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