The moment that Ashley Barton saw the car, she knew something was amiss.
The cream-colored Chrysler PT Cruiser with California plates and a U.S. Marine Corps sticker had appeared near the end of the first week of January, parked by itself in a seldom-used auxiliary lot at the Riverview Landing at Valley Forge community in West Norriton. It was nearly half a mile from any of the housing units.
"They only use that lot when the Schuylkill floods the regular parking lot," said Barton, who lives in the complex. "Maybe once or twice a year. It’s on high ground. They tell us to park there and run shuttles [to the housing units]. Nobody would [normally] park there. I knew something wasn’t right.”
Through the car’s windows, she could see a purse and some military items. Traffic audibly zipped by on the nearby Betzwood Bridge that carries US 422 over the Schuylkill River.
“All of this [military] paraphernalia,” Barton said. “Posters, war stuff.”
Barton said she called West Norriton Police, but was told that police had already checked out the car out after an earlier call from another resident.
"They said it wasn’t stolen. I was more worried about the person who left it there," Barton said.
The car belongs to Janice Rubendall, a resident of the Trooper section of Lower Providence. Rubendall, a 25-year-old Marine Corps veteran, was reported missing by her father, Robert Rubendall, on Feb. 9. He hasn’t seen his daughter since Jan. 4.
After the Marines, a Changed Person
"She left in the middle of the night," Janice Rubendall's father said.
That wasn’t unusual according to the elder Rubendall, who said his daughter had kept mostly noctural hours in the three-plus years since she returned home from the military.
"That’s when all her activity would be," Rubendall said. "She would sleep during the day."
Sometimes, Rubendall said, Janice would remain in her bedroom for "two or three days" at a time, prompting him to check on her welfare.
She was not the same young woman who had left home to join the Marine Corps years earlier.
Janice is a 2004 graduate of Methacton High School, where her father says she frequently made honor roll and ran cross-country track.
"She was book smart. She was always reading books. Pretty good in school," he recalls.
After graduation, she spent about a year as a volunteer with the Lower Providence Fire Department and working at a local McDonald’s before enlisting in the Marine Corps.
Janice earned the Marines’ “Expert” marksmanship qualification badge, among other commendations, her father said.
Michael Dewees, a friend from the Corps and one of the few people with whom Rubendall spent time after leaving the military, described her as "a little shy" and as someone "who never bucked the system."
"If you told her to be home by 10 p.m., she'd be home by 10 p.m.," Dewees said.
A Troubled Return Home
Dewees, who followed Janice into the Marine Corps, said she was "fine" after completing basic training but that she was changed by a seven-month deployment to Iraq in late 2006 and early 2007. According to her father, Janice was stationed first at Camp Fallujah and later at Camp Ramadi, U.S. outposts in two of the most violent regions of Iraq prior to their capture from insurgent groups in the first half of 2006.
Dewees said that when Janice returned from that deployment, she was "more distant."
"She didn't want to talk about it. Even if it was eating her alive, she didn't want to talk about it. If you kept pushing, she would just clam up and say 'take me home,'" Dewees said.
"She didn’t seem like herself [after she left the Marines]," her father said.
It also seems she was also no longer someone who avoided "bucking the system."
Montgomery County court records indicate that Rubendall had a number of minor run-ins with law enforcement over the past few years. She was arrested for public drunkenness in December, just a few weeks before she disappeared.
Her father recalls an incident in February 2011 in which he says police officers used a "stun gun" to subdue Janice. He doesn’t know what happened. He only knows that he had to drive to the VA Medical Center in Coatesville to collect her.
It was there he learned that Janice had not received an honorable discharge from the Marine Corps, something Janice had never told him about.
"She didn’t want to talk about any of that," the elder Rubendall said. He said he doesn’t know the circumstances of her discharge.
Rubendall said that at the time of his daughter's disappearance, he had been talking to Janice for some time about seeking treatment from mental health professionals, an idea to which she was strongly resistant.
"I couldn’t find any help for her and she didn’t want to go by herself. You’d think I could have found some help for her. Your kid's gonna go serve your country, she should be able to get some help," Rubendall said.
Whatever demons plagued her, however, Janice Rubendall still liked to run.
"She’s got a backpack she used to run with," her father said. "It’s heavy. It weighs 70, 80 pounds," which is not much less than Janice herself.
"She’s only a little short thing, but she’s tough," Rubendall said.
The backpack is locked, but Rubendall is considering cutting it open to examine its contents.
"I don’t know what’s in it," he said.
Rubendall was known to run on the Schuylkill River Trail, which passes just a few hundred feet from where her car was found. Even closer, however, was another place where Janice would run when she needed to collect her thoughts: the graffiti-covered underside of the Betzwood Bridge. It was a place she had frequented since her childhood in the nearby Betzwood Trailer Park, where she lived until she was about 15.
As recently as last year, according to Dewees, Janice’s younger brother found her climbing on the easily accessible catwalks that hang from the underside of the bridge.
Janice would go there "when she wanted to get away from everybody and just think," her father said.
When she left on the night of Jan. 4, Rubendall believed Janice had gone to stay with her older brother Robert Jr., who lives in Norristown, to avoid further discussions about mental health treatment. Rubendall and Dewees both said Janice had left without warning in 2011 for "about a week" in order to collect her thoughts.
Dewees said that if Rubendall disappeared intentionally, "she won’t be found unless she wants to be found."
One factor that makes Robert Rubendall worried for his daughter is her abandoned car, which was finally towed from the Riverview’s auxiliary parking lot on Jan. 26.
Rubendall said his daughter would never leave her car. Dewees agreed.
"She was obsessed with that car. It was her pride and joy. She would check it for scratches," said Rubendall.
"I’m hoping she’s okay," Dewees said. "I hope that she’s somewhere with somebody she knows."
Rubendall said he has spent hours walking along the banks of the river in the vicinity of the Betzwood Bridge, looking for some sign of his daughter.
"I don’t know why I wasn’t told sooner that her car was sitting there," Rubendall said. "More than anything, I want to know where she is and what’s happened to her."
Anyone with information regarding the whereabouts of Janice Rubendall should contact the Lower Providence Police Department at 610-539-5900.