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Common threads: Murders across region were similar but weren't all committed by same killer

Second of two parts

Sunday, October 05, 2003

By Janice Crompton, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Law enforcement officials are comparing notes and DNA evidence to determine whether a Cecil man, arrested for the 1977 murder of an Allegheny County girl, was involved in murdering two other women beyond Washington County borders in an era when fears of serial killings besieged the county.

 
 
Part One of the series:
Cold case heats up as improved DNA testing sheds light on 27-year-old murders

   
 

It's the latest twist in a long-standing mystery that's only now being unraveled but is far from being solved.

David Robert Kennedy, 48, of Cecil, is awaiting trial for the March 17, 1977, rape and strangulation murder of Deborah Jeannette Capiola, 17, of Findlay.

Since 1977, Washington County police have been haunted by a rash of unsolved homicides involving the strangulation of four young women in separate incidents. Some police and residents believed the slayings of four local women between November 1976 and May 1977 were the work of one man, dubbed the "Washington Strangler."

Investigators and families of the other murder victims from that era hoped that when Kennedy was arrested in December 2000, more information about the other murders would be forthcoming.

But recent investigations show that two of the four murders were not related.

If not Kennedy, then who?

Advances in DNA allowed police in 2000 to analyze a sperm sample from Capiola's jeans, which were used to strangle her. That led to the arrest of Kennedy, a suspect in the case from the beginning.

Theories that Kennedy may have been involved in at least two of the other murders came undone when he was eliminated as a suspect in the Feb. 13, 1977, rape and beating death of Mary Irene Gency, 16, of North Charleroi. Police have a suspect in the case and are convinced Kennedy had no part in Gency's murder and that her death was unrelated to the others.

DNA analysis also cleared Kennedy in the Nov. 25, 1976, slaying of 21-year-old Susan Rush, of Washington, who was found strangled in her car on North Avenue.

The ties that bind

Capiola's murder was the third in seven months, followed shortly by the rape and strangulation of Brenda Lee Ritter, 18, of North Strabane. Ritter was found May 19, 1977 in woods near her home. She was strangled with her panties, which were twisted tightly around her neck with a stick from a nearby shrub.

Ritter's murder ended the series of local slayings. Beyond the purview of local investigators, though, similar murders continued. It also appears that the killings may have begun earlier than suspected, with the murder of a Penn Hills woman.

One week before Rush was killed, Barbara Jean Lewis, 30, was found strangled in a trash container outside the Brackenridge Civic Association in Churchill, Allegheny County, about a mile from her Penn Hills home.

Like the victims that would follow, she was partially clad and her other belongings were found less than two miles from her remains. And, like Capiola, Lewis quickly was snatched on her way to a bus stop.

Her sister last saw Lewis at about 6:15 a.m. as she was preparing to walk to the bus stop, less than a five-minute walk from the Lewis' home. Her remains, still warm, were found around 9 a.m. by a cleaning woman at the civic association. She was strangled by hand, but her killer had stuffed her mouth and nostrils tightly with paper gauze after death. There was no sign of sexual assault, although Lewis' underwear was on inside-out and her bra was askew and torn.

Police were left clueless, even after an exhausting investigation and hundreds of interviews. Churchill police Chief Richard James was a patrolman at the time.

"We had a number of suspects, but nothing ever came of it," said James, who recently received a letter from a neighbor of the Lewises who encouraged police to continue the investigation.

As a result of interviews by the Post-Gazette, state police Trooper Rebecca Loving expressed interest in the Lewis case. She and other members of a cold-case squad handled the renewed investigation of the Capiola murder and led efforts to obtain the DNA profile that implicated Kennedy.

Shortly after Ritter's death June 13, 1977, Roberta Ann Elam, a 26-year-old student nun, was found raped and strangled on the grounds of her convent, near Wheeling, W.Va.

Sister Robin, as she was known at the Sisters of St. Joseph Mother House, was attacked, police believe, as she knelt in prayer next to a park bench that overlooked the convent. She was found in a nearby field used by the nuns as a place to pray and meditate.

Elam had arrived at the convent only two weeks earlier for a retreat of quiet contemplation before she was to take her vows.

Now-retired West Virginia State Police homicide investigator Don Shade was called to lead the investigation two weeks after the murder. By the time he saw the murder scene, Shade said, "cigarette ashes were all over the place," and the chances of obtaining any forensic evidence were slim.

Even two weeks after the murder, an area of nearby weeds remained mashed down, Shade said, indicating the killer had lain in wait for Elam. Shade said Elam's killer was "very strong" and crushed her larynx.

Police obtained blood samples from everyone they could think of, from golfers to priests, and tried hypnosis on witnesses. The Ohio County sheriff's office revived the investigation last year and was able to use DNA to rule out a longtime suspect.

Investigators continue using DNA to search for Elam's killer but were unaware of the status of the Washington County cases until an interview with the Post-Gazette. They plan to look into Kennedy's arrest and to obtain his DNA profile.

There are other murders in West Virginia and Ohio that authorities believe may be related, including one in 1995 that Loving said "reads exactly like" Capiola's case.

The strain felt by public officials was evident after the Elam murder, when Jackson publicly criticized then-Washington County District Attorney Jesse Costa for not asking the FBI for assistance. The feud intensified, with the two exchanging barbs and protesters rallying outside the county courthouse. Police were under scrutiny for not combining resources more effectively and still are chastised by some victims' families.

Profile of a madman

Police in the 1970s frequently referred to the killer as "a maniac," "deranged," and as a "madman" for his evil bravado and cleverness.

Serial killers are "heavily into a fantasy world," according to Robert K. Ressler, a 16-year veteran of the FBI's Behavioral Science Unit and one of the developers of the bureau's violent criminal apprehension program, also known as VICAP.

Ressler now is a private consultant, specializing in serial and sexual homicides. He has assisted in investigations of serial killers including Ted Bundy, Charles Manson, Jeffrey Dahmer and John Wayne Gacy.

Loving said Kennedy began stalking her when he found out he was being investigated in 2000 for the Capiola murder. In a meeting, he told her where she'd been and what she'd been wearing on at least two occasions, she said.

If Kennedy killed Capiola in 1977, then stalked Loving as late as 2000, it could be a signal that he wanted to take his fantasies "a step further," Ressler said.

"It would indicate multiple crimes," Ressler said.

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

Serial killers "have a sense of omnipotence," Ressler said. "They become bolder as they go."

People like this "develop a style of getting victims."

Local authorities who did not believe the area murders were linked often cited the varying methods of strangulation.

It's a common misconception, though, that serial killers follow the same rituals, Ressler said.

"These people are experimenters" who try many variations, Ressler said.

However, typical serial killers tend to stick with what works in regard to secondary chores, like the way they dispose of a body or lure victims.

"This person has to have a skilled way of obtaining victims," Ressler said.

One common thread that continues to baffle police is the fact victims were not bruised, beaten nor otherwise injured during such violent assaults. Loving theorizes that the killer may have used a ruse that he had a flat tire, swiftly shoving victims into his trunk before they knew what was happening or before he drew the attention of passersby.

"This case sounds like it could be expanded quite a bit," Ressler said of the local murders.

If the cases are the work of a serial killer, Ressler said, it would be a "very organized offender" who chooses his victims and stalks them first.

Killers oftentimes return to the scenes of their crimes to relive their fantasies or simply to clean up loose ends, he said. "This is a pattern that we see frequently with serial killers," Ressler said.

The murders continue to haunt the original investigators.

South Strabane police Chief Donald Zofchak said that while there were suspects in the Ritter case, including a sketch of a suspect seen walking along nearby Interstate 70 on the night of the murder, nothing panned out.

"We never got a good grasp," he said. "It never got to a point where we had anyone zeroed in."

State police have taken over the Ritter investigation, and although they have a DNA sample from Ritter's body, it isn't sufficient for testing yet.

Since Kennedy was eliminated as a suspect, the investigation into Susan Rush's murder has floundered. Washington city police focused much of their attention on Interstate 70 and its proximity to the Washington Mall. DNA profiles have been obtained from suspects including serial killers throughout the country to no avail.

Retired state police Trooper Bernard Stanek said he and others conducted "thousands and thousands of interviews" during the investigations of the murders. Police explored the possibility that the murders were the work of serial killers such as Bundy or Edward Surratt.

Stanek said he had "a heavy feeling" that the murders in Washington County and West Virginia were related.

"That was one of the things that always bothered me when I retired," he said.

The families of the victims remain saddened and frustrated by the lack of progress. The Ritters and Rushes have followed their own leads for years and worked side by side with police.

"We were living in our own little world until somebody invaded it," said Ritter's mother, Hazel Ritter.

Anyone with information about any of these cases is asked to call state police Trooper Rebecca Loving at 724-929-6262.


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

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