Karen Gruber was a mom, a daughter and a sister. Her family loved her for her sweet, gentle soul, for her smile and laugh. She adored her children, including the son who was still on the way in early 2001.

Gruber's life wasn’t easy. She struggled with substance abuse, and there were times when she was losing the battle that the struggle drove her to the streets of Newburgh. When she was winning, she’d sometimes try to help the other women she knew out there.

By April 18, 2001, Gruber, 35, had been clean for more than a year. But something drew her back onto the street in Newburgh, well before dawn.

Somewhere out there, she met a monster. She was beaten to death, and her body set ablaze.

"The way she left this earth is incomprehensible to us," said one of Karen's sisters, Michele Gruber. "This is something that you cannot even fathom would ever happen to anyone you love or even know. Yet, in our case it did. And here we are, left to pick up the broken pieces. We must move forward and it is difficult to do so, particularly when we know that whoever did this has not been brought to justice. Will justice bring her back? Of course not, but it will go a long way toward helping us heal."

No one knows why Karen Gruber was out that night.

By 3:15 a.m., when the owner of a Washington Street bar was closing up shop, firefighters were in Delano-Hitch Park trying to extinguish the fire consuming Gruber’s remains. It didn’t take them long, but the flames had done their work.

Police needed dental records to identify Gruber.

They have yet to identify her killer.

“I’ve been contacting the police, and trying to rattle cages, and the Orange County District Attorney,” said Michele Gruber. “So much time has passed.”

Karen Gruber left behind three young daughters, now grown. The unborn son she carried died with her.

“The persons that did this just have no idea the amount of damage they’ve done. They need to be brought to justice,” Michele Gruber said. “I just try to make sure her name is not forgotten.”

Gruber’s family has fought over the years to get police and the legal system to spend time on the case. They’ve had promises that her death will be revisited, and they know some work has been done, but little has come of it.

Gruber’s case has a distinct disadvantage: She was killed in the City of Newburgh. Based on Times Herald-Record archives, there have been 54 homicides in the City of Newburgh since Gruber’s slaying, of which 13 cases (with 16 victims) are unsolved. City budget cuts have slashed the police department staff.

“Pushed aside, basically, because there’s no more leads, no more information,” said Lucy Dardenne, another of Karen’s sisters.

After 15 years, the family has no answers.

“It could have been anybody. It could have been someone she knew,” Dardenne said.

Karen Gruber’s family holds out hope that one day her killer will be identified and prosecuted. They hope advances in DNA or a witness who finally decides to speak up may break the case.

"Karen deserves justice. A heinous act such as this should never be allowed to stand by any civilized society," Michele Gruber said. "If we could only get the right person to care, listen and take real action, we feel there is a real possibility this case can be solved. We challenge the city, the police department, and the legal system to go beyond their comfort zone, perhaps extend themselves just a little bit, and take some real action to solve Karen Gruber's murder, instead of giving generalized statements on the anniversary and never thinking about it again."

hyakin@th-record.com