Family holds out hope for justice in 1974 murder of SUNY Cobleskill student

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Nearly five decades have passed since the body of SUNY Cobleskill student Katherine “Kathy” Kolodziej was found on Thanksgiving Day in 1974, but New York State Police investigator David Ayers told Dateline he isn’t about to let Kathy’s killer get away.

“It’s a very tough case – and a lot of time has passed,” Ayers said. “But let’s just say, anything is possible. It’s not hopeless.”

Kathy, 17, was out with friends at The Vault, a local bar in the Village of Cobleskill, New York, on November 2, 1974. She declined a ride back to campus with her friends and decided to stay at the bar a little while longer.

Ayers told Dateline that Kathy was last seen around 1:30 a.m. leaving the bar and crossing the street, presumably headed back to campus, which he said was about a mile away. It was the last time she was seen alive.

Just hours earlier, Kathy’s mother, Hattie Kolodziej, had spoken with her daughter, asking her not to go out, to instead stay home and study, Kathy’s cousin, Vicki Szydlowski told Dateline.

“She was a good kid,” Vicki said. “But it was a Friday night and she wanted to go out with her friends to the local bar. It was a small community, everybody knew everybody and that’s just what we all did back then.”

But when Kathy failed to return to her dorm room that weekend, her roommate and her family knew something was wrong.

Charles Szydlowski, Kathy’s uncle, who retired from the NYPD in 1979, remembers the call he got from his sister, Hattie, after they realized Kathy was missing.

“I told Hattie — I told her that she’ll be all right,” Charles told Dateline. “But my sister was so upset. She kept saying that Kathy was dead. Dead on the side of the road somewhere. Turns out, she was right.”

After weeks of searches by law enforcement, college security and hundreds of volunteers, police were alerted to a red shoe found near Cross Hill Road in Richmondville the day before Thanksgiving, Investigator Ayers told Dateline. But as law enforcement organized a search in the area the next day, a hunting party alerted them to their grim discovery.

On November 28, 1974, Kathy’s body was found in a field on MacDonald Road in Richmondville, New York. Investigator Ayers told Dateline a deer hunter had spotted an article of clothing, a piece of red cloth, in the distance through binoculars and alerted police, knowing that a missing teen was last seen wearing a red coat.

Kathy’s naked body, found on a low rock wall, was covered by the red coat draped over her like a blanket, Ayers said. She had been stabbed several times, he added.

Instead of gathering for a Thanksgiving meal that year, Kathy’s parents prepared for the funeral of their only child. Kathy’s cousin, Vicki, who was only a year older than Kathy, remembers how the tragedy devastated their family.

“We were supposed to go to Aunt Hattie’s at their home in Ronkonkoma that day for Thanksgiving,” recalled Vicki, who lived in West Islip, New York. “But then they got the call about Kathy. Nothing was ever the same.”

Vicki and her siblings were close to their cousin Kathy when they were younger, but started to drift apart as they began their semesters at different colleges.

“But we always came back together at family gatherings – we had that cousin bond,” Vicki said. She described her cousin as a kind, good person who always made them laugh. Her specialty was accents, and had mastered her father’s thick Polish accent, which made their families chuckle when she mimicked him.

Vicki told Dateline it was Kathy’s father who built a makeshift stable in the backyard of their Lake Ronkonkoma home when the teen begged for a horse.

“She loved all animals, was always bringing them home,” Vicki said with a laugh. “But she really loved horses – loved riding them, caring for them,” Vicki explained. “It was her passion. And it led to what would have been her career.”

When Kathy began her freshman semester at SUNY Cobleskill, the Long Island native and aspiring veterinarian already knew she would study animal husbandry. But Kathy never got to finish her studies or begin her career with horses.

For years, Kathy’s parents worked with detectives on their daughter’s case as tips and leads poured in. But nothing led them to Kathy’s killer or answers about why she was murdered.

Kathy’s father, Andrew, died in 1999 and her mother, Hattie, died in 2001.

“They mourned their daughter for so many years,” Vicki said. “But they died before knowing who did this to her. It’s heartbreaking.”

Since Kathy’s parents’ deaths, Vicki and her father, Charles Szydlowski, have assumed the duty of talking with investigators about updates in Kathy’s case. Charles, who recently turned 90, told Dateline he’s hopeful his niece’s case will be solved soon.

“Our family would like closure,” he said. “I would like to know. And one day, I’ll be able to tell my sister what happened.”

Multiple investigators with the New York State Police have worked Kathy’s case over the past 46 years, periodically reaching out to the public with pleas for information, but the widening gap of time has proven to be their biggest hurdle.

“Individuals who may have had information of what happened are older now, some have even passed away,” Ayers explained. “But we’re still hoping to track someone down who we missed before. We received numerous tips over the years, but the more time that passes, the harder it becomes.”

Investigator Ayers, who inherited the case in 2016, told Dateline that thousands of people have been interviewed over the years, but the investigation has failed to produce a suspect or location of murder. Convicted killers Ted Bundy and Lewis Lent were also questioned at some point, but were ruled out.

Ayers told Dateline that he is unable to disclose specifics regarding DNA findings in Kathy’s case, but said “it’s an investigative avenue we continue to explore due to the advancements made with DNA technology.”

“I do believe that any developments made with DNA evidence will be a huge step towards getting answers and possibly solving the investigation,” he said.

In 2017, investigators revealed a billboard on Route 7 in Cobleskill with a photo of Kathy and a plea to the public for anyone with information to call authorities. In 2012, Ayers’ predecessor, Tom Cioffi, had also placed billboards and made requests for information through the media to try to keep the murder on the public radar in the Cobleskill area.

Ayers has also taken over the Unsolved Homicide of Katherine Kolodziej @Justice4Kathy Facebook Page, which provides updates on the case and invites those who knew Kathy or lived in the area to submit information.

“We hope that by sharing Kathy’s story, and photos of the local bar and the area of Cobleskill, it will jog someone’s memory and they’ll have the information we need,” Ayers said. “There’s always somebody we might have missed, or someone who was reluctant to talk. We hope now is the time they come forward.”

Ayers told Dateline that he hopes there will be a renewed interest in bringing Kathy’s killer to justice and closure for her family.

“We’re coming up on 50 years since Kathy’s murder,” he said. “But we haven’t given up. There’s always a chance for closure. There’s always hope.”

New York State Crime Stoppers is offering a cash reward of up to $2,500 for information that directly leads to the arrest and conviction of the person(s) responsible for the homicide of Katherine Kolodziej.