WELLSBORO -- One step ahead of the taxman, Mike and Rhonda Fromm headed home.
The midnight-to-9 a.m. shift at Ward ACP Manufacturing in Lawrence Township had passed quickly for Mike, and he returned to his family's double-wide home at nearby Somers Lane Trailer Court and found that Rhonda, who earlier had gotten her three children off to school, had dozed off.
"I can see her sleeping there now," Mike said. "But she's gone."
It was Friday, Oct. 27. They had planned to go to the Tioga County Courthouse in Wellsboro, 20 miles away, that morning to pay their real estate taxes before an Oct. 28 deadline.
Mike thought about going alone and letting Rhonda sleep. But he had promised to wake her, so he did, and she drove their 1997 Dodge Intrepid to Wellsboro.
They paid their taxes and turned back toward Tioga, driving north through bright fall sunshine, planning for the weekend.
Mike, drowsy from his midnight shift, wasn't paying close attention to the traffic on Route 287. He and Rhonda talked back and forth.
"She asked what we were going to do on Saturday, because we both had that day off," Mike said.
"I was just kind of thinking about it, about the options. I thought we might go to Corning and get some Chinese food. Or just sit home and relax."
A pickup truck hauling a heavy, homemade -- and stolen -- dual-axle trailer was heading south on 287, just north of the Ives Run Recreation Area access road.
There was a major equipment auction nearby, and Mike figures that the truck driver believed he could move the stolen trailer through the area without raising suspicion because of all the other trailers on the road.
Not a bad plan. But no safety chains attached the trailer to the truck, and one-half mile north of Ives Run, on a straight stretch of road, the trailer and the truck separated.
"I saw the trailer out of my peripheral vision," Mike said.
"This dark shape. He must have been going 70 or 80 miles an hour. Everything happened so fast. I realized there was not time to go around it, and I thought, maybe we will just blow through the trailer. But it was too heavy."
The trailer hit the Intrepid near the front left wheel and utterly destroyed the driver's side of the vehicle. The crash flipped the car onto its roof.
"There was the crash, the impact," Mike said. "I went forward. There was skidding of metal on blacktop.
"At first I didn't realize we had gotten flipped upside-down. I crawled out through the back window. I realized I was still alive. I started screaming Rhonda's name. I looked over at her and I knew right then she was gone."
Rhonda Fromm died instantly of massive head, chest and pelvic injuries.
The driver of the truck never stopped. Instead, he drove away and disappeared, leaving a broken family, a mystery for police and an act of cowardice of enormous proportions.
From neighbors to nightmare
Mike and Rhonda were neighbors, she divorced with three children; he, in the process of divorce, no kids of his own.
An e-mail romance and warm coffee became something more. That was six years ago.
Mike worked midnighters at Ward; Rhonda worked part-time at Smokin' Joe's tobacco shop just up the road, "because she felt good about helping out, about getting her own paycheck," Mike said.
It was a simple family, with simple pleasures and humble dreams. Now, a nightmare.
Mike, a Granville Summit native, loves Rhonda's children, Leon Rockwell, 15; Karissa Rockwell, 13, and Brooke Rockwell, 8.
He has legal custody of them, he's raising them and he wouldn't have it any other way. And it's tough.
He works midnighters so he can spend time with the children, students at R.B. Walter Elementary School and Williamson Junior-Senior High School.
But they have to get themselves up for school, make breakfast, get on the bus. There's no Mom to help.
Maybe she knew what was coming.
"It's weird," Mike said. "She always talked about it. She got all worried about it. Whenever there was a (fatal) crash, she got all hurt. What if she died in a car crash, she said. Who would take care of her kids?
"I told her I would and to stop talking about it," he said. "I told her to stop it."
Cops, courts wait for clues
Police combed the accident scene for clues. They impounded the trailer.
Shortly, investigating Trooper Jeff Crum found that the offending trailer, as well as another one, had been stolen two weeks earlier from Stage's Equipment near Tioga.
But there were no uninvolved eyewitnesses to the crash, no good descriptions of the truck.
Not much to go on, despite an aggressive investigation that has even involved Pennsylvania Crimestoppers, which has provided statewide publicity and offered a $2,000 reward.
"We get leads to follow up on," Crum said. "But nothing substantial yet. It has been kind of dead lately. We still have some follow-ups to do.
"There were no eyewitnesses," he said. "No one has come forward yet with information.
"But it seems unusual for it to be stolen from Stage's and then be involved in a fatal crash four-and-a-half miles away two weeks later.
"Somebody in this rural area knows something -- something they're not saying yet. Someone saw something," Crum said.
The driver of the truck likely faces serious criminal charges. Among the likeliest: motor vehicle homicide; involuntary manslaughter; leaving the scene of an accident involving death and possession of stolen property.
George W. Wheeler, Tioga County assistant district attorney, said his office would prosecute the case as diligently as possible, once an investigation confirmed that a crime had been committed.
"The District Attorney's Office joins with state police in encouraging anyone with information on this incident to come forward and reveal it to us," Wheeler said.
"It appears with the evidence that we have now that a crime has been committed. We just need to identify a suspect."
'Just luck. Bad luck'
For the Rockwell children and Mike Fromm, life goes on.
It does not get easier. Workers at Ward sent Christmas presents and cards and set up an education fund for the kids.
Christmas, Rhonda's favorite holiday ("She loved to spoil those kids," Mike said.) was quiet.
Mike wants to find the person who "killed a mother and wife whose family loved her more than anything." And he wants justice.
"I don't have violent feelings toward the person," he said. "Maybe I would if I was younger. I just want to ask him why he didn't stop.
"This guy is a real loser," he said. "He even stole an old trailer.
"Sometimes I think the whole thing is going to go away," Mike said.
"But then I know it's not. I know it happened and I have to live with it and do the best I can for these kids."
Maybe even win the lottery for them. Mike identifies with the lottery.
"That's what happened on Oct. 27th," he said. "It's the same thing as the lottery. It was just luck. Bad luck.
"If we were two seconds faster or two seconds slower, or if we had stopped for coffee, my wife would still be alive," he said. "My kids would still have their mother."
Reward awaits tipster
Pennsylvania Crime Stoppers and family members of Rhonda Fromm are offering a $10,000 reward for information leading to the arrest of the person driving the truck that towed the utility trailer that killed her. Crime Stoppers is offering $2,000 and the family has put up $8,000.
Anyone with information can contact Crime Stoppers at 1-800-4-PA-TIPS or State police at Mansfield at 570/662-2151.
Callers' identities may remain confidential.