ADAMS TWP — It was a years-long mystery. A whodunit that puzzled police. A riddle that riled road workers.
Week after week, month after month, year after year, they would turn up: plastic grocery bags with empty bottles — mostly the two-ounce size — of pure vanilla extract.
And always in the same vicinity. Assuredly, almost, as the sun rising in the east and teasingly as crop circles.
“Strange” is how Bob Scanlon, Adams Township’s assistant police chief, described it.
It was a constant source of head-scratching for John Hock, the township’s public works director, who guessed it had gone on for five or six years.
Those discarded, mostly blue Giant Eagle grocery bags became as frustrating to the road crew as dandelions to a lawn keeper.
Every time the bags were removed, in a matter of days, more would pop up — on Beaver Street Extension, Peters Road, Carriage Hill Drive and Crider Road.
“We’d find them on the same roads,” Hock said. “The bags would be tied up real nice.”
Inside, the contents were always the same.
“You didn’t even have to open them up. You could smell it,” Hock said. “There’d be vanilla extract, empty bottles, in the box they came in. Giant Eagle brand vanilla.”
“It was the same thing all the time,” Scanlon said. Somehow, went the prevailing theory, alcohol-addled youth had to be responsible.
It was a reasonable suspicion, Scanlon posited, because vanilla extract, in some instances, offers the same proof — and the same buzz — as whiskey and vodka.
By law, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, pure vanilla extract must contain at least 35 percent alcohol.
The disposed bottles rounded up in the township, police said, contained an alcohol content of 35 percent. That’s 70 proof.
That kind of kick from a widely accessible product? Not bad, some teens might think.
“I thought it was kids,” Hock admitted, “because they can’t afford to go to the state store.”
The road crew and police in March powwowed over the problem and came up with a plan: install trail cameras around the roads where the bags kept turning up.
“We thought we could catch the litterer that way,” Scanlon said. With photographic evidence, that is.
In didn’t take long — maybe a few days — for the plan to pay off. One of the cameras snapped the image of a maroon, 2004 Honda CR-V.
“We had the vehicle and the plate,” Scanlon said. And while they couldn’t identify the driver, they could tell from the hair style that it was a woman.
Officers were now on the lookout. On April 4, Sgt. Edward Lenz spotted the suspect vehicle at Crider and Myoma roads.
Mary A. Ranker, 61, of Cranberry Township was identified as the driver following the subsequent traffic stop about 4 p.m.
Lenz advised Ranker that he had stopped her in connection with the littering investigation. But he also smelled alcohol coming from the vehicle and she appeared impaired.
Suspecting she was responsible for all the empty vanilla bottles over all the years, the officer asked her how much she drank that day.
“Two vanillas” is all she had, Ranker replied, according to court documents. She told police that she was coming from work, in Mars.
Police later found five bottles of vanilla in the vehicle. She also told Lenz that she bought the extract at the Giant Eagle on Seven Fields Boulevard.
A blood test subsequently showed Ranker’s blood-alcohol level was 0.128 percent. A level of 0.08 percent is considered intoxicated under state law.
Lenz at Tuesday‘s preliminary hearing for Ranker on drunken driving charges, testified that following the traffic stop he turned up a blue Giant Eagle bag full of empty bottles of extract outside the Rite Aid on Seven Fields Boulevard.
Five empty boxes for two-ounce bottles of vanilla were found in the bag.
Those boxes, Lenz said at the hearing, were for the five bottles that he found in Ranker’s SUV.
He also found an eight-ounce bottle of vanilla extract in the bag.
District Judge Wayne Seibel, following the officer’s testimony, ordered the defendant held for trial.
Kelley Harley, Ranker’s attorney, declined to comment about the allegations following the hearing.
Ranker still has one more pending court date before Seibel. A summary trial is set May 17 on two littering citations that police filed last month stemming from its investigation.
Township officials are convinced that the one-time mystery is now a closed book.
The road crew is just happy it no longer has to pick up bags filled with the empty nip-size bottles.
Since Ranker’s arrest, Hock said, “It’s stopped.