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Stalking the Strangler

Cold case heats up as improved DNA testing sheds light on 27-year-old murders

Sunday, September 28, 2003

By Janice Crompton, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

First of two parts

A vicious murder spree targeting young women 27 years ago prompted people to lock doors they once left open. Gun sales soared and self-defense classes were organized. Women left their homes with escorts or signaled loved ones when they arrived safely at their destinations.

 
 

Next Week

Kennedy's arrest has brought new attention to other similar murders throughout the region, including a November 1976 murder of a 30-year-old woman in Penn Hills, Allegheny County, and the June 1977 murder of a 26-year-old student nun near Wheeling, W.Va. A former FBI profiler discusses the tendencies of serial killers in cases similar to the murders in Washington County.

   
 
 

Residents tuned in to television newscasts and read newspaper coverage to learn details about savage murders of the type that more often occur on urban streets.

But the question persists: Who killed four young women from November 1976 to May 1977?

Over the years, police and residents speculated that the likes of Ted Bundy or Edward Surratt, among other noted serial killers, might have looped through the county on a killing spree.

But clues were lacking, and local residents and some police concluded a "Washington Strangler" was responsible for all four killings. Police conducted exhaustive investigations for years, then finally set them aside in frustration, some still feeling the need to capture the fiend who eluded them for nearly three decades.

But new evidence has helped police to piece together theories of the crimes and raised doubts of one Washington Strangler.

Under the microscope

Fast forward 23 years from the killings to the fall of 2000. Although police theorized the crimes were committed by one man -- "and it was a man," according to former county Coroner Farrell Jackson -- they recently learned there were at least three murderers on the loose.

Advances in DNA technology allowed police to analyze samples from the murder scene of Susan Rush, a 21-year-old Washington woman who was found strangled in the trunk of her car Nov. 25, 1976.

Although City of Washington police had been comparing the crime scene DNA with several suspects' over the years, in 2000 they were able to rule out the primary suspect in one of the other murders.

The DNA they sought belonged to David Robert Kennedy, a Cecil man who has generated a great deal of interest among local law enforcement officials.

Kennedy, 48, was arrested in December 2000 for the 1977 murder of 17-year-old Deborah Jeannette Capiola of Findlay, Allegheny County. Although he'd been a suspect for years, police were unable to make an arrest until the technology was available to test a sperm sample from the crime scene, which police say matched Kennedy's DNA. The sample used was insufficient for testing until 2000, when advances in DNA tests finally provided police with a genetic profile.

Capiola vanished the morning of March 17, 1977, on her way to catch the school bus. Her brother usually walked with her to the bus stop, but not that day. She left her home on Point Park Road at 7:45 a.m. When the bus arrived eight minutes later, there was no sign of her.

Her body was discovered 10 days later on a hillside near an abandoned strip mine, about 3 miles from her home, in Robinson, Allegheny County. She had been sexually assaulted, then strangled with the leg of her blue jeans.

Kennedy became a suspect when his maroon vehicle with a vinyl top was seen speeding near Capiola's home and the crime scene the morning of the murder. He arrived late for work, telling co-workers he had a flat tire. He allegedly later told police he was late because he had visited a local car dealership.

Two days before Capiola's remains were found, police searched the spillway of nearby Blue Lake, where some youngsters had found Capiola's belongings. State game wardens said they had spotted Kennedy's vehicle at the lake twice that day. Several days after the homicide, a co-worker said he saw Kennedy removing the vinyl top from his car.

Kennedy is in Allegheny County jail awaiting trial, while the state Supreme Court irons out a handful of pretrial motions. Prosecutors cannot seek the death penalty because it didn't exist in Pennsylvania at the time of the murder.

But police are investigating whether Kennedy may have killed more than once. They believe Kennedy's alleged actions in 1977 and more recently paint the portrait of a dangerous man.

State police Trooper Rebecca Loving spearheaded the effort to analyze the DNA in 2000, when she and other members of a cold-case squad came up with the sperm sample on Capiola's blue jeans.

She believes Kennedy was watching Capiola walk to her bus in the mornings.

"He was a stalker," Loving said. "[Capiola's] brother would go with her every day. [Kennedy] stalked her."

Stalking is a typical sign of predatory behavior, and that's a bad omen, according to Loving.

"He was a predator," Loving said. "And they don't stop."

Kennedy, married three times with no children, "fits the profile of a serial killer to a T," she said.

Loving requested travel vouchers from the federal government, which employed Kennedy as a civilian mechanic at the 911th Airlift Wing of the Air Force Reserve base in Moon, Allegheny County.

"Many times, he was out of state," she said.

Most disturbing were Kennedy's alleged actions in 2000.

When Kennedy found out he was being investigated by Loving and her colleagues, Loving said he began stalking her.

Loving said during a meeting with the suspect, Kennedy leaned toward her and in a casual, conversational voice told her he'd been following her, naming places she'd been recently and details of what she wore on certain days. She believes he followed her on at least two occasions.

"He scared the hell out of me," she said.

Kennedy's attorney, William Manifesto, said he knows nothing about the stalking accusations and declined to comment on his client's case.

"Because there is a pending case, it would be inappropriate for me to make any comment," Manifesto said.

On the day Kennedy was arrested, Loving had mixed feelings of accomplishment and grief.

"I just cried like a baby," she said.

Deja vu

The series of local murders began with Rush, who vanished at about 6:10 p.m. Nov. 24, 1976 after leaving her job at Murphy's department store in the Washington Mall in South Strabane.

Her body was found shortly after 9 a.m. the next day, when her brother Gary Rush spotted her vehicle parked along North Avenue, less than a mile from the mall. Her car doors were locked and her body was in the trunk, hastily clad in pants and a turtleneck that was inside-out.

Rush had been strangled with a piece of string or leather, according to the autopsy report. There were no bruises or scratches on the body, except for the ligature marks, and tests showed Rush had sex shortly before her death, which occurred about midnight.

If she submitted to sex, it was only to save her life, according to Rush's family. She was a deeply religious person who never had been on a date.

Mary Irene Gency, 16, of North Charleroi, disappeared Feb. 13, 1977, when she left home after dinner to meet some friends. Her severely beaten and frozen body was found six days later in a secluded, wooded section of Fallowfield. She was raped and died from multiple skull fractures and brain lacerations.

Although police arrested David Davoli, 19, several months later, he was released when prosecutors failed to establish evidence against him, except that Gency may have been seen in his car 90 minutes before her death.

Loving and other members of law enforcement are convinced Kennedy was not responsible for Gency's death and believe it was not related to the others. Loving said there's a strong suspect in the case whom police still are investigating.

Capiola was the next to be murdered, followed two months later by Brenda Lee Ritter of North Strabane, who was found strangled in scrub woods within several miles of her home.

The 18-year-old secretary left her boyfriend's home about 10:10 p.m. May 18, 1977. Her boyfriend, Larry Bonazza, and his mother watched Ritter drive away, making sure her car doors were locked.

The rash of murders had Ritter's family on edge; like many others, they insisted their four daughters lock car doors and be wary of strangers.

The next morning, her abandoned car was found in neighboring South Strabane.

A massive search was organized, but before it could get under way, searchers in a state police helicopter spotted Ritter's remains on a hillside about three-quarters of a mile from her car.

Ritter was raped, then garroted with her panties, which were twisted tightly around her neck with a stick.

The Ritter investigation seemed to be a turning point for authorities. Why would a young woman, who knew there was a killer on the loose, open her car door or stop for a stranger?

Jackson forwarded a theory that the killer may have been posing as a policeman to gain victims' trust. So, when county Sheriff Hanna "Pie" Johns shot himself only days after the Ritter murder, tongues began to wag and haven't stopped since.

Johns' family said he'd been despondent since he lost his bid for the Democratic nomination for sheriff two days before Ritter's death.

Johns' suicide made townsfolk suspicious, though there was no evidence against him. Twenty-six years later, there still are residents who insist Johns was the murderer, based chiefly on urban legends and false rumors. Police investigated Johns and quickly cleared him.

"If there's ever a person who was investigated, he was," said Jackson, coroner for 34 years. The continued assaults on Johns' reputation are "a disgrace," Jackson said.


Janice Crompton can be reached at jcrompton@post-gazette.com or 724-223-0156.

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