It was the summer of 1979, and the Ascot Drive-In north of Akron was a popular hangout for area teens.

Dates snuggled in their cars. Friends stood outside their rides catching up with classmates.

It's doubtful many were paying attention to the screen that Friday evening of Aug. 24, even if "The Amityville Horror" was one of the season's biggest hits.

Ricky Beard had no expectation of seeing the end of the movie anyway. The 19-year-old had graduated from North High School three months earlier, but his date, Mary Leonard, was the 17-year-old daughter of an Italian-Catholic family with a strict midnight curfew.

So Ricky and Mary left early. They stopped at the parking lot of Stonehedge bowling alley for 10 minutes to chat with another couple. Then they pulled away, Ricky's white Chevy Impala heading down Cuyahoga Falls Avenue in the direction of the Leonard home on Thayer Street.

They would never be seen again.

Unlikely romance

What former Akron Police Chief Phillip Barnes once called the most intensive missing persons investigation in his city's history had its roots in a romance that started just before the end of the school year when Ricky and Mary — both from large, well-established families in Akron's proud North Hill neighborhood — decided to date.

It was a pairing their friends thought unlikely. Mary was the kind of person who colored inside the lines, a studious and sweet girl perfectly suited for the customer service desk she worked at the Acme grocery store.

"She had a smile 24/7," said her older sister, Nancy Flach, 67.

Ricky was a bit of a bad boy. He smoked a little marijuana, wouldn't back down from a fight and gave the impression of someone carrying a chip on his shoulder.

But his rough exterior was all bluster, his siblings said. Those who knew him well saw beyond that, a kindness obvious to the small neighborhood kids who used to knock on the door and ask if teenage Ricky could play with them.

"I think he tried to be kind of a hard ass, but he wasn't," sister Luanne Eddy, 63, said. "He really had a soft heart."

He worked as a refrigeration technician, and on Aug. 24, he cashed his $120 paycheck, paid his car insurance and put $15 in his wallet.

While Ricky and Mary had been seeing each other for three months or so, it seemed destined to be a summer romance. Mary had confided to her girlfriend, Carla Chitwood, that she planned to break up with him soon.

It didn't seem Friday was the night, however. Ricky picked Mary up for their date, and they appeared to be all smiles as they left the house.

Counting cars

William Beard was an early riser, sipping his first Pepsi by 5 or 6 a.m. His morning routine included making sure all of his increasingly independent charges were where they were supposed to be.

He and his wife, Helen, had six children. Two were grown and living on their own, but four were living at home and three drove cars.

An easy way to account for all his kids without having to make the trek to the attic bedroom was to look outside and count the cars.

That Saturday morning, Ricky's car was missing.

William Beard sent his son Bill for a spin around North Hill to look for Ricky's car, then called the Leonard home to make sure Mary got home OK the night before.

Mary's brother found her room neat and tidy, her bed undisturbed. Panic set in.

But before the families even had the chance to call police, the police called them.

At 7:43 that morning, officer Ronald Kolenz of the Northampton Township Police Department became curious about a car he spotted on a farm off Portage Trail Extension near Northampton Road, at the top of the hill that descends into heavily forested Merriman Valley.

Years later, the township would become part of Cuyahoga Falls, but in 1979, Northampton was still an unincorporated rural township with its own police force.

Kolenz thought it looked as if someone had tried to drive the car through the doors of an abandoned garage.

He ran the plates and found Ricky's name.

Search begins

Police found Ricky's wallet tucked behind the visor, a $5 bill on the floor, a bag of Doritos and a blanket in the back seat, and a handful of marijuana cigarette butts in the ashtray.

They also found a bullet hole, its trajectory going up through the back seat and exiting the windshield. It didn't appear the bullet hit anything. There was no blood.

Akron police joined Northampton at the site, but before investigators had a chance to process the scene, Ricky's family and friends arrived to search for their lost loved one in the tall grass of the vast field.

For William Beard, the possibility that he was looking for his son's body weighed heavily on a heart that had already endured three surgeries by the age of 46.

His son, Bill, remembers the intensity of that first search.

"We'd turn something over and then look at each other like, phew, then after awhile I looked at him and said, 'We can't do this. We have to have other people do this,' " said Bill, 61. "It was too stressful."

Maybe because their disappearance was only hours old, and police thought it possible they were runaways, the investigation seemed careless at the start, family members said.

They wonder what might have been compromised with friends and family loitering around the car and left unchecked to traipse through the farm field looking for evidence.

"Everybody was out there, and nobody should have been out there," said Tom Leonard, 65, Mary's older brother.  

Worry deepens

The families wanted to believe there was a good explanation for all of it.

Luanne Eddy, Ricky's older sister, remembers sitting at her parents home Saturday waiting for her brother to walk through the door and tell them about last night's adventure.

By Sunday, "I think then it got real. OK, they really are gone. They're really not coming back," Luanne said.

Before going to work that Friday, Mary had picked up proofs of her North senior pictures. Now they became her missing poster.

Akron and Northampton police tried to put together a timeline of their date night, and a neighbor of the Leonard family gave a statement that surprised everyone.

Frank Ronca told police Mary had made it home by curfew, and Ricky was with her. He didn't see them — the siblings and their friends often avoided the porch for fear of disturbing their parents inside, and usually sat on the steps closer to the sidewalk.

The teens were out of his view as Ronca stood on his own porch finishing his nightly smoke, but he said he could hear Mary giggling and saw Ricky's familiar white and blue car parked on the street.

So if Mary had gotten home safely, and was comfortable enough to be laughing, what went wrong?

Mary would never have left that yard willingly, say those who knew her best.

"Mary knows the rules. We weren't the children that bucked the system," said best friend Carla, a Chitwood then, a Herbert now.

Tom Leonard wonders if Ricky had done something to offend someone, maybe one or more people who were angry enough to come get him. Mary might have been a witness they couldn't allow.

"I think it's possible that whatever happened started right there" in the Leonard front yard, Tom said.

Search intensifies

If the police were initially focused on the runaway theory, it didn't last long. They brought out helicopters and bloodhounds. The bloodhound handler said it was his opinion that Mary and Ricky were never at the site where the car was found.

Richard and Gloria Leonard brought in even more eyes to look for their daughter. They hired William Dear, a flashy private investigator who had made a name finding missing persons around the country.

Dear flew in from Dallas on his private plane and set up shop at the Cuyahoga Falls Town and Country Motor Hotel with his team for a few weeks.

He gave the Leonards an undisclosed discount on his $1,000-a-day fee, and family and friends held fundraisers — dances and craft shows — to help pay him.

Dear said his team found a witness who saw a bushy-haired man with a mustache in the car with Ricky late Friday night. They circulated a drawing. Nothing came of it, and by Christmas, Dear had returned home to Texas.

Then in February, Dear's team announced they had a source who knew Ricky and Mary to be living out of state. They promised details would come, but they didn't.

In May 1980, Akron police had news of their own. They told reporters a reliable source had overheard a conversation about how the teens had been killed and their bodies left near the banks of the Little Cuyahoga River.

On May 17, National Guardsmen, Marine reservists and Akron police officers led 150 civilians as they marched over tangled briars, poison ivy and fallen trees during a rain that never stopped.

Eight hours of searching found nothing, and they didn't even make it as far as the Cuyahoga Valley National Recreation Area, where a killer would have 32,000 acres of fields and woods to conceal a crime.

Following leads

William Beard came up with his own creative ways to get more people looking for his son. He reported Ricky to the IRS for not filing his taxes, and to Selective Service for not registering for the draft.

He died in 1981, not any closer to knowing what had happened to his boy.

The remaining Beards and Leonards continued to chase down every tip that came their way, no matter how far-fetched.

When Richard Leonard received a letter from a prison inmate laying out plans for getting his daughter back, he donned a bulletproof vest and kept the appointment, which was just another hoax.

And when Helen Beard received a call that her son was being held in the basement of a house on Dan Street, she went to the address and banged on the windows screaming her son's name. Nobody responded.

Mary and Ricky's siblings — there are 11 in all — said there is a unique kind of agony that comes from not knowing a loved one's fate.

For six years, they rode an emotional roller coaster, trying to accept the worst while still daring to hope for the best. Only one thing could put the turmoil to rest.

It happened on May 29, 1985.

Learn more about how the families made it through those first six years on Ohio Mysteries podcast "Elusive Justice Part 1, Missing." Available on any podcast app, or look for a direct link on Ohio.com.