By Rose Quinn
Published in the Monday, August 16, 2021 edition of the Delaware County Daily Times
When an old photograph fell out of his late mother’s Bible a few weeks weeks ago, Dale Drais stopped in his tracks. There was his sweet little brother, Gary, probably about 4 years of age, decked out for Easter in a sport coat with cuffed slacks and bow tie, smiling right at him.
It was like a punch in the gut to Dale, another in his anguished family’s never-ending reminders of love and loss since Gary Drais – whose boyish charms had long faded into a perplexing adult – was bludgeoned, beaten and shot in the head in 2005.
“It’s all so sad,” said Dale Drais, 66, of Aston, who misses the friendship he shared with his younger brother, along with his quick wit, his commentaries on the world, and his jokes.
Gary Drais, a devoted father and grandfather, and proud member of the Carpenter’s Union Local 845 and a U.S. Marine, who grew up in South Philadelphia but spent most of his adult life in Delaware County, was 48 when he was murdered. He would have turned 64 on May 20.
“He always thought he would die young,” said 62-year-old Ralph Forbes, of Ridley Township, Gary’s cousin who became a close friend and was best man at Drais’ wedding at St. Robert Church in Chester, the bride’s longtime parish, followed by a modest reception at the Vauclain firehouse, 33 years ago.
“That just makes me so sad. It makes me want to cry,” Annamaria “Anna” Cimabue Drais said of her husband’s premonition, which she heard about for the first-time last week.
“With me, he always talked about wanting to retire at 50 and just having more time with family,” Anna said.
“He told me he was going to retire at 50 … and sit home and watch Jerry Springer,” said Dale.
“Gary could be secretive. I’m sure he said a lot of different things to different people,” Anna said.
Drais, 48, was beaten, bludgeoned, and fatally shot in his Glenn Road home in Aston, believed on Sept. 14, 2005 – 13 days before his body was discovered.
Homicide investigation is ongoing by Detective Joseph Nardone of the Aston Police Department, with assistance from the Delaware County Criminal Investigation Division.
Anyone with information is asked to contact Nardone at 610-497-2633 or [email protected]; CID at 610-891-4700; or 911.
‘What did they do to you’
September 27 will mark 16 years since Anna found her husband’s battered body inside their house on Glenn Road in Aston. She frantically called 911, and then summoned Dale from his nearby home on Lamp Post Lane.
Anna had been on her way to an evening appointment with their two daughters, Shannon and Brianna, when she decided to stop by because she hadn’t heard from Gary in nearly two weeks. Though separated at the time from Gary for the umpteenth time in their tumultuous 27-year relationship, Anna never stopped loving him and wanted to see him.
“I wish I had gone sooner,” Anna, 61, recalled.
The girls stayed behind in the car while she approached the split-level house. She could hear the television blaring from inside. Through the front door window, she could see Gary lying flat on his back on the carpeted floor on the second level.
“I ran around back, and I saw the glass to the sliding door completely shattered, curtains just fluttering. I walked into the house through a frame,” she said. She stopped herself just a few steps into the kitchen, and then darted to a neighbor’s house to call 911.
“It didn’t even look like him,” she said of the burly, handsome man she had known for so long.
Based on his phone records, authorities believe Gary Drais was murdered on Sept. 14, 2005. For 13 days, the television was running, the windows were open, the back door was a gaping hole, and the mail was piling up.
There is a person of interest in the homicide, but no definitive motive has been established in the case, according to Delaware County Criminal Investigation Division Lt. William Gordon.
For Anna and Dale, images so unimaginable and smells so horrific from the crime scene haunt their senses to this day.
“I remember screaming, ‘What did they do to you,” Anna recalled.
“The inside of the house was painted in blood,” Dale said. “It is something I see every day in my head.”
In the years since the murder, Anna has been living on Glenn Road with daughter, Shannon, 32; and grandson, 19-year-old Dominic Drais, one of Gary Jr.’s two children, trying hard to make new memories to help heal the past.
If there was any chance of Anna’s heart beginning to mend, it was lost with the sudden death of Gary Jr., who collapsed at work along his U.S. Postal Service route in 2020, at age 40.
A man and his castle
Ordinarily, Gary Drais was a man of few words when it came to expressing his feelings. Instead, he wore his heart on his sleeve, literally and figuratively, with the names of Anna, and two of their three children, Gary Jr. and Shannon, tattooed on his right arm.
“I guess this was his way of showing how he felt,” Anna said.
Recalling a few of her husband’s other tattoos, Gary had a wizard sleeve complete with a castle that Anna thought signified his goal to own a house, which he accomplished more than once; a thorned rose that she believes symbolized his loyal but complicated relationship with his parents, especially his father; and a little devil, his first as a teenager, with the words, ‘Born to raise hell,’ a harbinger of sorts that she says needs no explanation.
“Had he lived, I know he would have added Brianna’s name. There was a spot for it,” Anna says of their youngest daughter. “I think just life … and poor decisions definitely … got in the way.”
Along with tattoos, Gary enjoyed motorcycles. He also drank in excess and abused drugs including phencyclidine. While he associated with members of the Pagan’s Motorcycle Club, authorities do not believe he was a member of that or any other biker group.
Drais’ lifestyle projected a tough guy persona, which Gary liked. But he had another side – the man who never missed work; stepped up when his wife was recovering from major surgery; doted on his kids; revered his mother; paid his bills on time; and when the mood struck, was a comedian, his family said. He was also good at math, known to help stranded motorists, and didn’t mind shoveling snow for neighbors.
Knowing that people have formed unfavorable views about their father without ever knowing him bothers daughters Shannon and Brianna.
“Sure, he was louder than most, had tattoos and rode a Harley, but deep down he was a caring and hardworking guy. He was always trying to do better for us,” Shannon, 32, shared in a text message. “I thought it was cool that dad had a tattoo for me, a red heart with a ribbon going across it adorning my name and my brother’s. It was unique, and a reminder that he loved us so much.”
Brianna, who at 27 has lived most of her life without her dad, uses words like lively, rowdy, individualistic and fun to describe him.
“Growing up, he was my best friend … I remember being a small child and enjoying looking at his arms almost like they were picture books,” Brianna shared in an email. Other memories with her dad include boardwalk arcades and roller coaster rides; Blockbuster movie nights at home; dinners out at Nifty-Fifty’s and The Old Country Buffet; and attending monster truck events.
“I know my dad wasn’t necessarily a clean-cut guy. He was rough around the edges and maybe a bit intimidating appearance-wise; my dad wasn’t the typical suburban dad. Yet, being raised by him helped shape my perspective on the way I view others. It allowed me to be more open-minded in a sense,” Brianna wrote.
‘He was a go-getter’
Gary Drais worked hard to support his family and played just as hard, qualities likely passed down from their dad, according to brother Mark Drais, 58, of Langhorne, Bucks County.
“Gary came off like a tough guy, but deep down he was not a bad person. Gary had a good heart,” said Mark, noting the same hands that made his brother a fierce boxer with 15 technical knockouts in his brief career also made an expert in woodworking.
“He was aggressive. He was a go-getter. He wouldn’t sit down and wait for you,” said Mark. “Gary was loud and rowdy. You knew Gary was in the room and could tell it from 10 miles away. Even as a kid, a teenager, he was loud, rowdy and obnoxious. But so am I, so is Dale. Ronnie was the only one who was laid back. We were four brothers growing up in the heart of South Philadelphia. We have that Philly mentality, that Philly passion, that Philly pride. We take it seriously.”
Born in Methodist Hospital and raised Presbyterian in a rowhouse on Bucknell Street, Gary Drais was the third oldest of Roland and Mae Forbes Drais’ four boys. Both his parents and oldest brother, Ronnie, are also deceased.
Roland worked for 40 years delivering beer from a flatbed truck for Antonio Origlio Beverage, while Mae’s job was taking care of the nuns at St. Agnes convent.
“We were not rich, but we didn’t act like we were poor either,” recalled Mark.
Dale, who shared a bedroom with Gary as kids, recalled playing for hours in the street; riding the “magic steps” over and over whenever they visited Lit Brothers department store; and climbing atop the roof at the Philadelphia International Airport to watch the planes take off and land.
As a family, they enjoyed trips to the Reading and Allentown fairs, and attending car and motorcycle shows. Theirs was a big Mummers’ family, and though he was not as passionate about the long hours of preparation as his father and brothers, Gary happily strutted with the Fancy Golden Sunrise Club in many New Year’s Day parades.
Gary went to the former Edgar Allan Poe Elementary School and Vare Jr. High School, and instead of high school, attended a vocational school for carpentry. He enlisted in the Marine Corps and got as far as advanced training for reconnaissance before an old hand injury forced a medical discharge.
The same injury, which occurred when Gary was thrown off a dirt bike and resulted in him losing a finger that was later surgically reattached, had already ended his days as a promising boxer, according to family.
After his stint in the military, Gary started his own carpentry business.
“My brother worked his (butt) off. No matter what, he had good values and a strong constitution when it came to that,” said Dale.
If the ancestral line holds true, it’s a work ethic that traces back more than 200 years to Baron Karl Von Drais, a noble German forest official and inventor of the first bicycle and stenography machine, among other things, according to Mark, a genealogy buff.
Both Mark and Dale remember when Gary started bringing around his new girlfriend, Anna, who quickly earned their mother’s approval.
“Gary was close to our mother, all the brothers were,” said Dale. In the hours prior to his death, Gary had dinner with Dale and their mother at Dale’s home, where she resided after selling the Bucknell Street house and until her death in 2008.
An imperfect love
Forever a hustler, Gary, was 21 and selling pots and pans out of his truck on Market Street when he first saw Anna, an 18-year-old Catholic girl from Chester, walking to her office building. After following her for several blocks, he finally asked for her number. It was late December. By April they were an exclusive couple.
“He swept me off my feet. He knew everyone. It was so exciting,” said Anna, noting they enjoyed going to bars, disco dancing and antiquing.
Anna even bought Gary the frame for his first motorcycle, a Honda, which he put together in the kitchen of their first apartment in Rutledge.
Gary Jr. quickly came along. When Anna brought him home from the hospital, the new family had six months of round-the-clock bonding because Gary was nursing four toes broken when he spun out on his bike.
“It was probably one of our happiest times,” said Anna.
When the couple wed in 1988, Anna was pregnant with Shannon and Gary Jr. was ring bearer. Brianna was born in 1994.
“We lived together for nine years before we got married … I just decided it was time,” said Anna. “We fought a lot, on and off … mostly over his drinking and staying out late. We’d separate and I’d always go back. He’d sweet talk me and I would always think the kids need their father.”
Through all their hardships, Anna said, she always loved Gary.
“In the end, I never had one doubt that Gary did not love me,” she said.
Hoping for Justice
Gary Drais was known to brag about money he kept at the house, which puts robbery at the top of a list of working theories, according to Detective Joseph Nardone, who is leading the ongoing homicide investigation for the Aston Police Department, with the assistance of CID Lt. Gordon.
Drais was beaten before he died of a single gunshot wound to the head, authorities determined. The murder weapon, recovered at the scene, was one of two firearms the victim legally owned. The second firearm remains unaccounted for, according to Nardone.
Phencyclidine, Nardone said, was among the evidence recovered in the house.
That Anna Drais found $16,000 in the pocket of Gary’s wedding jacket after the house was cleared as a crime scene, does not rule out robbery as a potential motive, according to Nardone.
“There was enough of an appearance of a struggle … drawers open …. blood on the walls like Gary was moving through his property,” said Nardone.
Even a friendly visit that turned violent is “within the realm of plausibility,” especially if you add PCP to the equation,” he said.
For the first time, authorities said they are not certain that it was the victim or his killer or killers who crashed through the sliding glass door.
“Some blood splatter and other physical evidence suggests there could have been two people, in addition to the victim, in the house … We are not certain it was Gary who went through the glass,” Nardone said.
Nardone said all blood tested from the scene belonged to Drais.
Because so much time elapsed between when the victim was found and the estimated day of death, much of the physical evidence was degraded, according to Nardone.
Back in 2005, Nardone was a patrol supervisor when he responded to the 911 call on Glenn Road, to clear the scene for possible suspects.
“I could smell death and decomposition from the street,” he recalled.
Since being assigned to the case in 2017, Nardone has kept an old Daily Times newspaper clip about the homicide pinned to a cork board by his desk.
“I look at Gary’s picture looking at me every day,” said Nardone, who would like nothing more than to find his killer or killers and bring some peace to the Drais family.
“It remains a mystery. Nothing has been ruled out,” said Gordon. “These cases never go away. Any information would be valuable.”
For the family, it’s a frustrating waiting game.
While Brianna doesn’t know if they will ever have closure, she hopes that during her life she will see justice in her father’s case.
“He deserves that, at the very least,” she said.
Like her dad, Brianna has a fondness for tattoos, and has considered adding a piece to memorialize him.
“Eventually I know I’ll figure out exactly what I want to have as a tribute to him. Hopefully, the piece will be as bold as his personality was,” she said.
(Fourth in a special and occasional series in partnership with the Delaware County District Attorney’s Office.)