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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According to the report, the possibility of viable DNA evidence was foreclosed by the condition of Reber’s remains, which are now entirely skeletal, and “no forensic testing could be performed.”

The report also details all the steps taken to find Reber’s killer; from DNA testing of old evidence — including the cloth belt used to strangle the girl before a 5-foot hunter’s bow was plunged repeatedly into her until it protruded from the top of her chest, and fingernail clips of the child taken after her death—to the taking of dental imprints from possible suspects just last year. But perhaps it is what hasn’t yet been done—and may never be done—that could turn the case in a different direction, and that is exhuming Ebling’s remains for forensic testing.

No second chances

To its credit, the grand jury examined a number of possible suspects other than Boyer, who back in 1968 lived with his former wife, Kathy, and their infant daughter at the Maple Leaf Apartments, occupied mostly by single women and single women with children, like Peggy’s mother, Mary Alice.

The place was variously known to locals as “The House of Broken Hearts” and “Heartbreak Hotel” for all the sex for money and favors allegedly occurring there, and Peggy’s mom, who was known to have numerous sexual partners, had given keys to the apartment where Peggy was killed to any number of men, including Arthur Root.

Nearly six months after Reber’s murder, 27-year-old Root, a career petty criminal, was arrested and charged with the murder in November 1968. Fibers and hairs from his trousers and his green jacket were collected from under Reber’s fingernails and clothes, and material from her orange dress was found on him. However, Root’s bite mark did not match that of the person who nearly gnawed off Peggy’s left breast during the attack, and he was acquitted following a 10-day trial in February 1970.

In 1972, after Root had left town, Hurricane Agnes swept through South Central Pennsylvania, the report notes, causing widespread flooding in Lebanon and destroying much of the evidence in the case, including hair and fiber remnants used to prosecute Root, who has since been convicted of sodomizing and raping his 12-year-old step-daughter at knifepoint. He is currently incarcerated in Oklahoma.

In 2001, Lebanon Police Detective Randy Edgar traveled to Oklahoma to interview Root, who maintained his innocence. In 2008, the warden there talked to Root three separate times about Reber, and each time he denied any involvement in the murder. But Root, according to the report, did not want to testify before the grand jury in Lebanon and said he would not cooperate if called, so he was not called.

Speculation, suspicion and rumor

Along with Dick Boyer—who had essentially been cleared after volunteering exculpatory DNA and submitting to making dental imprints in 2008, then later testifying without a lawyer present—grand jurors also looked at Walter Graeff, the owner of the apartment, who according the report, was “perverted.” Graeff, one witness told PW, had a peephole in the bathroom of his third-floor office. He was indeed a suspect, but Graeff’s alibi of being with his wife at the time of the murder checked out.

The citizen fact-finders also looked at insurance man Marlin Jones, who was driving his car near the Maple Leaf at around midnight the night of the murder and described to police how he almost hit a man who looked like Root leaving the scene. But two weeks later, Jones committed suicide. Roland discounted Jones’ possible involvement, saying his suicide note indicated that he was depressed over a business issue, not the murder.

There was also Vietnam vet Morris Purcell, who Roland said was also linked to the Maple Leaf and also committed suicide, hanging himself in an act of autoerotic asphyxiation (according to Roland, who cut down Purcell’s body, and also not mentioned in the report) while being held on an unrelated charge in the Lebanon Jail.

All three men were written about at length in one of a series of stories on the Reber case that appeared in PW last year.

Although Dick Boyer gave a bite print in 2008, as a possible suspect in 1968 he was not asked to provide one, as did Graeff, who is now dead. The dental imprints of Jones and Purcell were also taken, according to the report, but neither matched the bite on Reber’s chest.

The only person to come close to a match was Dick Boyer’s brother, Ray, who admitted to having sex with Peggy the day before the murder. In his grand jury testimony, Ray Boyer said he didn’t really bite Peggy, as he testified to as a witness for the prosecution during Root’s trial in February 1970, but, rather, gave her only “a hickey.” In any case, Ray Boyer was in police custody on a child support beef at the time of the killing, so he was ruled out as a suspect in 1968.

But one person—among 84 people who initially came under suspicion—moved away from Lebanon before he could be questioned any further. Today, John Ebling is buried somewhere in Texas, his teeth unexamined, and authorities currently have no plans to check them out. “Although an aura of suspicion surrounds Ebling, we heard no credible facts on which to rely to support the conclusion that Ebling was responsible for the murder,” states the report. “Speculation, suspicion and rumor do not equate with the legal standard for probable cause, nor do wild accusations unsupported by even a scintilla of fact.”

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