Still Looking for Judy: One Woman’s Quest to Find Her Missing Sister

The last photo taken of Judy (top, center) on Nov. 30, 1980, before she headed back to New York City after spending Thanksgiving with her family in Baltimore.

Ribbons Undone

When Maureen was asked about her sister she was told by her parents to say one thing: Judy is working at a bank in Midtown. Prostitution and drugs weren’t things families talked about. They were especially unacceptable in the small upstate New York town of Oswego.

“My parents were embarrassed because they knew she had been arrested for prostitution, they knew that she had sold drugs, they knew she was involved in bad things, they knew she hitchhiked,” says Maureen. “It was a different time then, holding family secrets was something people did.”

And although no one had heard from her, Judy wasn’t necessarily missing, either. She was over 18 and she had taken off to NYC before. So, as is often the case with women who live and work on the streets, who often disappear for periods of time by the nature of their lifestyle, a missing persons report wasn’t immediately filed.

And before her body was discovered at the beach, Amber Lynn Costello, last seen on her way to meet a client, had never been reported missing by her family, something many predators count on.

“I knew they would not be reported missing right away and might never be reported missing,” Gary Ridgway, the infamous Green River Killer who confessed to killing up to 71 women over a 20-year period, said in his confessional statement in 2001. “I picked prostitutes because I thought I could kill as many of them as I wanted without getting caught.”

But Judy’s presence didn’t go unnoticed. She had always called home while she was away and the phone calls immediately stopped, although Maureen says the visit had its tense moments and she wouldn’t be surprised if Judy had decided to keep her distance for awhile, even years maybe, but not decades.

A free spirit, Judy spent her nights at Studio 54 and hanging out in the East Village and Hell’s Kitchen. But things started out very differently just a few years before.

A young girl with a beautiful smile and blue eyes, Judy was outgoing, friendly and talented. She was on the gymnastics team and the swim team. She wrote poetry and was picked multiple times to enter her work in writing competitions.

Her middle school yearbook page reads, “Hi! I’m Judy O’Donnell. I’m 14 years old…I’m the ‘middle child…I have braces (I hate them). I really love animals…I like to dance, play music and sing and help people solve their problems.”

But the next year Judy began drinking, experimenting with drugs and taking risks that were out of character for her, according to friends and family.

“I remember how she used to hitchhike,” says Rebecca Schermerhorn, Judy’s childhood friend. “I told her I didn’t like it and that I didn’t think it was safe to do. Judy was very trusting, and very friendly and chatty with people she had just met.”

During this same time, Maureen says a priest and guidance counselor at Oswego Catholic High School where Judy attended—who years later admitted to having a sexual relationship with a student whom he had gotten drunk, and was the subject of a $20 million lawsuit filed against the Roman Catholic Diocese of Syracuse, according to published news reports—called home and said 15-year-old Judy needed to be picked up, that she was at the convent and she was drunk.

Judy’s friend Rebecca has also come forward with information regarding a rape Judy had told her happened while she was hitchhiking.

“Something happened, I don’t know what,” says Maureen, who is sure that someone hurt her sister. “Something happened along the line and it turned her from a spirited youth to a troubled youth.”

Just a few years later, Judy left for New York City “to be a star,” Maureen says. But instead she ended up living on the streets of Hell’s Kitchen and was arrested for prostitution more than once.

Rebecca says that around that time Judy had been hanging around with a guy that went by the name of Angel Rivera.

“I remember that she was hanging around one guy from New York City. She mentioned him a lot,” says Rebecca. “I always wondered whether he was questioned by the police, or if he had anything to do with Judy’s disappearance. When Judy disappeared I made it a point to remember his name—I’ve remembered it for 30 years.”

Maureen took this information to investigators but they said it was simply too big a task to go through everyone by that name in New York.

There are nearly 200 Rivera’s, 13 of which have the legal name of “Angel”—Angel could also be a nickname—listed on the NYS Sex Offender Registry and 51 Angel Rivera’s with current criminal court cases pending in the New York State Court System.

Add that information to the fact that there are more than 3,000 women in the United States, listed by the Department of Justice that are currently reported missing under suspicious circumstances, any of whom could be connected to Judy’s disappearance—or not—and the possibilities are not only overwhelming, they seem endless. Maureen was gradually sifting through all of them, when she came across the case of “Princess Doe,” a young girl found dead in a New Jersey cemetery in 1982—just a few months and year after she had said goodbye to Judy.

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