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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Former Lebanon County DA George Christianson is still practicing law in Lebanon. His memory doesn't seem to serve him as well as Roland's, who is 18 years his senior. Still, like Roland, Christianson maintains Root was the killer.

But that doesn't preclude the possibility of two killers. Given the viciousness of the crime, "because of the scene itself, yes, there was someone else probably involved," Christianson says. "I felt that [Root] was the one who was responsible, at least in part, for the murder."

"In those days," Roland explains, "people didn't believe in circumstantial evidence, and they had no DNA. And that's what fibers amounted to--circumstantial evidence. We had four FBI agents from Washington testify in this case. I scraped under her nails and got fibers from the suit [Root] was wearing. I scraped under his nails and found fibers from the blanket that was on top of her. But the jury didn't believe in that."

Investigators talked to more than 100 people in connection with Peggy Reber's murder. The long list of suspects was eventually winnowed down to just Root. For all the sex that was going on at the Reber home, neither Christianson nor Roland could recall whether a pregnancy test was performed on Peggy Reber after her death.

"You can develop any theories you want, and I will tell you that our minds ran as broad afield as you can possibly run," Christianson says. "What happened in this case had to come from a very sadistic person. Now if that developed as a result of exposure to war, or just being a miserable bastard, I don't know."


But if the investigation of the Reber murder presented near- insurmountable hurdles, so did the prosecution of Root, who was represented by the city's top criminal defense attorneys. A year earlier, one of these lawyers, Bob Rowe, had successfully painted Sandra Herman as a cheating spouse, and won a lesser manslaughter conviction and a three-year prison sentence for her husband John.

In an interesting reversal of fortune, Rowe lost his license to practice law in 1990 and went to prison after being convicted of embezzling clients' funds. The other attorney, Thomas Ehrgood, died last March and never talked publicly about his role in the Reber case or his representation of Root.

After nearly two years of working for Root, the lawyers collected a grand total of $4,200 from the county--not a huge payday even in 1970.

Working with the FBI, Christianson says he may have made a critical error in ordering Peggy Reber's severely injured breast removed for closer examination.

"I took the breast off because of the bite marks," he says. "It was probably the dumbest thing I ever did. I would've had a better chance of convicting Root because the teeth marks didn't match."

Dental impressions were taken from Root and others. Only one matched any of the injuries on Peggy's body, but not those on her mangled breast.

A Navy dental expert testified for the defense that some of the teeth marks belonged to Ray Boyer, Peggy's lover and owner of the archer's bow, and that they could've been inflicted a half-hour prior to Peggy's death.

Another specialist, the chief medical officer in Philadelphia at the time of the trial, said the bites could've been inflicted 36 hours before Peggy died. Ray Boyer testified that he'd bitten Peggy during sex the day before the murder, but was sitting in jail on a child-support beef when Peggy died.


Most haunting is the pain Peggy Reber may have suffered in the ordeal.

Christianson, who lost the Root trial as an assistant prosecutor, and a few months later lost the Harris case before going on to serve two four-year terms as county DA, said the teenager was probably alive for three hours after her nipple was nearly gnawed off by the killer.

But even if she was gagged, she had to have made a considerable ruckus. How could people living in the old rundown building not have heard? Why would Jewell Beard tell her daughter over the years that it was a lamp cord, and not a scarf as Roland said, wrapped around Peggy Reber's neck that morning? Was Peggy killed in that apartment, or brutalized somewhere else and then brought back to her room for the coup de grace, the impalement of her lifeless body on Ray Boyer's hunting bow?

Despite a detective's assertion that Root might really be innocent, Roland stands by his investigation.

"I believe he did it," Roland says of Root, "and I don't give a damn what anyone else says. He was guilty ... but he had help."

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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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