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Thread: WV/PA- Sr Roberta Elam, 26, Wheeling, June 13, 1977 Catholic Nun

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    WV/PA- Sr Roberta Elam, 26, Wheeling, June 13, 1977 Catholic Nun

    Case reopened in 1977 killing of postulant nun

    Sunday, October 16, 2005

    By Cindi Lash, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette








    WHEELING, W.Va. -- They have tracked a promising lead across the country, only to rule out a San Francisco man as a suspect.

    They have sent a decades-old DNA profile to nearly 200 laboratories that analyze crime-scene evidence, hoping one will find a match.

    They have interviewed thousands of people in and out of West Virginia, searching for the elusive shred of information that will lead them to the man who, in 1977, horrified a region already rocked with fear of a serial killer.

    They are confident they will identify the killer of postulant nun Roberta "Robin" Elam 28 years ago while she prayed on the sun-dappled hill behind the convent where she had planned to make her life.

    "There is immense interest still in the case because of the nature of the crime and who the victim was," said Lt. Joe Cuchta, of the Ohio County Sheriff's Department, a member of the unit formed to reinvestigate the slaying.

    "That it happened at a convent is just outrageous," said Lt. Cuchta, who had just finished his junior year in high school when Miss Elam was slain. "We're committed and we want to solve this case."

    Miss Elam, who was 26 when she died, was an adult religious education teacher who planned to join Wheeling's Sisters of St. Joseph.

    She was raped and strangled June 13, 1977, less than 100 yards from the sisters' retreat house and adjacent Mount St. Joseph motherhouse.

    A caretaker discovered her body behind an overturned bench at 2 p.m., a few hours after she had grabbed an apple from the kitchen and walked up the hill with her Bible.

    The convent's placid, wooded grounds border Oglebay Park, and the hill where Miss Elam sat is within view of the park's Spiedel Golf Course. The brazenness of the midday attack at a holy place outraged people in Wheeling and the Tri-State area, and reignited fears that a serial killer had struck again.

    Miss Elam's death followed the then-unsolved slayings of four other young women over the previous seven months in adjoining Washington County, prompting Pennsylvania State Police to consult with investigators in Wheeling.

    Over the next months, police would question hundreds of people about Miss Elam's death, including a drifter trying to hop a train and members of a Georgia-based salvage crew who had been working on telephone poles in the area.

    They released a drawing of a white man in his 30s, with dirty, dark hair, bushy eyebrows, a mustache and a beard who had been seen near the Mount St. Joseph grounds. They sought but never found a rusty, gray or faded-blue Chevrolet or Buick, festooned with religious and coal-mining bumper stickers, that had been parked on nearby Pogue's Run Road.

    "There was nothing in her background that was even remotely dangerous or unsavory. She was what you'd expect a woman becoming a nun to be," Lt. Cuchta said. "People who knew her have been eliminated, so that almost points to a stranger. Those are the most difficult cases to solve because there is no hard trail to the suspect."

    Despite the intensive investigation, no arrest was made or motive found in Miss Elam's death. Over the years, some people were ruled out by investigation. Others continued to pique the interest of investigators, who lacked evidence or technology to link them to the crime.

    But after Tom Burgoyne took office as Ohio County's sheriff in 2001, he asked officers to take another look at the case. Burgoyne, who spent 27 years as the head of Wheeling's FBI office, said he believed advances in DNA analysis could provide a lead that investigators weren't equipped to follow years ago.

    West Virginia state troopers were thinking along the same lines and submitted evidence from the slaying scene to their forensic laboratory. The lab extracted a DNA sample that, investigators believe, came from Miss Elam's killer, state police Sgt. Danny Swiger said.

    Since then, Sgt. Swiger and Lt. Cuchta have worked together to review original investigative files, recheck leads developed in 1977 and reinterview potential suspects.

    In travels all over the region and as far as San Francisco, they've obtained DNA samples and eliminated 23 people, some of them now dead, whose names were provided by tipsters or who were overheard claiming, falsely, that they'd committed the crime.

    Also pruned from their list was David R. Kennedy, of Cecil, who is awaiting trial in the strangulation of Debbie Capiola, 14, of Findlay.

    DNA evidence led police to charge Mr. Kennedy in 2000 with killing Miss Capiola, whose body was found in 1977 in Robinson, Washington County. But it ruled him out in the slayings of two other Washington County women whose deaths in 1976 and 1977 spawned serial-killer fears, and, Sgt. Swiger said, investigators have found no links between those cases and Miss Elam's death.

    Sgt. Swiger and Lt. Cuchta have developed new witnesses and suspects, although they won't elaborate. They've posted information about the slaying on the state police Web site and they've looked at similar crimes committed elsewhere or by serial killers.

    They've submitted the genetic profile contained in the DNA sample from Miss Elam's killer to the nationwide DNA database known as CODIS, or Combined DNA Index System, in hopes that it will match the DNA of a criminal entered into the database.

    Recently, Sgt. Swiger said, investigators sent the killer's DNA profile directly to more than 170 individual labs that do DNA testing for law enforcement agencies. They've asked the labs to compare that profile with other DNA samples they've collected that did not meet requirements for entry in the CODIS system but remain in unsolved-case files.

    "Someone could have a partial DNA profile that doesn't meet CODIS standards, but that could still help us," he said. "I'm checking to see if we can link it to other crimes, to see if their suspects correspond with what we have going on."

    They've sought to publicize the case in an effort to prod aging memories and consciences. In the past week, Lt. Cuchta said, they've received a dozen calls with information "that all looks good." They've acknowledged the possibility that the killer is long dead.

    "Just because it's a 1977 case, some people think it's impossible to solve," Sgt. Swiger said. "But I think the DNA will solve it for us someday. Someone out there knows who committed this crime and we have the science and the DNA to make that final link."

    Their persistence is valued by the Sisters of St. Joseph, particularly by those who knew Miss Elam and treasured her friendship. They remember her as a brilliant, gregarious young woman who drove an orange sports car, jogged and hiked, wrote poetry about the mountains that soared above them and laughed as often as possible.

    The oldest of four children, Miss Elam grew up in Minnesota and Illinois before moving with her family to New Jersey. While in graduate school at Fordham University, she became friends with fellow student Sister Kathleen Durkin, now vice president of the Sisters of St. Joseph.

    Inspired by a pastoral letter written in 1975 by Catholic bishops from Appalachian states, Miss Elam went to work for the Wheeling-Charleston diocese after earning her master's degree in religious education. Over the next two years, her friendship with Sister Kathleen deepened while they traveled and taught adult religion classes in small towns around the state.

    In the fall of 1976, she entered the Sisters of St. Joseph and moved into its motherhouse the next June. She was spending eight days devoted to prayer and contemplation in its retreat house when she was killed.

    "It was shocking. We know what it is to share the grief that many, many people live with," Sister Kathleen said. "But nobody is immune to violence. Just because we're nuns doesn't mean we don't have things happen to us.''

    Out of their grief came a deeper compassion for other people's sorrows and struggles, Sister Kathleen said. Today, she and other sisters remember Miss Elam when they pass the striking sculpture outside their chapel that contains a snippet of her poem, "We Mountains," and they believe she is with God.

    "Certainly, you would hope someone would be held responsible," she said. "But we believe Robin is at peace, and we're at peace knowing people have done what they can to make [an arrest]."

    Anyone with information about Miss Elam's killing can contact Lt. Cuchta at 304-234-3741 or Sgt. Swiger at 304-329-1101. Link: http://www.post-gazette.com/pg/05289/588910.stm

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    There's got to be a special place in hell for someone who rapes and murders a nun. How frustrating that it's been all this time without anything solid. I hope they find the guy soon.

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    thats so terrible!!

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    Now that is very interesting. I'll see if I can find out more about that case. I'll also see if I can find out if the priest was in Pittsburgh during the time the nun Robin Elam was killed.

    Thanks for the link!

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    Quote Originally Posted by Marilynilpa
    Now that is very interesting. I'll see if I can find out more about that case. I'll also see if I can find out if the priest was in Pittsburgh during the time the nun Robin Elam was killed.
    Thanks for the link!
    There was much more about the Toledo case in the news. I do not know what the outcome of the trial was - if it was even held. It involved, allegedly, devil worship and sacrifice, and the desecration of a hospital chapel, where the priest and the nun both worked.

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  12. #7
    Quote Originally Posted by Richard
    There was much more about the Toledo case in the news. I do not know what the outcome of the trial was - if it was even held. It involved, allegedly, devil worship and sacrifice, and the desecration of a hospital chapel, where the priest and the nun both worked.
    Oh my goodness! It sounds like that murder was an isolated event, then. There certainly was no indication of anything like that in the Robin Elam murder.

    I'll check newspaperarchive.com and see if I can pull up any more information about both murders.

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    WV - Murdered nun, Sister Robin - Wheeling, 1977

    Found this interesting story about Sister Robin. Thought others might like reading it a well....

    http://www.dailymail.com/story/News/...till+a+mystery

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    That poor woman . She seemed like such an interesting person. i will definately watch the show in March about her case.

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    Interesting reading Lisa. Thanks for posting it. That is another case that has always bothered me.
    Here is a link to another thread http://www.websleuths.com/forums/sho...t=Roberta+Elam
    Retired 08/03/03

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    The Charleston Daily Mail has had a couple of stories like this the past few days - the other was the missing girl Natasha Carter ( I think that's her last name). Looks like they may be working to get some cold cases back in the public eye.

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    PS Didn't know Robin has a previous thread or I would have added there. shoulda searched!!

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    Quote Originally Posted by LisainWV
    The Charleston Daily Mail has had a couple of stories like this the past few days - the other was the missing girl Natasha Carter ( I think that's her last name). Looks like they may be working to get some cold cases back in the public eye.
    Lisa,

    I missed the article on Natasha Carter(she has a thread in missing). Do you have a link for it? Did they interview her father? I have not talked to him for a while.

    edited to add: I found the link thanks.
    http://www.dailymail.com/story/News/...still+missing/
    Retired 08/03/03

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    30 Year Anniversary...

    June will mark the 30 year anniversary of this unsolved murder. Has anyone heard of any recent developments?

    Perhaps some publicity on the Anniversary date might generate some interest.

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    bumping case up...

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    Update

    The other Nun murder case...

    Father Gerald Robinson found guilty in Murder of Sister Margaret Ann Pahl
    The jury did not take much time in deliberating - however that is their verdict.

    Case to be appealed…
    It's being suggested that evidence was withheld and that there could be another suspect for the murder of Sister Margaret Ann Pahl. The suggested killer by the new defense team is the now deceased Rev. Jerome Swiatecki.

    Here's a link to an interesting blog article about the case. Father Jerome Swiatecki was excluded by DNA. But so was Father Gerald Robinson. Curious...

    http://laurajames.typepad.com/clews/...ase/index.html

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  32. #17
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    there are two books out about this case. I read the Forgive Me Father by John Glatt.
    I don't believe he is guilty of the crime. Nor do I believe any of the satanic stuff they are placing on him. This is my opinion only.

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    I believe the case of Robin Elam was featured on a recent episode of "Sensing Murder" on the Discovery Channel.

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    In reguards to the murders mentioned by Marilynilpa in the first post of this thread...

    From November 1976 to May 1977? There were four women murdered. Then just over the line in West Virginia in June of 1977 Robin Elam was found murdered.

    Here's a two part article written by Janice Crompton, Post-Gazette Staff Writer that is interesting and gives quite a bit of info on the murders.

    Part One - Sunday, September 28, 2003
    http://www.post-gazette.com/neigh_wa...over0928p1.asp

    Part Two - Sunday, October 05, 2003
    http://www.pittsburghpostgazette.com...over1005p2.asp

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    Summary of related cases...

    Unknown Suspect dubbed the Pennsylvania Strangler (1976-1977)


    In a period of seven months, between November 1976 and June 1977, five young women were raped andmurdered within a 25-mile radius of Washington, Pennsylvania, their killer striking with impunity and leaving homicide investigators at a loss for clues.


    Despite a fair description of the suspect, published in the form of artist's sketches, there were no arrests, and none are now anticipated in a case that terrorized the peaceful border region, holding women prisoners of fear inside their homes.


    The first to die was 21-year-old Susan Rush, a native of Washington County, found strangled and locked in the trunk of her car on November 25, 1976. Detectives noted that her body had been "hastily clothed," her bra and panties left on the front seat, and a post mortem examination confirmed that the victim was raped prior to death.


    On February 13, 1977, 16-year-old Mary Gency was reported missing from her home in North Charleroi. She had gone out for a walk after supper and never returned, her body recovered three days later from the woods at Fallowfield Township. Gency was beaten to death with a blunt instrument, raped before death by an assailant the county coroner described as "a mad animal."


    Debra Capiola, 17, was last seen alive on March 17, walking to meet her school bus in nearby Imperial, in Allegheny County. She never arrived at school, and searchers found her body in a wooded section of northwestern Washington County on March 22. Capiola had been raped before she was strangled with her own blue jeans, the pants left wrapped around her neck.


    Two months later, on the afternoon of May 19, 18-year-old Brenda Ritter was found dead at South Strabane Township, in Washington County. Nude except for shoes and stockings, she had been raped, then strangled with a piece of her own clothing, tightened around her throat with a stick.


    In June, the killer strayed from Pennsylvania, but he did not travel far. His final victim was Roberta Elam, 26, a novice at Mount St. Joseph Mother House, in Oglebay Park, West Virginia, near Wheeling. Preparing to take her vows as a nun, Elam's career was cut short by the savage who raped and strangled her on June 13, dumping her corpse within 75 yards of the convent.


    On the afternoon of June 15, authorities released a sketch of a longhaired suspect seen near the Ritter homicide scene, but none of the resultant tips proved fruitful. When the murder series ended, as mysteriously as it had begun, police could only speculate about the strangler's identity and whereabouts.


    Unless deceased or jailed on unrelated charges, he is still at large today.

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    Disappearance of Cheryl Ann Moser Iacovne - related case?

    I wonder if the following case might also be related. Note that her disappearance was from Pennsylvania, only a month after the above string of cases, the last of which was Ms. Elam's murder.

    Cheryl Ann Moser Iacovone

    Missing since July 12, 1977 from Secane, Delaware County, Pennsylvania.

    Classification: Non-Family

    Vital Statistics
    Date Of Birth: April 22, 1960
    Age at time of disappearance: 17
    Height: 5 feet 8 inches
    Weight: 120 Pounds
    Hair: Blonde
    Eyes: Green
    Distinguishing Characteristics: White female

    Circumstances of Disappearance

    Cheryl Anne Moser Iacovone was last seen walking to a friend's house in Secane, Pennsylvania on July 12, 1977.

    Investigators

    If you have any information concerning Iacovone's whereabouts, please contact:

    Ridley Township Police Department Missing Persons Unit: 610-532-4000





    NCMEC #: NCMC603887

    NCIC Number: M-363861568

    Please refer to these numbers when contacting any agency with information regarding this case.


    Source Information:

    The National Center For Missing and Exploited Children


    LINK:

    http://www.doenetwork.org/cases/197dfpa.html


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    Quote Originally Posted by Richard View Post
    Unknown Suspect dubbed the Pennsylvania Strangler (1976-1977)


    In a period of seven months, between November 1976 and June 1977, five young women were raped andmurdered within a 25-mile radius of Washington, Pennsylvania, their killer striking with impunity and leaving homicide investigators at a loss for clues.


    Despite a fair description of the suspect, published in the form of artist's sketches, there were no arrests, and none are now anticipated in a case that terrorized the peaceful border region, holding women prisoners of fear inside their homes.


    The first to die was 21-year-old Susan Rush, a native of Washington County, found strangled and locked in the trunk of her car on November 25, 1976. Detectives noted that her body had been "hastily clothed," her bra and panties left on the front seat, and a post mortem examination confirmed that the victim was raped prior to death.


    On February 13, 1977, 16-year-old Mary Gency was reported missing from her home in North Charleroi. She had gone out for a walk after supper and never returned, her body recovered three days later from the woods at Fallowfield Township. Gency was beaten to death with a blunt instrument, raped before death by an assailant the county coroner described as "a mad animal."


    Debra Capiola, 17, was last seen alive on March 17, walking to meet her school bus in nearby Imperial, in Allegheny County. She never arrived at school, and searchers found her body in a wooded section of northwestern Washington County on March 22. Capiola had been raped before she was strangled with her own blue jeans, the pants left wrapped around her neck.


    Two months later, on the afternoon of May 19, 18-year-old Brenda Ritter was found dead at South Strabane Township, in Washington County. Nude except for shoes and stockings, she had been raped, then strangled with a piece of her own clothing, tightened around her throat with a stick.


    In June, the killer strayed from Pennsylvania, but he did not travel far. His final victim was Roberta Elam, 26, a novice at Mount St. Joseph Mother House, in Oglebay Park, West Virginia, near Wheeling. Preparing to take her vows as a nun, Elam's career was cut short by the savage who raped and strangled her on June 13, dumping her corpse within 75 yards of the convent.


    On the afternoon of June 15, authorities released a sketch of a longhaired suspect seen near the Ritter homicide scene, but none of the resultant tips proved fruitful. When the murder series ended, as mysteriously as it had begun, police could only speculate about the strangler's identity and whereabouts.


    Unless deceased or jailed on unrelated charges, he is still at large today.

    This article omits Barbara Jean Lewis who was killed a few weeks after Susan Rush. She was raped and strangled with an article of her own clothing. Also, a little reported fact about Mary Gency is that she was pregnant at the time of her murder. There are a few more during this time frame, including Joan Rasperger.


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    This article mentions that this is the first case that allowed satanic ritual testimony. However, in January 1981, Frank Costal was tried for the murder of Kathy Kadunce and her 4 year old daugher Dawn Kadunce. Extensive satanic ritual testimony was allowed and upheld on appeal. In fact, Costal was referred to High Priest of Satan in most of the headlines. He admitted on the stand that he led people to believe he was a Satanic Priest. Kadunce's husband was also tried for the murder one year later and he was acquitted. Michael Atkinson was the star witness at both trials. Costal is dead and Atkinson is currently serving three life sentences in a Pennsylvania state prison.

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    More Unsolved Pennsylvania Murders of the 1970's

    Quote Originally Posted by meachchar View Post
    This article omits Barbara Jean Lewis who was killed a few weeks after Susan Rush. She was raped and strangled with an article of her own clothing. Also, a little reported fact about Mary Gency is that she was pregnant at the time of her murder. There are a few more during this time frame, including Joan Rasperger.
    Some more unsolved PA murders:

    Mary Grace Triolo 15
    A ninth grader in the Fairless School district, she was found strangled in Bristol PA on February 20 1965.

    Karen Monhollen 14
    Body found in Lima quarry in Middletown Township. No cause of death.

    Delores Dellapenna 17
    From Philadelphia PA, Wildwood
    Disappeared July 11th 1972 while walking to a trolley stop. Torso found July 22nd in Jackson Township N.J and legs found on July 29th, 1972 in Manchester N.J in wooded area.

    Patty Bartlett 17
    From Lower Makefield, PA
    Stabbed to death on January 13th 1975 at Oxford Valley Mall.

    Valerie Seibert 16
    From Philadelphia PA
    She was discovered on 4 March 1975 lying in a field near Second Street Pike and Swamp Road in Wrightstown by a farmer. Seibert, who was an 11th-grader at George Washington High School in Philadelphia, was missing for two days from her home in on Chilton Road in Northeast Philadelphia. Police also said they believed that Seibert was shot twice on the farm. The case is unsolved.

    Susan Rush 21
    From Washington PA
    Found in the trunk of her car in Washington PA, strangled. She was found on Feb 24th 1976.

    Brenda Lee Ritter 18
    Left her boyfriends house in Washington PA, her car was found the next day in South Strabane and her body was found the same day in North Strabane strangled, on May 18 1977.

    Joan Rasperger 15
    From Slickville, West Moreland County
    She was found in a wooded area. No cause of death. Nov 1977.

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    cases linked

    I ran across an article written about these murders that had this quote:

    Ashton said DNA evidence has linked unknown men to the 1976 strangulation of 21-year-old Susan Rush in Washington County and the 1977 rape and strangulation near Wheeling of Roberta Ann Elam, a 26-year-old postulate nun.

    It is interesting that Susan Rush was killed on her way to church. Her family is quoted as saying she was a very devout young woman.

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