by, Jack Swint . . WestVirginiaNews@gmail.com
Part One.... Like every other state in the country, WV has its own share of violent crimes, including murders and missing persons believed to be dead, that date back as far as this states birth in 1863. In our 3 part series, we will go back in time to resurrect 9 cold-case unsolved murders in the Mountain State.
Now, with the passing of time, authorities still hope that someone will come forward with new information that will allow investigators to finally bring the guilty to justice and closure to the victim’s family.
WHO KILLED BARBARA ANN BARNES?
Take the short drive over the bridge from Weirton West Virginia into Steubenville Ohio and you could easily miss the fact you’d just crossed the state line. Residents in both communities go back and forth everyday as a part of life. Most people consider themselves apart of both small cities, and feel a bond as though they were all family.
So when one of their own children became missing, they became one community searching for answers as to why a teenage girl was kidnapped, raped and murdered so many years ago.
Like so many other schoolchildren, thirteen-year-old Barbara Barnes, pictured above, walked to and from school each day. Her family knew her as "Barbie," but the quiet girl was nothing like the flashy doll of that name. She had been blessed with intelligence, beauty, and friendliness but rarely spoke without being asked a question. Barbara was one of the brightest students in her eighth-grade class at Harding Middle School, where she sang in the choir. Friends recall she rarely spoke to anyone about her family, her poverty, or her father’s murder seven years prior to hers. Barbara Ann Barnes keeps her secrets to this day.
On December 7, 1995, Barbara vanished. No one realized she was gone until after 3 p.m. "She usually comes home after school," said Kathy Barnes, her mother, back in 1995 in a newspaper interview with local media." According to media accounts, her mother had missed phone calls from the school notifying her that Barbara was not there. The brown-haired, brown-eyed girl was last seen at the intersection of Brady Circle and Ridge Avenue just blocks from where she attended Harding Middle School in Steubenville.
Justin Rinehart, a classmate, noticed her walking ahead of him before he became distracted. He didn’t see her the next time he looked in her direction. At first, police treated her disappearance as a missing person’s case. Law enforcement, family, friends, and people who didn’t even know Barbara started to search. At the time, police sergeant Bob Villamagna was in charge of juvenile cases at the time. "Even if I retire I’ll never rest until this case is done," he said at the time. Children who walked to school along her route told investigators they couldn’t remember whether they’d seen Barbara the morning she disappeared. Once she vanished, the city of about 20,000 could talk of no one else.
Crews roamed wooded areas, riverbanks, and places like Union Cemetery, which sits right behind Barbara’s school. But searches turned up nothing. Days turned into weeks and months, but the family remained hopeful she’d return. But then, three months later on February 22, 1996, devastating news traveled back home. Surveyors near Clinton, Pennsylvania, had found a young girl’s body. Someone had dug a shallow grave in a creek bed; local police were called to the scene. "The surveyor took one last look at the stakes," said Officer Villamagna. "He wanted to go down the hill and look at these stakes again and make sure everything was the way it was supposed to be. And when he went down over the hill, he saw part of her body exposed."
The search was over. Barbara had been found. Her initial cause of death was strangulation. Back home, a community mourned and wanted to know how this could have happened to such a young, innocent girl. The case switched from finding Barbara to finding her killer. Police became overwhelmed with leads, calls, and even a psychic who had visions of how the murder happened. "There was a lot of information," Villamagna said. Police questioned suspects, some as far away as the desert southwest. But just when it looked like they were making progress, they hit roadblocks. They were no closer to finding the murderer, which prompted the FBI to offer a $90,000 reward. Villamagna admitted, "I can’t think of another crime that’s more horrendous than to do something to a child like that. If you can do what they did to that kid, you can do anything to anybody."
Barbara Barnes’ murder case has been routinely revisited as Steubenville police and the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Department follows up on any leads. But, the critical pieces of evidence are still out there, and law enforcement agencies remain optimistic they’ll find them. "Everyone that’s involved in this case is 99.9 percent sure who the perpetrator is but just can’t get that one little thing to lock the door on that case," Villamagna said. "Somebody knows something."
Barbara’s body was found within one and a half miles of a farm owned by a relative of Louis Boyce, Barbara’s uncle. Investigators took soil samples from shovels found on that property, but they didn’t match soil from the creek bed where Barbara’s body was found. Boyce was given a lie-detector test. According to law enforcement sources, "He flunked the polygraph miserably." But those test results are not admissible as court evidence. "If it was a stranger who picked her up, did she struggle? Why didn’t anybody see it?" asked Pete Basil, assistant superintendent of Steubenville’s school district and the former principal of Barbara’s middle school. "Why go way out into the woods, in another state, and bury her? Whatever happened that person felt he had to dispose of the body in a way that didn’t come back to Steubenville."
Anyone with information on this 14 year old murder is asked to contact the WV State Police Detachment at (304) 564-3854
Research and development for this story was made possible by the assistance of the Steubenville and Jefferson County Public Library, The Wheeling Intelligencer, Pittsburgh Post and Tribune-Review newspapers, Steubenville, Jefferson County and WV State Police. Along with the friends and family of Barbara Barnes and Jack Swint’s book, "Who Killed?…Pittsburgh PA.
WHO KILLED SISTER ROBERTA ELAM?
Roberta "Robin" Elam was not actually a nun yet the day she was brutally murdered on June 13, 1977. The twenty-six-year-old woman was a pre-novitiate candidate. She was preparing a silent retreat at the "Mother House" by the order she intended to join for a life in Christ. Roberta was reportedly by herself in the field by the convent for the Sisters of Mt. St. Joseph to contemplate the commitment she was about to make.
According to regional newspaper accounts published shortly after her death, it appeared that while Roberta was kneeling to pray, she was attacked, raped, then strangled to death by hand and left near an overturned park bench. Her brutal rape and murder occurred within earshot of the Speidel Golf Course, but no one there heard a thing. A sister in the Order of Mt. St. Joseph was quoted in news stories explaining why she felt Roberta might have been out in that field near the golf course. "It is always peaceful and quiet there."
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 brazenness of the midday attack at a holy place outraged people in Wheeling and the Tri-State area.
Everyone remembered 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, Roberta grew up in Minnesota and Illinois. While in graduate school at Fordham University, she became a friend with fellow student Sister Kathleen Durkin.
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 mother house the next June. She was spending eight days devoted to prayer and contemplation in its retreat house when she was killed.
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, indicating the killer had lain in wait for her. 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.
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.
Police said 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 and people who knew her were eliminated leaving investigators all evidence pointed 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 arrests have ever been made or motive found in Roberta’s death.
The State Police lab extracted a DNA sample that, investigators believe, came from Miss Elam's killer, according to state police Sgt. Danny Swiger who hopes someday they will make an arrest and conviction for her brutal murder.
Convicted WV murderer Eugene Blake, pictured to the left, was also considered after Department of Corrections documents exposed the distinct possibility that Blake may have been roaming around the Wheeling area in the mid 1970s when he was serving life without the possibility of parole in the state penitentiary at Moundsville. But, DNA evidence was not linked to Blake. Authorities went as far as to say they also believed that a second killer could have been with him at the time.
According to authorities, "It is possible that there could have been two subjects involved in the Elam matter and the DNA evidence could have belonged to a second subject, realizing that Blake was reportedly out of the prison walls on occasion during his incarceration. One question about Blake was never addressed… if he was serving a life sentence without parole, how would he have been able to be "roaming around" the Wheeling area?
If you have information on the murder of sister Roberta Elam, you are asked to contact Sergeant Danny Swiger with the Cold Case Unit at (304) 329-1101 or Ohio County Deputies at (304)234-3741 or contact your local State Police Detachment. The tip you give may help solve this horrible crime.
Research and development for this story was made possible by the assistance of the Ohio County Public Library, The Wheeling Intelligencer, Pittsburgh Post and Tribune-Review newspapers, WV State Police, the friends and family of Robin Elam and Jack Swint’s book, "Who Killed?...Pittsburgh PA.
Who Killed Newborn "Baby Christian"?
On or about March 20, 2004, someone wrapped a newborn baby boy into a pink sheet, then a white sheet, and then placed the bundled infant into a plastic trash bag along with three 5-pound dumbbells and tied it closed. Then, they placed that bag into another trash bag, tied it shut and tossed it all into the river near the US 340 bridge in Harpers Ferry WV.
The baby was found March 21, 2004 by a Harpers Ferry National Historical Park ranger who responded to the area for another call. The ranger thought the bag, which was found on the Harpers Ferry side of the river, contained garbage. After realizing that the bag was probably too heavy to contain only garbage, the ranger opened it and found the baby with the umbilical cord still attached.
According to authorities, they received many leads from the public and they were able to put together some convincing circumstantial evidence. Investigators, who named the infant "Baby Christian," were able to get DNA blood samples. In the early stages of the case, they were focusing on a Winchester, Virginia area woman, who they suspected might have been the baby's mother. Blood samples were obtained from that suspect and sent to the FBI lab in Washington DC. A year later, results came back negative for a match to the baby. DNA results were delayed because of a large workload at the FBI lab, which handles cases from around the world.
Former Jefferson County Sheriff Ed Boober said that he believed the suspect, at the very least, had knowledge about the case. Investigators are asking for anyone who knows about a baby who was unaccounted for about the time the baby was found to contact his department.
The sheriff's department can be reached at 304-728-3205
Research and development for this story was made possible by the assistance of the Berkeley County Public Library, WV State Police and the Herald-Mail Newspaper in Hagerstown MD.
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West Virginia News
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