Justine Gross died after a bizarre fall through a trash chute at an apartment building near Penn State, minutes after meeting a young man in his room where she was offered a “blunt,” the girl’s mother says.
Francoise Gross says she has more questions than answers nearly a week after her 19-year-old daughter’s body was discovered by a trash hauler while emptying its load at a Pennsylvania landfill.
She said Justine’s roommates — fellow students at Penn State — say she met a man at the Beaver Terrace apartments last Wednesday night and he gave her a “smoke,” which may have sent the girl into a panic, the mother told NJ Advance in an interview at her Summit home on Thursday.
Francoise Gross said she spoke to the man, who she knew only by his first name, last Thursday, a day after her daughter disappeared. The man told her that Justine freaked out after taking the drug. She later ran to the top floor and jumped into the chute, plunging 11 stories to the dumpster below.
“I said to him, ‘you’re the last one to see my daughter, what happened?’” the mother recalled. “He said, kind of casually, like ‘she came down and I gave her a smoke.’”
Francoise said she was shocked. To her knowledge, Justine didn’t use drugs. “He said she had a really bad reaction, a panic, or whatever and he was trying to take her back to her apartment on the 10th floor.”
From the beginning, State College police have referred to the incident as an “accident,” but have refused to disclose any details. Police have said they’ve withheld information at the request of the family.
Justine’s mother disagrees. Gross said she never asked police to withhold details, and she’s not convinced her daughter’s death was entirely by accident. She’s yet to see the coroner’s report — toxicology results could take four to six weeks — and she also has pieced together some details by talking to her daughter’s roommates.
On her phone is a troubling text from one of one of Justine’s friends at college. They’re Justine’s last words, to her friend on Snapchat: “Something just happened,” is what Justine told her friend, in a text that was timestamped 11:22 p.m. on Nov. 10, just before Justine plunged down the chute.
The mother left Summit to go to Penn State last Friday to join the search. By the time she arrived, her daughter’s body had been found, she said. Gross met with police, who showed her a video sequence of Justine’s last moments.
According to the mother, the video shows Justine leaving her 10th floor apartment and walking to meet at the man’s apartment on the seventh floor. She is later seen leaving the apartment with the man, walking unsteadily through the hallways.
Justine never made it back to her apartment, where her roommates were waiting for her. Instead the video sequence shows her running onto the 11th floor, seemingly alone, then rushing into the chute room, where she disappears and is not seen again.
Her mother wants to know: was Justine in a panic on a bad drug trip, or did something else happen?
“That’s just not Justine. She would never do something like that, go down a chute,” Gross said. “They want me to believe she walked into that chute. I believe someone was chasing her and she went into the chute, thinking it was a staircase.”
Justine’s cell phone and flip-flops were found in the stairwell. And Gross said the police have twice questioned the man, “but he’s now got a lawyer and he’s not talking.”
State College police have said they only released enough information to assure other students that there was no threat to public safety. Gross said she disagrees with that approach, and says the university should be providing more information.
“They just want to move on,” she said.
State College police did not return repeated phone calls on Thursday. Penn State spokeswoman Lisa Powers said the investigation is an off-campus case and the State College police decide what information to release.
“It would be inappropriate for he University to interfere with that investigation nor to address information that has not been publicly released,” she said in a prepared statement. The university has offered its condolences to Justine’s family and friends, and has psychological counseling available to anyone who desires it, she said.
“We are heartbroken for the family and friends of Justine Gross and offer our condolences to all who knew and loved her,” Powers said. “Penn State staff in Student Affairs and beyond are offering assistance to family and acquaintances who are mourning this loss.”
A candlelight vigil was held in State College outside the Beaver Terrace apartments on Thursday night.
Meanwhile, Summit is planning a candlelight vigil to remember Justine, the high school cheerleader and honors student who left home and was studying Communications at Penn State. That vigil will take place at the high school football field beginning at 7 p.m on Friday night.
Francoise Gross said she tracked her daughter’s cell phone and went to bed every night knowing where she was. Justine was coming home for Thanksgiving to be reunited with her brother Joseph, and sister, Jasmine.
Now the family is getting ready for Justine’s funeral, to be held Saturday at noon at St. Teresa of Avila Church in Summit.
“I will bury her,” the mother said, stoically. “But I want to know what happened to her.”
Editor’s Note: This story has been updated with comments from a Penn State spokeswoman.
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Richard Cowen may be reached at email@example.com.