Peggy Reber: Cold Case

A grand jury looks for a killer but only finds more villains in the 1968 Peggy Reber murder.

By Kevin Uhrich and Martha Shaak
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Aug. 9, 2009

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Peggy Reber was killed in 1968. The mystery persists.

With few leads left to follow, authorities in Lebanon County, Pa., have determined that very little hope remains in identifying the killer of 14-year-old Margaret Lynn “Peggy” Reber.

After coming up empty on a nearly eight-month probe of the case, members of the Investigating Grand Jury of Lebanon County filed a report on their findings.

Jurors agreed unanimously that shoddy police work—driven in part by Michelle Gooden, an overzealous victim’s advocate working on a book about the 41-year-old murder mystery and focusing almost exclusively on one suspect—only blurred already hazy details surrounding one of Pennsylvania’s most horrific crimes.

While trying to find the killer, grand jurors tore away at the conclusions of amateur sleuth Gooden, who was born in Lebanon but moved away as a teen and now lives and works in North Carolina. A major thrust of that attack involved going after members of the media who seemed to embrace Gooden’s theories of the crime. Prosecutors not only asked to see Gooden’s manuscript, which she did not allow until being subpoenaed, but also called her to testify, which she did for more than five hours.

Grand jurors also attempted to call John Latimer, a top reporter for the Lebanon Daily News, whose lawyers quashed the subpoena, and they asked co-author Martha Shaak to testify, who, upon advice of her co-author brother, declined.

Aside from trying to find out exactly with whom Gooden shared her theories about Reber’s murder, the report covers much of the ground already written about in PW in 2008.

Only one viable suspect remains: the now-dead John Ebling, who came under suspicion early on but moved out of Lebanon soon after the killing. Ebling once told his ex-wife that he committed “a terrible crime,” according to the report, and she said his friends called him “The Bow,” presumably in reference to the 5-foot-long hunting bow that was used to mutilate Reber’s body after she was murdered.

But without more evidence to back up those claims, it’s unlikely Ebling will be exhumed in order to gather DNA and other evidence that might link him to the crime or exclude him as a suspect.

After being seated in November, the grand jury met 11 times, taking testimony from a total of 30 witnesses, including that of 61-year-old Richard “Dick” Boyer—a man whose own brother, ex-wife, Gooden and the cop who reopened the case in 2006 all believed committed the crime.

Both Boyer’s ex (Peggy’s identical twin sister) and younger brother Ray (Peggy’s lover at the time of her death) changed stories they had told to Gooden and others, ultimately saying most of what they knew was planted in their heads by Gooden and Kevin Snavely, the gung-ho officer investigating the case.

Snavely was sharing information with Gooden and actually invoked his right against self-incrimination about an hour into his grand jury testimony. He had reason for concern. By that time, Snavely had been fired over an unrelated incident in which he was accused of taking home a DVD player from the evidence room at the police station. Snavely then sued the district attorney and other top officials to get his job back. He was reinstated after an arbitrator found that he was fired because of all the public attention he was generating on the Reber case.

With the testimony of the former top investigator on the case rendered moot, and nothing much to show in terms of evidence following the April 2008 exhumation of the slain girl’s remains, the grand jury had no choice but to conclude, “We firmly believe that only a detailed and corroborated confession and/or the existence of compelling forensic evidence could lead to a final resolution of this case.”

Too far gone

At first blush, the grand jury report appears fairly comprehensive. It certainly pulls no punches when it comes to Gooden, calling her a “corrupt source of information” on the overall investigation. But it leaves a few questions — besides that of the identity of the killer —unanswered.

One question that appears to have been answered is whether Reber was pregnant at the time of her death. Some close to the case — namely the girl’s stepfather—have speculated that the teen may have been pregnant and that could have been a motive for the killing. But the report emphatically states that, “Peggy Reber was NOT pregnant at the time of her murder,” and that “at least two present-day forensic pathologists have indicated that [now-dead medical examiner] Dr. [Leonard] Tanner’s autopsy report was very thorough.”

But if those reports were already available to investigators, why did they have to dig up Peggy’s remains?

Perhaps it was because neither the original investigating detective on the case, former Lebanon Chief of Detectives Cliff Roland, nor George Christianson, the then-assistant district attorney who lost the case against the only person ever charged with the crime, could recall whether she was tested for pregnancy. Authorities told Herman Reber, the victim’s adoptive father, that Reber’s body was dug up in order to determine whether she was, in fact, pregnant.

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Was 14-year-old Peggy Reber pregnant at the time of her gruesome murder 40 years ago this month? That may be one of the questions Lebanon DA Dave Arnold wants answered following the early morning exhumation of Reber's body last Tuesday. Officials are awaiting the results of forensics tests performed later that morning in Allentown on the remains of the girl, who was raped, strangled and viciously mutilated with an archer's bow on May 25, 1968. A man named Arthur Root Jr. was tried and acquitted of the killing in a sensational 10-day trial in 1970, and the case remained unworked until January 2006, when former Lebanon police patrolman Kevin Snavely dusted off the Reber file and started actively investigating. But in late March, Snavely was personally fired by Lebanon Mayor Bob Anspach for unspecified reasons. Snavely could not be reached for comment, and Anspach and authorities have declined to talk about the firing and whether it was related to the Reber investigation. Last Tuesday, Arnold--after receiving permission from Reber's twin sister Kathy Meador and her father Herman Reber--exhumed Peggy Reber's body, which was buried in nearby North Annville two days after her murder. Left home alone that weekend by her mother, the youngster was...

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