The following is the final part of a weekly series on unsolved homicides and suspected homicide cases in Fayette County and the surrounding area.
More than four decades.
Names and faces.
Stabbings and shootings. Fires and beatings.
Thousands of interviews. Families seeking closure.
Thousands of phone calls and tips and leads and suspicions.
Hundreds of pieces of evidence. Blood. Clothing. Hair. Weapons.
And still, 27 cold case deaths remain unsolved.
Trooper John F. Marshall, a seasoned veteran in the crime unit at the state police Uniontown station, is the department’s cold case investigator.
Eleven months ago, Marshall began reexamining all the dormant cases in Fayette County and the surrounding area that fall under his purview as cold case custodian. He then worked in conjunction with the Herald-Standard to take a weekly look at the cases in an effort to try and rekindle public interest in the investigations and to look for new leads.
And, because of that dedication, what had been a roster of 28 unsolved cases was reduced by one. While Marshall said that solving just one case made the nearly year-long undertaking of reevaluating the cases more than worth while, he is hopeful that the arrest in the 2011 stabbing death of David Gida was just the tip of the spear, with as many as six additional arrests in other open homicide probes possible in the coming months.
“After every story hit the paper, I would get a half dozen to a dozen calls,” Marshall said with a wry smile in an interview in October, as he rifled through a sheaf of paperwork regarding the arrests of two suspects in Gida’s case. “One of the most important things the series did was rattle them. It rattled the cages and shook the bushes.”
Marshall said that the calls haven’t been exclusively local either. “I’ve gotten calls from Illinois and New Hampshire and Louisiana, from places all over the country from the Mississippi to the east coast and they trace back to someone having seen the articles and remembering,” Marshall said, adding he is hopeful those triggered memories will help him close more of the cases that he has come to know inside and out.
The cases span 42 years and the victims range in age from 6 to 97. The only common thread, all 27 died in circumstances that were, at the very least, suspicious.
James W. Ramsey, 17, of California was out for a drive with his girlfriend on Nov. 2, 1971 when they stopped to assist what they thought was a disabled motorist in Fallowfield Township, Washington County. The encounter resulted in Ramsey’s shooting death.
Earl “Jay” Wolfe, 17, of Hopwood was attempting to identify a possible suspect in a burglary involving his family’s business when he was approached by a man along a country road in North Union Township and shot and killed on Feb. 3, 1973. His killing shook his family and the community as the search for his killer led police through possible mafia connections and was linked directly to the killing of Stanley A. Warzinski, 65, a Uniontown jeweler, two days later. Although 40 years removed, Marshall said the case remains one of the most discussed across the county.
Debra Lynn Makel got off her school bus in Rices Landing, Greene County, on Oct. 7, 1973 and began walking to her family home. The youngster was never seen alive again and her body was recovered from a wooded area nearby two days later.
On May 4, 1974 searchers in Wheeler Bottom, Dunbar Township, found the body of 14-year-old John David Watson who was last seen the evening before when his mother sent him on his bicycle to the store to buy milk. The child had been shot. Police believe the child knew his killer.
The body of Eric Steven “James” Doratio, 15, of McKeesport was found ablaze in a barrel in the middle of a snow-covered road in Fallowfield Township on Nov. 29, 1977. While Doratio was spotted at locations around the area in the 48 hours after he was reported missing, a solid lead was never established.
On April 15, 1978 a Bullskin Township man discovered his dogs playing with a human skull in his yard. The victim was identified as Elizabeth Jane Berquist, 24, of Elizabeth Township, Allegheny County, who had been reported missing months before. Her skull had been smashed and efforts to find her killer have been painstakingly difficult, although Marshall said new tips have reignited the case and that suspects are now being developed.
School children spotted the body of Anthony Joseph Marino, 68, along a rural road in Luzerne Township on April 13, 1979. The Hiller businessman had been beaten to death and his killer remains free, although police said they have narrowed the scope of their investigation to a handful of suspects.
Donald Roy Wilt, 26, of Grantsville, Md., was driving through Henry Clay Township on Aug. 30, 1980 when he got into what police believe to be the first documented case of homicidal road rage in the state. When emergency officials arrived at the scene, they found Wilt dead from a gunshot wound through the neck. His killer has been narrowed to a handful of suspects.
In September 1980, Thomas Allan Brody Miller of Connellsville was reported missing by his wife. His body was discovered, with multiple bullet wounds, a few weeks later at a location in Wheeler Bottom, Dunbar Township.
Bennie Fletcher Sr., 68, had recently been in and out of prison for shooting two people and running underage prostitution rings in Fayette County when his body was found riddled with bullets in the trunk of his car in Vanderbilt on March 21, 1981. A local clansman was tried in the case but was acquitted. Police are still trying to determine who gunned Fletcher down.
In the summer of 1981, Charles “Mississippi” Johnson, a carnival worker from Mississippi rolled into town. He never left and police have considered his disappearance from Dunbar Township a homicide for more than three decades. Marshall said he is close to making an arrest in the case.
The body of an unidentified woman was found underneath a tractor-trailer that overturned in Georges Township on May 2, 1986. More than 27 years later, “Jane Doe” has still not been identified, although Marshall said new tips are leading police to possibly identifying the woman.
On July 22, 1986, the bodies of three children – Franklin David Isler, 9, Tiara Marie Isler, 8, and Lanny Ray Isler, 6 – were found burned inside their home in Uniontown. The fire was ruled an arson and while police do not necessarily think the children were targets, they continue to pursue those responsible for their deaths.
On Halloween in 1993, Laurie Lynn Caric, returning to her Hopwood home from a night out with friends, was blasted by a shotgun in the upper chest resulting in her death. Police have identified several “persons of interest” in the case but have not been able to find those final pieces of evidence or tidbits of testimony to make an arrest.
A man working on a CSX train spotted the body of Anna Marie Callahan, 16, of McKeesport over an embankment along the Monongahela River in Belle Vernon on Oct. 15, 1995. The girl, who had been seen by her family the day before her body was discovered, had been strangled with a bit of cord. Police think she knew her killer.
Hunters on a chilly day in Masontown on Dec. 14, 1996 discovered the body of Michael Ray Poling, 42, of Grafton, W.Va. The man, who had been in and out trouble with the law for more than a decade, had been bludgeoned to death. Police believe Poling was familiar with his killer.
On Sept. 13, 1999, fire swept through the Dainty Personal Care Home in Jefferson Township killing residents Irene Baker, 90, Audrey “Mac” Patterson, 84, and Elvira Pasqualoni, 97. The cause of the fire was never determined and as such the case has remained open and is being investigated by police as a triple homicide.
Lamont “J-Boy” Bristol, 24, of Monessen was stabbed to death during a bar fight in Brownsville in early January 2003. The pocket knife used to kill Bristol was recovered at the scene but his killer was never identified.
Phillip F. Miller, 26, of Melcroft was walking home after an argument with his brother early on July 7, 2007 when he was struck and killed by a vehicle in Bullskin Township. Police are continuing to seek the driver that ran him down.
Noble Wine, 82, was a business man known by most of Greene County. His body was found inside his burning home in Franklin Township, Greene County, on Nov. 21, 2008 and while officials first believed that he had died as a result of the fire, investigators quickly discovered that the elderly man had been shot and the fire had been intentionally set. Marshall said police are close to making an arrest in the case.
On March 22, 2009, Betty Jane McClellan was shot and killed by an intruder who approached her residence in Gray Township, Greene County, pretending to need assistance for a disabled vehicle. Her husband was also shot, but survived. An arrest has not been made in the case, although Marshall said he is close.
On Aug. 15, 2011, police said Leon Mickens Jr., 35, of Masontown was gunned down in a botched drug deal in Masontown. A silhouette of his killer was captured on a nearby video camera, however, he has not been identified.
While 27 deaths remain under investigation, one case that had been cold is now anything but.
The body of David Gida, 56, was found on the floor of his Connellsville apartment on June 8, 2011. Gida had hosted a party the night before, and was found stabbed twice in the neck. More than two years later, police say they have cracked the case open and a father and son have been charged with homicide.
The Gida case, which was featured in late December in the Herald-Standard cold-case series, began to heat up after the story ran, Marshall said, with multiple tips, some of which pointed to one of the men who was eventually charged.
“I get phone calls from people regarding what they heard, hunches, and then those interviews lead to other interviews and the next thing you know I have the spiderweb out there and it led back to the same suspect,” Marshall said.
Robert Leroy Daniels Jr., 42, of 233 Apple St., Apt. B, was charged Oct. 3 with criminal homicide, robbery and two counts each of theft and receiving stolen property in the stabbing death.
Just four days later, police charged his son, Robert Leroy Daniels III, 18, also of 233 Apple St. Apt. B, with criminal homicide, robbery, theft and two counts each of tampering with physical evidence and receiving stolen property.
All of the charges against both men were held for court at a preliminary hearing late last month.
Marshall said that providing closure to families who, in some cases spent decades wondering, is what drives him to probe every possible avenue in all the cases in his care.
Families, like Gida’s, who have been hopeful for a resolution, yet hesitant it will come, deserve at least that much, Marshall said.
“It is bittersweet. Nothing can bring my brother back. And it was hard to hear the answers we have been wanting to hear, very hard to hear...I want justice to prevail,” Jan Gida of North Versailles said last month following the preliminary hearing regarding his brother’s alleged killers. “He wasn’t perfect, but his family loved him.”
Marshall said that in each case he wants to give family members the chance for some closure in cases that have provided so little.
Through the expanded collection of DNA evidence and the analysis of the forensic clues, in addition to new tips and suspects coming from revived talk in many cases, Marshall said leads are being developed and avenues are opening that could result in more arrests.
The veteran investigator said he is optimistic that more cases will be resolved.
And he said that the articles have been a boon to his investigations and have provided the spark that have ignited some of the cold cases.
“The stories have been tremendous,” Marshall said. “Cases where we had no movement at all are now moving – quickly. The problem was always, how do we get it out to America? But (with the articles) we could reach people all over via the Internet and Facebook and Twitter. We have developed viable suspects in several cases. We are going to make more arrests.”