By Damian Gessel
For The Daily Item
PAXINOS — Sometimes even stories with happy endings are painful to tell. Ken and Jane Young, of Paxinos, know this better than most.
On May 3 of this year, the couple’s granddaughter got engaged to an ambitious and dashing young man from Atlanta, Ga. He got down on one knee in an upscale restaurant; when she said “yes,” the place erupted in applause. Later that night, Jane and Ken hid in a kitchen, waiting for the newly engaged to walk into the surprise celebration. When they did, Jane Young’s granddaughter, overcome with joy, ran screaming and crying into Jane’s arms.
“She was just so happy,” Jane said, smiling at the memory of the moment.
It was the Youngs’ happy ending. Their beautiful and intelligent granddaughter, 24-year-old Lauren Culp, would be marrying a man, Nathan Robertson, who seemed perfect for her. And by all accounts, he is.
But for Ken and Jane Young, the pain of what was long ago taken away then is almost as undeniable as the happiness of the now.
“We,” Jane explained, “are all she has.”
Ken and Jane Young’s daughter, Sherry Culp, was 8 ½ months pregnant when she was murdered.
It was January of 1998. Culp was sitting in her car outside of where she worked in Newington, Va., when a hooded man approached and shot her twice in the head. The baby, Kelsey Culp, was delivered that day in an emergency caesarian section, but did not survive. It was ruled a double homicide.
Culp’s ex-husband, Donald Culp, with whom Sherry had two children, was considered a suspect in the case. Sherry’s daughters, Lauren and Heather, were just 9- and 7-years-old at the time.
Jane and Ken Young pursued every avenue they could think of to seek justice for their daughter. They offered $50,000 of their own money as a reward for information that could lead to an arrest; they kept in frequent contact with police, applying any pressure they could; they spoke with reporters at The Washington Post, with the Washington Examiner, and with the Washington, D.C.-area television stations, in the hope someone, somewhere, may know something. They even convinced John Walsh to place their daughter’s story on a segment of “America’s Most Wanted.”
But 15 years later, Sherry Ann Culp’s murder remains unsolved.
Jane Young admits there is a lingering anger in her that has not — and perhaps never will — subside.
“I will be even-keel for months, and then all of the sudden I have to call the detective and say, ‘What are you doing? This family needs closure!’” she said.
That anger — the anger of a mother robbed of closure for the death of her daughter — has driven the well-mannered grandmother of 19 and great-grandmother of five to punch walls.
“Someone took away a beautiful girl with so much to offer,” Jane said. “She lit up a room.”
After Sherry Culp’s death, Ken and Jane Young saw little of their two young granddaughters. Donald Culp had been awarded custody of Lauren and Heather even before Sherry’s death; the couple divorced several years prior and the girls had already lived with him. As the case heated up, the Youngs say, Donald Culp and his girlfriend, Toni Storey, began returning the grandparents’ phone calls with less and less frequency. Then, without telling the Youngs, they moved from Virginia to Ohio.
The Youngs sued Donald Culp for visitation rights to the girls, but lost in court. For almost 10 years, they say, they had almost no contact with their granddaughters.
It wasn’t until five years ago that the Youngs finally came back in contact with Lauren Culp. In an email, Jane explained to Lauren that the time had come.
“‘This is our year,’ I wrote to her,” Jane said. “I told her that I would not lie to her. I will never lie.”
One email led to another, which eventually led to the Youngs’ first meeting with their granddaughter in more than a decade. They agreed to meet at a restaurant in Dublin, Ohio, for dinner.
“I saw Lauren in the mirror behind the bar, and I swerved around in the bar stool,” said Jane. “She came to me and held on to me so tight and just cried.”
It wasn’t long after that Heather Culp reunited with her grandparents, too. The four of them have since enjoyed time together on Sibling Lane in Paxinos, where the Youngs have lived for 10 years.
Happiness and pain
The Youngs light up at the telling of their granddaughter’s engagement story. It goes like this:
In April, Nathan Robertson, Lauren Culp’s soon-to-be husband, flew up from Georgia to visit the Youngs and attend a “business trip” in Harrisburg. What was true was that he had business. But, as it turned out, that business had nothing to do with work.
“That night he got in at about 10 or 10:30 at night, and he was just a wreck,” Jane said. “Ken said to him, ‘You look like you could use a scotch.’”
The Youngs didn’t have to wonder very long as to what was wrong with their granddaughter’s boyfriend. The next morning he sat them both down in the sun room of their home, amidst an expansive and scenic view of the Pennsylvania countryside, and told them he’d known he had met his future bride from the moment he’d laid eyes on her. He asked the Youngs for their granddaughter’s hand in marriage.
“He pulled the ring out of his pocket and it was just gorgeous,” said Jane.
Fast-forward to the Italian restaurant in Atlanta, to the celebration afterward, to the planned wedding, and the entire narrative could be described as Cinderella-esque.
“That is what this story is all about,” said Jane. “Happiness.”
“We are overjoyed that (Heather and Lauren) are developing into wonderful young ladies,” said Ken.
For the Youngs, there is the joy of reunion, the joy watching two families come together as one, the joy of seeing their granddaughters — who they say have been through more than enough tragedy for a lifetime — successful and happy.
There is joy. And there is pain. The pain of a grandmother going wedding dress shopping instead of a mother, the pain of celebrating the most important day of Lauren’s life without the presence of Sherry Culp.
Jane Young has made a promise to her late daughter that she will never give up the search for her killer. But the Youngs know, too, that life moves on. In October of 2014, Lauren Culp and Nathan Robertson will marry. And as their granddaughter and grandson-in-law kiss for the first time as husband and wife, the Youngs believe Sherry Culp will be there in spirit, watching.
“We have a lot to look forward to,” Jane said.