The following is part of a weekly series on unsolved homicides and suspected homicide cases in Fayette County and the surrounding area.
It was a snowy morning in Washington County on Nov. 29, 1977 when a group of hunters set out to try and bag some whitetails – but what the found was a far cry from the deer they had hoped to hunt.
State police Trooper Joseph Timms said the barrel was in the middle of a seldom traveled side road off of Route 481 in Fallowfield Township, and was engulfed in flames when the group of men first spotted it.
Timms said the hunters approached the cardboard industrial barrel with caution but were quickly able to recognize that it wasn’t just trash burning inside the bin, but a human body.
“Police used dental records to identify the victim as Eric Steven “James” Doratio on Jan. 5, 1978,” Timms said.
Doratio, 15, of McKeesport, had runaway from a teen shelter in Pittsburgh on Thanksgiving day — three days before the hunters found his body ablaze on the snow-covered road.
Through their investigation Timms said police learned that Doratio was spotted on two separate occasions after he fled the shelter – first at a residence in Crawford Village, a McKeesport suburb on Nov. 27, and later at a location in Whitehall where he was given a ride by a friend and dropped off at the intersection of Routes 22 and 48.
Interviews with Doratio’s family provided little additional information or any clues regarding his whereabouts the day leading up to the discovery of his body, so Timms said troopers continued to focus on the evidence.
Investigators learned that the fire was started by dousing Doratio in paint thinner and officers also discovered two cans of paint thinner underneath Doratio’s body.
Timms said Doratio’s killer used the paint thinner to create a trail along the road from the barrel for about 35 feet, and used the trail of as a fuse line to light the barrel and Doratio on fire.
The barrel itself was also unique, Timms said, noting that not many barrels are made like the one Dorartio was burned in.
“It was a cardboard-sided barrel with steel support rings,” Timms said, noting that officers were able to discover that a company in the area at that time used barrels similar to the one Doratio was discovered in. He said that police are specifically requesting anyone with information about such barrels to contact investigators.
“That barrel is significant because it is different and it could prove to be the piece of evidence that cracks the case,” Trooper John F. Marshall, who oversees cold case files at the Uniontown state police station, said.
Timms said that in the days and weeks following the discovery of Doratio’s body, state police in Belle Vernon received several anonymous letters that alluded to the killing. Investigators deduced that the letters were either written by the killer or someone who was at the location where Doratio was killed, Timms said.
“We had several letters, and then they stopped and there has been no contact since,” Timms said. “We are asking that the person who wrote those letters come forward and contact police again, either by phone or mail.”
Timms said Doratio was staying at the shelter because of truancy issues, although he noted that investigators also believed Doratio was involved in illegal drugs.
“We don’t know why he was killed but one possible motive is drug related,” Timms said.
Timms said that suspects were developed following Doratio’s death, but the case still remains shrouded in mystery.
“There has been little movement,” Timms said, noting that a few new leads have developed recently that have heated the case up a bit.
And he said that even when the case was dormant, the bizarre nature of the killing has certainly made it stand out in his mind.
“I don’t know of people dying in quite this manner,” Timms said.
Anyone with information regarding Doratio’s death is asked to call police at 724-439-7111.
Additionally, Marshall said Fayette County Crime Stoppers is offering up to a $1,000 reward for information leading to an arrest in the case.
Tips can be made by calling 1-888-404-TIPS.