Death in the House of Broken Hearts

A small Pennsylvania town revisits the grisly four-decade-old torture and slaying case of a teenage girl.

By Martha Shaak & Kevin Uhrich
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 2 | Posted Jan. 16, 2008

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One night in the fall of 1970 Johnny Carson dubbed Lebanon "the murder capital of America" on The Tonight Show.

If you want to get away with killing someone, Carson joked, this is the place to do it.

Now 89, Roland still believes the defendants in all three deaths were guilty. But he remains particularly sickened and angered by what was done to Peggy Reber.

"I had never, ever seen anything like it in my life," says Roland, a World War II vet who was at Good Samaritan Hospital 40 years ago when Peggy's mutilated body was autopsied.

"It was so horrendous ... I can't tell you about it," he says, his voice shaking.

Roland recalls the crime scene when he arrived at Peggy Reber's home at the Maple Leaf Apartments, an old organ factory converted into an apartment building, and home of many less than savory residents. It was known to Lebanon locals as the "House of Broken Hearts" because of the down-and-out characters who lived there.

Peggy Reber (Photo courtesy of the Lebanon Daily News)

"So many people were walking around, touching things, moving things, walking in her blood," Roland says, still agitated by the memory. "Peggy's naked body had been covered with a blanket from the bed. It was so confusing."

Within two days of finding Peggy Reber's body, Roland had eight suspects. Within a week, nearly double that number.

A man who committed suicide two weeks after Peggy Reber's murder had connections to the Reber family. Marlin Jones, 23, a Navy veteran who'd served in Vietnam, had been at the Maple Leaf for unknown reasons on the day of the slaying.

The circumstances of his suicide were bizarre.

Police received a tip two weeks after Peggy's death that Jones--who lived with his wife and child a few doors from the Maple Leaf--had left a suicide note and had driven out to Indiantown Gap Military Reservation, located high in the nearby Blue Mountains.

At the Gap, two officials approached Jones, who was standing next to his car. When they turned away briefly, Jones got into his car, pulled out a pistol from the glove compartment and shot himself in the head. In his suicide note, Jones said he'd stolen funds from his clients. He was an insurance salesman who made his collections in person (which is perhaps why Roland believes Jones' suicide had nothing to do with guilt over Peggy's murder).

And then there was Morris Purcell, a patient at the local Veteran's Administration Hospital who'd served in the Army in Vietnam. Purcell hanged himself while in custody in the Lebanon County jail on a burglary warrant shortly after the murder. Before the hanging, he'd pulled down his pants, and he was found with an erection. Autoerotic asphyxiation, says Roland, who took down Purcell's body that night.

Roland believes Purcell may have been involved in the Reber slaying.

But if he was involved, Roland says, he wasn't the only one.


Past imperfect: Det. Cliff Roland believes there was more than one killer. (Photo by Michael Persico)
The following November, nearly six months and more than 100 police interviews after Peggy Reber's death, authorities finally filed a murder charge against 27-year-old Arthur McKinley Root.

A lifelong petty thief, Root, according to the published work of Lebanon Valley College historian Edna Carmean, had been in and out of the criminal detention systems of three surrounding counties since age 12. In 1965, at age 24, he was doing time in a nearby Lancaster County jail for stealing a car when he escaped and moved to Chicago, where he changed his name, married and settled down.

But in 1968 Root and his family found their way back to Lebanon. And a few months before the murder Peggy Reber's mother Mary Alice had complained to authorities that Root, who sometimes stayed with her, was forging some of her checks.

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1. noname said... on Dec 11, 2008 at 07:21AM

“what a jerk to say that Peggy was a "bad,bad girl." You put down the victim...sick statement.”

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2. RACHEL KRISSINGER said... on Mar 21, 2014 at 05:59AM

“THERE IS NOTHING "QUAINT" ABOUT LEBANON, PA. THIS TOWN IS STILL RUN BY THE SAME TWISTED, MONEY GRUBBING, POWER HUNGRY PEOPLE WHO RAN IT THEN.PEGGY WAS MURDERED HERE TO SHOW THAT PEGGY AND ANYONE LIKE PEGGY WERE NOT GOING TO BE ALLOWED "THE GOOD LIFE"! THESE MURDERING BASTARDS STILL DINE ON STEAK & WINE ALL THESE YEARS LATER, WHILE PEGGY NEVER HAD A SHOT AT ANYTHING.”

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