HUMMELS WHARF, PA — On May 24, 1989, Lori Ann Auker didn’t show up for work. Such a sudden and unannounced absence was entirely atypical for the 19-year-old employee of The Pet Place shop at the Susquehanna Valley Mall.
Concern turned to panic the next day when Lori’s car was spotted in the mall parking lot, and still no one had heard from her. After a frantic two-and-a-half week search, everyone’s worst fears were confirmed. Lori’s body, riddled with stab wounds, turned up in a wooded area about 10 miles south of the shopping center.
Suspicion fell quickly on Robert Donald Auker, Lori’s 25-year-old estranged husband. Not only was the couple fighting over custody of their son, Robert had also just taken on a life insurance policy on Lori. In addition, Lori’s friends and family said the teen lived in fear of him. Regardless, Robert vehemently denied hurting Lori and provided them with enough of an alibi to walk free. The police couldn’t pin anything on him.
That’s when investigators noticed a new feature in the mall parking lot that could possibly help them. And it most certainly did.
Today, with 24-hour surveillance cameras seemingly everywhere — and most definitely inside commercial parking structures — the crucial moments after Lori left her vehicle would almost surely be easily accessible on video. Such was not the situation in the late ’80s. However, another developing staple of modern life at the time did, in fact, pioneer our modern age of security technology: the automatic teller machine (ATM).
The Susquehanna Valley Mall happened to have one such device in its parking lot on the day Lori disappeared. That ATM also came equipped with a security camera. Unlike now, when cameras capture nonstop activity, this ATM didn’t shoot video, per se: It took a still photo on videotape every few seconds.
As a result, detectives used the tape to assemble images of Lori parking her car, walking toward work, and bending down to talk to someone who drove up and blocked her with a Chevrolet Celebrity made between 1982 and 1985. The last frame shows the Chevy speeding off, with Lori nowhere to be seen.
On the day Lori vanished, Robert Auker had been seen tooling around in his father’s 1984 Chevrolet Celebrity. Unfortunately, the ATM camera fell short of one crucial image: the vehicle’s license plate. Robert B. Sacavage, who was then the Northumberland County District Attorney, noted: “That would have been the home run.”
To improve the image’s quality — a daunting task at the time — Sacavage worked with state police, the FBI, and even NASA, where a scientist who specialized in digitally clearing up spy photos of Soviet rockets did his best. Still, no visible license plate.
Bolstered by the shots he did have, though, Sacavage went to work compiling a forensics-based case against Robert Auker. Evidence included hairs belonging to both Lori and her pet cat being found in the Chevrolet, as well as testimony from entomologist Dr. K. C. Kim, who said the dead insects on Lori’s body indicated her time of death. As the DA put it, “We had no murder weapon, we had no admission. We had 153 pieces of circumstantial evidence.”
It worked. Police arrested Robert for Lori’s murder. In 1992, a jury found him guilty and a judge sentenced him to death.
Robert Auker remains alive at present. He’s a reviled murderer, a death row inmate, and an unwitting trailblazer in our contemporary world of nonstop video surveillance.
Main photo: ATM [Pixabay]