“We’re all so close,” Mary Courtright told Dateline about her family. Born and raised in Elmira, New York, Mary is the oldest of John and Dorothy Bellinger’s four children, all girls.
After Mary it went Kathy, then Elizabeth and finally the youngest, Karen. “She was a lot younger than the three of us,” Mary told Dateline. “She was the baby.”
“I’m 10 years older than Karen,” Mary said. “And I’m 9,” sister Kathy Losito added.
The sisters had a typical childhood. “Life was much simpler,” Kathy remembered. “We played outside until it got dark.”
Mary told Dateline the Bellinger bunch was extremely tight-knit, and they would often take family trips. “We would camp,” Kathy said. “We used to go to Gettysburg at least twice a year.” Kathy said her father is a huge Civil War buff, so Gettysburg was always a mandatory visit.
But the biggest vacation the family ever took was to Disney World in 1975. Mary said the sisters were very excited about the excursion. “Karen was little,” Kathy told Dateline. “That was fun.”
The sisters grew up and started families of their own. “[Karen] was married,” Kathy said. “She has two kids and four grandchildren now.”
The sisters told Dateline that Karen and her husband were high school sweethearts. The couple eventually married and moved out of Elmira. “They were a military family,” Mary said. “So they moved around a lot.”
Mary told Dateline that in 2005, after Karen’s husband retired, the couple moved back to their hometown. They settled into a house a couple of miles from the house Karen grew up in, where John and Dorothy Bellinger still live today.
Not long after the couple moved back to Elmira issues began to surface, according to Karen’s older sisters.
“She was drinking,” Kathy recalled. “I think child protective services was called,” Mary added. The sisters told Dateline that Karen had been struggling with alcohol abuse and on March 29, 2013, she was kicked out of the house. “Her husband had her removed from her home,” Kathy told Dateline. Karen moved back in with their parents.
Kathy told Dateline that Karen “was OK” when she first moved back to Elmira. The sisters said that she would drink socially, but it never got out of hand. It wasn’t until 2012 that the family started to notice a change. “It got really bad,” Mary said.
The sisters told Dateline that Karen suffered from health issues and was dealing with problems in her marriage. “I think that all contributed to it,” Kathy said of her sister’s increased use of alcohol. Dateline attempted to reach Karen’s husband for comment, but was unsuccessful.
In May of 2013, Karen was still living at her parents’ house. “She was depressed,” sister Kathy said. “She spent a lot of time walking the streets,” Mary said, noting that Karen didn’t have a car. Most of all, Kathy said, Karen was struggling being away from her two children. Both of the children were born in April and she was unable to celebrate their birthdays with them. “She was just so distraught,” Mary said.
Mary told Dateline that on May 6, 2013, Karen had dinner with her parents and shortly after, went out for a walk. But, Mary said, “She never returned home that night.”
The sisters said Karen always returned home, so when she wasn’t there the next morning — their parents were alarmed. “My mother called all her friends and they drove around the neighborhood,” Mary told Dateline.
While driving, the sisters said their mother saw a police presence near Newtown Creek in Elmira but, initially, didn’t think anything of it. “There had been a shooting the night before not too far from there,” Kathy said. Their mother thought it may have something to do with that.
But Kathy said that her mother started to have a bad feeling about what she had seen, so she turned around and made her way back to the scene near Newtown Creek.
Someone Karen went to school with was already there.
“My mother asked her, ‘What’s going on?’” Kathy told Dateline. “She said, ‘He found a women’s body. Her name is Karen.’”
It was her daughter. Karen Bellinger Canestaro’s body was found on May 7, 2013, near Newtown Creek. “She wasn’t in the creeks,” Kathy said. “It was like a tributary going into the creek.” The sisters were familiar with the area and said they used to play there as kids.
Initially, the medical examiner did not release an official cause of death. “We just thought that she maybe died of natural causes,” Kathy said.
Kathy told Dateline that it wasn’t until she returned to the scene with her father to plant a cross for Karen, that their family started to think her death wasn’t an accident. Karen was found in a “little bit of water,” but it “wasn’t that deep,” Kathy said. “The little waterway that she was in was dammed off, so I knew something was wrong.”
The sisters said it wasn’t until January 2014, that they learned their sister’s cause of death. Karen had drowned and her death had been ruled a homicide.
Dateline spoke with Ronald Gunn, the Elmira Police Department investigator assigned to Karen’s case. He told Dateline in an email that Karen was last seen in the “late evening to early morning hours” on May 7, 2013, near her parents’ house. He added that Karen’s official cause of death was drowning and that the “medical examiner’s office conducted an autopsy and ruled the cause of death a homicide.” Investigator Gunn told Dateline that there are a “few people of interest” in Karen’s case but would not elaborate.
Although it has been almost a decade since Karen died, her sisters told Dateline they will never stop fighting for justice. They run the ‘Justice for Karen Bellinger Canestaro’ Facebook page and continue to post about Karen, hoping someone will provide information that could help solve her case. As they approached the ninth anniversary of Karen’s death, the family posted that they placed a new cross near the area where Karen’s body was found. The Bellinger family is also offering a $10,000 reward for any information leading to the arrest and conviction of the person(s) responsible for Karen’s death.