solved, and I'm sure there will be a sense of relief," she said.
Kern, who said he had a habit of forgetting to lock doors to his house and vehicle before the Walberts were killed, said he's been more vigilant since.
"I started locking my doors after it happened," said Kern, who would run into Althea Walbert occasionally at Norm's. "I feel a lot safer now. I don't have to worry about coming home late at night.
"I hope whoever it was gets their just reward, or whatever you want to call it."
At Frey's store on Franklin Street, co-owner Harold Frey said, "Alburtis can be at ease now, finally."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun