At the age of 23, Sherry Leighty went missing seemingly without a trace—never to be seen or heard from again. For years, rumors circulated in her hometown of Altoona, Pennsylvania that the new divorcée and mother of three had run off with her boyfriend to live in Maine. But her family and friends knew better. It took nearly 14 years, but they were finally able to unveil the sinister secret that led to Sherry’s disappearance and untimely death. Her father-in-law, Kenneth Leighty, was eventually accused and convicted of third-degree murder after Sherry’s remains were recovered from his large property in Pennsylvania.
Keep reading to find out exactly what happened to Sherry Leighty and the details of the investigation into her murder.
Who Was Sherry Leighty?
Sherry Jean Leighty (nee Dumm) was born on September 30, 1976 in Altoona, Blair County, Pennsylvania.
She was the third of four children. She has one older sister, Shelly Nagle, who was instrumental to her missing person investigation. She also has one older brother named Richard Dumm, while her younger brother, Shawn A. Dumm, passed away in 2016.
Since Sherry’s mother left the family when she was just five years old, all of the Dumm children were raised by their father, Sheldon. He worked at a bakery in town.
Sherry attended Altoona Area High School where she met her future husband and the father of her children, Aaron Leighty. They started dating in April 1990 when Sherry was just 14 and Aaron was 17.
According to Sherry’s brother, Richard, and her childhood friend, Valerie Wyper, Sheldon was very protective of Sherry, and because of the age gap between her and Aaron, he was not accepting or supportive of their relationship.
Despite Sheldon’s attempt to separate the two young lovebirds, Sherry and Aaron continued dating and she became pregnant the following year with her first child, Travis Leighty. Born in 1993, Travis is currently married with children of his own.
Shortly after Travis was born, Sherry had two more children with Aaron, both girls, named Kieran and Rachel, respectively.
By the time Sherry turned 19 years old, she and Aaron had gotten married and decided to move to an inexpensive rental apartment across town to raise their young family.
At first, everything seemed fine. The couple was inseparable and constantly doted on each other and their children.
All of that slowly began to change, however. It was evident that Aaron had started treating Sherry badly, constantly hurling verbal abuse at her. Sherry began to feel extremely isolated from her family and friends as Aaron grew increasingly verbally abusive and jealous over time.
Aaron worked as a truck driver, which meant that he was gone the majority of the time and Sherry was left to look after the kids.
The pressure and stress of spending so much time apart seemed to fuel Aaron’s jealousy and he began to accuse Sherry of cheating on him.
One day, Sherry called her sister Shelly and told her that she and Aaron had gotten into a very bad argument and that she needed to get out of the house. Shelly advised her sister to take the kids and find somewhere else to live. With nowhere else to go because their father was in failing health and Sherry didn’t have any money, she decided to move in with her in-laws.
Sherry’s friends and family began to worry about her and the kids’ well-being, so she decided to file a protection from abuse order against Aaron just before filing for divorce. At the young age of 22, Sherry became a single mother who was forced to move in with the parents of the man from whom she was trying to escape, because she couldn’t afford a place of her own.
In September 1999, just one month after she moved in with her in-laws, Sherry started dating a nice and attractive man from Maine named Ryan.
Sherry asked Shelly if she, Ryan, and the kids could come live with her for a little while, but Shelly refused because she didn’t know Ryan well enough and she had young kids of her own to consider.
However, she did offer to let just Sherry and the kids stay with her, but her sister declined.
That’s when things started to take a turn for the worse. After that conversation with her sister, Sherry’s family didn’t hear from her for many weeks. They knew something was wrong when Sherry failed to attend her nephew’s birthday party in October. Aaron showed up instead to drop off the kids and he told the family that Sherry left town to go to Maine with Ryan.
Naturally, Sherry’s family became very suspicious of this, because they knew it was out of character for Sherry to just abandon her kids, whom she loved dearly.
“Our mother had abandoned all of us at a young age. I knew 100% that Sherry would never leave her children because that happened to us,” said Richard Dumm.
What Happened to Sherry Leighty?
Shelly and Richard started canvassing the entire town, going door-to-door and asking everyone if they had seen Sherry. But no one knew anything about her whereabouts. Or if they did, they weren’t divulging any information.
Finally, Sheldon went to the Altoona Police Department to report his daughter missing, but authorities initially dismissed the case, saying there wasn’t substantial evidence to prove that Sherry was missing. Police didn’t believe that Sherry was in any imminent danger and, according to Cpl. Daniel Sneath, “[Sherry] didn’t meet the criteria of being classified as a missing person.”
All the police could do at the time was file an attempt to locate, which basically meant that if Sherry happened to get arrested, pulled over, or came into contact with a police officer for any reason, they’d inform her that her family was looking for her. At that point, it would be up to Sherry to contact her family.
As the years wore on and there were still no answers in terms of what happened to Sherry, her children were raised by Aaron and his parents and had become essentially estranged from the Dumms.
On February 8, 2005, Sheldon Dumm passed away with no resolution in sight. He was diabetic and had emphysema.
While her father was on his deathbed, Shelly vowed that she would not rest until she found out what happened to her little sister.
Shelly Creates a Facebook Account for Her Sister
In January 2011, Shelly decided to create a Facebook account for Sherry so that she could continue gathering information and piece together the answers that the family had been looking for all along. In addition to setting up a personal account for Sherry, Shelly also created the Sherry Leighty Memorial page on Facebook in honor of her late sister.
Shelly found a great deal of solace in writing about her relationship with her sister and the experience of losing her so unexpectedly. In April 2016, Shelly published a book called Through A Sister’s Eyes, which detailed the hardships the family endured after Sherry went missing.
Shortly after the Facebook accounts were created, a Leighty family friend approached Shelly and informed her that, after Sherry had left, things were very different at the Leighty household. They started locking their doors, which was highly uncharacteristic of them, and the family became very closed off from the rest of the community. Only the family patriarch, Kenneth Leighty, was seen around the property.
Mounting Suspicions against the Leightys
Sherry’s family suspected that the Leightys had something to hide and they decided to go to the police a second time. But once again, they were disappointed to find that the authorities would be of very little help. There was no substantial evidence to prove foul play.
Taking matters into her own hands, Shelly decided to send Ryan, Sherry’s last known boyfriend, a private message on Facebook asking if he had seen her sister and if he knew where she was. Three days later, Ryan, who is still living in Maine, responded by saying, “I haven’t seen [Sherry]. I wouldn’t know what she looks like now. We broke up in 1999 before I came home.”
This was a huge turning point in the case because it indicated that Sherry had never left her hometown with Ryan like everyone assumed she had.
An Interesting Twist
Ryan revealed that, right before he moved back to Maine on his own, Aaron had caught him and Sherry kissing behind the Leighty home. In a jealous rage, Aaron attacked Ryan and threatened to kill Sherry if she ever saw Ryan again.
At this point, they were already in the process of finalizing their divorce, but Sherry was still living in the Leighty household with the kids.
Allegedly, Sherry broke up with Ryan on the spot, presumably to protect him from her potentially dangerous ex-husband and his family. That was the last time Ryan saw Sherry.
After this information came to light in 2012, more than a decade after Sherry’s disappearance, the police finally started to take the case seriously. Ryan’s story was the missing link that convinced police to launch a formal investigation.
The Altoona police started questioning and investigating Aaron to see if he knew anything about Sherry’s disappearance. Aaron claimed that he had no idea what happened to his estranged ex-wife. He also said that his father, Kenneth, took her to work one day and she never returned.
A New Suspect
Following Aaron’s statement, police decided to shift the focus of the investigation to Kenneth Leighty instead.
They questioned Kenneth about the last day he allegedly drove Sherry to work. He stated that she was behaving differently that day and had even dressed up more than usual and wore makeup, which she rarely did. Kenneth told the police, “I dropped her off and I went to work as usual.”
To help move the case along further, the police created a DNA profile of Sherry’s family members, including Shelly, Richard, and Travis. At that point, Shelly and Richard hadn’t seen or been in contact with their nephew for nearly 13 years.
When the DNA profiling session was complete, Travis later texted his aunt and uncle to let them know that Kenneth was extremely upset when he discovered that his grandson had agreed to participate in the investigation. Travis also told them that he believed the Leightys had some information about the case that they were hiding.
Shelly and Richard saved those text messages and showed them to the police, which prompted District Attorney George Zanic to review the evidence on April 19, 2013.
Investigators also checked Kenneth’s work records and discovered that he’d lied to them. He never showed up to work on that day. If Kenneth had dropped Sherry off at work and then went to his own job that day as he claimed he did, then he would have absolutely no reason to lie to the police.
Aaron Leighty Helps in the Investigation
Investigators contacted Aaron and asked him if he would agree to call his father and allow them to listen in and record the phone call. Aaron agreed.
He asked his father about the day Sherry went missing, since Kenneth was allegedly the last person to see her alive. After some prompting and a slew of short answers, Kenneth admitted, “I did it. It was an accident. We had an argument and I pushed [Sherry] and she hit her head on the truck mirror.”
Immediately thereafter, the police paid a visit to Kenneth at his home to try to elicit a confession in person and arrest him, but he was being extremely elusive at first. Despite the fact that police had a recorded phone call of Kenneth confessing to the crime, it was still not enough to press charges or convict him. They needed to find Sherry’s body.
Believing that he was still in total control of the situation, Kenneth resisted talking to the police and even assaulted one of the deputies. Little did he know, this was just the push police needed to arrest him, take him into custody, and charge him with assaulting a police officer.
While he was in custody, Kenneth told police that he and Sherry were arguing outside on the driveway as he was about to take her to work. He claimed he was unhappy about the fact that she was dating other men while living under his roof. According to his account, she started walking away from him, he got angry, and he pushed her.
He said that she hit her head hard on the side mirror of his pickup truck and fell to the ground with a bloody gash on her forehead. Allegedly, Kenneth placed Sherry in the passenger seat of his truck and proceeded to go to work. Sherry was apparently in and out of consciousness and he said he went back and forth checking in on her throughout the day. But the last time he checked on her, he knew she was dead.
The question on everyone’s mind at that point was, why didn’t he take her to the hospital if her death really was accidental?
Unbeknownst to Kenneth at the time, the police had caught him in a lie, because they already knew that he never went to work that day.
The Final Missing Piece to the Puzzle
Despite having a recorded and an in-person confession from Kenneth, the police still didn’t have enough evidence to consider the case a homicide. They needed to find Sherry’s body.
To collect more information, the police decided to publicly announce that they had arrested Kenneth Leighty. Following that announcement, an outpouring of tips came in from people who had previously chosen to remain silent.
People started reporting that they had witnessed Kenneth acting inappropriately toward his daughter-in-law, that he was very touchy-feely with her and constantly made unwanted sexual advances toward her.
Around this time, one of Aaron’s ex-girlfriends contacted Shelly and asked to meet with her in person. The woman informed Shelly that Travis had allegedly told her he’d overheard the family talking about Sherry’s body being buried on a 150-acre rural property in Warriors Mark Township, owned by Kenneth Leighty. The family often enjoyed going on hunting and camping trips there.
Shelly passed this information along to the authorities. They immediately obtained a warrant to search the entire property and attempt to recover and excavate the buried remains of Sherry Leighty.
This was a task that would prove to be nearly impossible once police actually arrived on the scene and realized just how expansive the property was.
An entire week went by and there were still no signs of Sherry’s remains, so the police had to temporarily call off the search. Without finding Sherry’s remains, there wasn’t enough evidence to charge Kenneth with first-degree murder.
As a last-ditch effort to sway Kenneth to cooperate, the police offered him a plea bargain. If he agreed to show them exactly where Sherry’s body was buried, he would only be charged with third-degree murder. They needed her body so that they could prove in court that her death wasn’t an accident.
Police returned to the property with Kenneth in tow. It took a few hours, but eventually they found remnants of Sherry’s body, including her crushed skull and a few bones.
The medical examiner determined that Sherry’s skull was bashed in with extreme blunt force and it was impossible for her death to be ruled an accident.
Although Kenneth never actually revealed what happened between him and Sherry on the day she died or what his exact motives were, it was obvious that he had killed her on purpose.
The Aftermath for Sherry Leighty’s Family
Kenneth Leighty was convicted of third-degree murder in 2013, with a maximum sentence of seven to 14 years in prison and a chance for parole in 2020.
It’s not quite the outcome Sherry’s family was hoping for, but they understand why police handled the matter the way they did. They’re happy to finally know what happened to Sherry, and that her murderer is seeing some justice.
Sherry’s children are still very much estranged from the Dumms, and the Welcome to Murdertown episode about the case entitled “Buried Deep,” which aired in December 2018, certainly didn’t help matters.
On his Facebook page, Travis called out his aunt by saying, “I’m just wondering why none of us kids were informed or asked to be a part of this tv show? Why does it seem like were being treated with the cold shoulder from so called “family” none of this has gotten easier for any of us.” [sic]