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 assaulted, bitten about her upper body and strangled. Then some time after her death, the girl was sodomized and vaginally penetrated repeatedly with a hunter's bow that belonged to her boyfriend, then-19-year-old Ray Boyer, who was married with two small children at the time.
Boyer's 21-year-old brother Dick lived next door to Peggy and her mother Mary Alice, with 14-year-old Kathy Reber, who had given birth to his child just two weeks prior to the murder. Dick Boyer and Kathy Reber moved out of the apartment building--called the Maple Leaf Apartments, but known to locals as the House of Broken Hearts because of the down-on-their-luck people who lived there--the day before Peggy was killed and mutilated.
Though Arnold won't say what he's looking for, Herman Reber, who remained close to the girls but didn't live with them at the Maple Leaf, told Lebanon's WHTP-TV that authorities told him they were checking to see if Peggy was pregnant.
"They said it's possible that she might have been pregnant too," Reber said. "I was shocked, and I thought, 'I wonder how long.'"
Arnold refuses to give details of what he was looking for. "I can't comment on the condition of Peggy's body, and I'd rather not comment on what we were looking for specifically," the DA says. "But I can tell you all the tests and analyses that we wanted to perform were performed."
That could be a more significant statement than it seems. According to longtime Los Angeles County Department of Coroner spokesperson Craig Harvey, a frequent expert on several television crime shows who's been involved in up to 80 exhumations over the past two decades, it's possible even now to extract evidence to determine pregnancy. It all depends on the condition of the body.
Not knowing specifics of the case and speaking in general terms, Harvey says, "Everything depends on how the body was prepared for burial, what type of casket the body was placed in, what kind of soil and vault, if any, the body was placed in when it was put into the ground, and the condition of the ground over the years.
"I've seen bodies come out of the ground 25 and 30 years buried that look almost as pristine as they did the day they went into the ground, except for some molding that one would normally expect to see on something like that. It just depends on how well she was preserved when she went into the ground," he says.
As for being able to determine pregnancy after all this time, "As long as the organs are still there, my guess would be that whatever was there at the time of death, they can probably make that determination," Harvey says. "But again, that depends on the preservation status of the body."
Up to this point in the investigation, coverage of the case by local newspapers has been fairly nonjudgmental, but in the letters-to-the-editor section of the local daily and in the blogosphere, Arnold and other Lebanon officials have been taking a shellacking for--as some Internet contributors who now identify themselves as members of "Peggy's Army" say--dragging their feet. Critics say authorities know who did it--that it wasn't Root, a career petty thief--and that the real culprit still lives in the area.
Arnold says he hasn't yet ruled out anyone, including Root. Like Ray Boyer, Root also was married with children and a frequent visitor of Mary Alice Reber--and was seen around the time of the murder leaving the apartment where the Reber family lived. Fiber evidence from a blanket in the victim's apartment was found on him, and scrapings from Root's suit were found under her fingernails. Today Root is reportedly serving time at a prison somewhere in the Southwest U.S.
Arnold says Reber's sister and father didn't attend the early morning exhumation, but did go to the re-interment around 2:30 that afternoon.
Cliff Roland, who investigated the Reber murder when he was chief of detectives and arrested Root, still believes Root killed the girl. But today, Roland and George Christianson, the former DA who prosecuted Root, believe a second person was probably also involved.
"I don't know what the heck they're looking for, I really don't," says Roland, who like Christianson told PW in January that he couldn't recall whether a pregnancy test had been done on the teen after she was killed. Reports on Reber's autopsy and other police documents related to the murder are now part of the investigation and not available to the public.
"I pity [Arnold] because he's caught in the middle of something here that's not his fault. I just feel for him. I don't know the man. I never met him. I think he's a good DA," says Roland, who went on to serve as Lebanon's sheriff. "But there are things you can do and you can't do. You have to have evidence to prosecute. And I don't think he has any. I don't know what they expect to get out of it. It opens up a lot of wounds for everybody who was involved in it back in '68."
Arnold says he'll do whatever it takes to finally close the book on the Reber case.
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.