Workers were laying conduit for a fiber optic cable through Akron’s Merriman Valley in May 1985 when they made a gruesome discovery.

A backhoe operator moving dirt in a wooded area off Riverview Road caused something to skitter across the ground.

It was a skull.

The workers thought they might have disturbed an Indian burial ground until they noticed silver fillings in the teeth.

Police searched the dirt and found pieces of clothing that were all too familiar. They matched the description of what Akron teens Mary Leonard and Ricky Beard had been wearing six years earlier when they went on a date to the movies — and vanished.

The most intensive missing person investigation in the city’s history had ended — and a homicide investigation would now begin.

Mary Leonard, 17, and Ricky Beard, 19, both from large families in the North Hill neighborhood, went on a date to see a drive-in movie on Aug. 24, 1979, and were never seen or heard from again. The next morning, Ricky’s Chevrolet Impala was discovered on a farm lane in Northampton Township, now Cuyahoga Falls, with a bullet hole in the windshield but no blood inside or signs of a struggle.

Over the next six years, police and the teens’ families and friends searched and followed up on leads but never found Mary and Ricky.

The discovery of the remains confirmed their worst fears but still left many questions:

What happened? And who was responsible?

The families hoped the police would finally uncover answers.

“I thought, ‘Maybe now, we’ll have some clues as to what happened and we’ll have some resolution to this,’ ” said Bill Beard, 61, Ricky’s brother. “The big puzzle is: Why?”

Family notified

The morning after the remains were found, the phones of the Beard and Leonard families started ringing — from Ohio to Florida, from North Carolina to the Air Force base on the Pacific island of Okinawa.

That’s where Mike Beard, Ricky’s brother, received the news. The American Red Cross said they were sending a flight to get him that day.

“I was glad it was finally over,” recalled Mike Beard, 60. “I already felt deep down that that was the ending — that they were going to find bodies. They were never going to find living people.”

Several of the family members still in Akron rushed to Riverview Road to see firsthand what had been found — and what was being done.

Recovering the remains took all day. The forensic team quickly realized that the bodies had been on the surface of the ground for six years. In dragging the dirt, the backhoe operator had unwittingly mixed the bones with freshly turned soil. The skull was released when the operator started to back fill the trench he was digging.

The team, made up of employees of the Summit County Coroner’s Office and the Akron and Northampton police departments, shoveled the dirt into screen boxes and used a water hose to sift mud from bone.

Investigators showed Nancy Flach, Mary’s sister, Mary’s skull because she had taken Mary to the dentist. Flach confirmed they were her sister’s teeth. They also held up clothing that was recovered.

“We said, ‘Yes, this is definitely her,’ ” Flach, 67, recalled. “There’s no doubt about it.”

Tim Beard drove his mother, Helen, to the site, parked out of view of the recovery effort and asked her to stay in the car. He walked into the woods and saw sheets laid out with bones on them.

“They were trying to piece the skeletons together,” said Tim Beard, 57. “My brother being put together like a puzzle.”

Along with the clothing, the team also found other items — Mary’s purse, wallet and watch and Ricky’s pocket money clip, pocketknife and loose change.

Summit County Coroner Dr. William Cox confirmed the identities of Mary and Ricky through dental records. He sent their remains to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., for help in determining the cause of death.

The families finally were able to put their loved ones to rest during funerals on Saturday, July 13, 1985, at St. Martha’s Church. Ricky’s Mass was at 9:30 a.m., followed by Mary’s at 11 a.m. The teens were buried at Holy Cross Cemetery in Akron about 130 yards apart.

Many family members attended both teen’s services.

“I just remember going to the funeral home and thinking, ‘Oh, my God, I have to go over to the funeral home too and see Mary’s family,’ ” recalled Luanne Eddy, 63, Ricky’s sister. “I think my biggest concern was for my mom. My dad was gone by then, and I just wanted to help her get through that and you know there’s probably nothing I could do for her to make it easier.”

Brutal deaths

The autopsies showed that both teens had suffered brutal deaths within a few hours of when they were last seen.

Ricky had been shot twice, at the base of the neck from the front and in his right shoulder from the back.

Mary’s injuries were more extreme. In addition to being shot once in the back and twice in the left arm, she had a chipped tooth consistent with a blow to the chin, a stab wound in her ribs, a cracked sternum and a fractured arm.

The teens were shot with a .357-caliber Magnum or a .38-caliber revolver, the coroner said.

The injuries provided clues that enabled police and the teens’ loved ones to speculate.

“I think they killed her first and then him,” said Tom Leonard, 65, Mary’s brother.

“She was tortured — and he had to watch,” agreed Carla (Chitwood) Herbert, Mary’s best friend. “I’m sure.”

Bill Beard said someone may have harmed Mary to try to get his brother to say or admit something.

“And he didn’t back down,” Mike Beard said. “He didn’t back down from any of us — and it wouldn’t have changed for anyone else.”

The location where the remains were found was another clue. The drive was between trees and overgrowth and led to a home that was a football field away in the woods. It was remote enough that some local kids had used it as a lover’s lane.

Herbert, though, said she and Mary weren’t familiar with this spot and she can’t imagine her best friend going there willingly.

Another curiosity was the close proximity — less than 2 miles — between where the remains were found and where Ricky’s car was discovered the morning after the teens were last seen. The car was on an unused farm lane off Portage Trail at the entrance to a decrepit cinder block garage with rotting doors. There was a single bullet hole in the windshield but no blood inside.

Back in 1979, a bar was located on the corner near the garage where the car was left, the only business in the area. Mike Beard wonders if the killer may have been familiar with this bar and walked there to catch a ride after dumping Ricky’s car.

“It was somebody near there who knew the location,” he said.

Coping with loss

While continuing to speculate about their siblings’ murders, both families found ways to cope and to remember the people they lost.

The Beard family avoided bringing Ricky up to Helen Beard because it upset her. Gloria Leonard, Mary’s mom, however, had the opposite view.

Connie Leonard, Jerry Leonard’s wife, recalls asking Gloria, “Do you like to talk about Mary?”

“I’d talk about Mary every day if I could,” Gloria responded.

“Talk away,” Connie told her.

And they did.

Jerry Leonard met Connie, who was a classmate, when she gave him a hug at a fundraiser for Mary at North High School. They later married and had a daughter named Ashley who seemed to have a special connection to Mary, though they never met.

When Ashley was 10, she had a school project that involved writing about her perfect Christmas present. She said it would be the gift of life for her aunt Mary.

At Mike Beard’s son’s wedding two years ago, the family had a memory table featuring pictures of loved ones they’d lost, including Ricky.

As the Beard and Leonard siblings started their own families, they tended to be extra vigilant with their own children because of the losses they’d suffered.

“It frightened me to death that something like that might happen to them,” said Peggy Coates, 55, Ricky’s sister. “So, with my own children, I’d be like: ‘You can’t leave until I know where you are. I need to know who you’re with. I’m not going to go through this again …' They would be like, ‘Oh, Mom,’ and I’d say: ‘I need to know where to start to look for you. You don’t understand.’ And, they’ve been pretty compliant because I drilled it into their heads for so long.”

Through the years, the families often disagreed about whether the case would ever be solved. Gloria Leonard told the Beacon Journal in 2000 that she wasn’t hopeful, though some of her children were.

“I hope they prove me wrong,” she said.

She went to her grave not knowing. She died in December 2014 at the age of 87 — the last of Mary or Ricky’s parents to pass.

Many of the surviving family members, however, still hope the mystery will be solved in their lifetimes.

Throughout the past four decades, three main theories emerged about what likely happened — and who was responsible. Police and family members, though, disagree on which theory is most likely true.

Learn more about how the families dealt with learning their loved ones had been murdered, and how the discovery of their remains impacted the investigation, on Ohio Mysteries podcast, "Elusive Justice Part 2: Homicide." Available on any podcast app, or look for a direct link on Ohio.com.