Saturday, January 21, 2012

Unsolved Murder 1977 Murder #1-WHO KILLED SISTER ROBERTA ELAM?

I have written on this blog about the unsolved murder of Sharon Blankenbeckler in 1977, Marion VA:

I have started searching for other unsolved murders within a year of her disappearance, March 10, 1977. She disappeared from the K-Mart parking lot in Marion VA which is right off Highway 81. Is it possible she was the victim of a serial killer who was passing through?


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 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.

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