Murder Cases With No Solution In Sight

Posted: January 08, 1989

It was a cold February night when 17-year-old Bethann Pyfer left - for the last time - her home in the Stonehurst Hills section of Upper Darby.

Her mother had assumed that she was going to meet a friend and wasn't overly concerned when she didn't return home that night.

"She was 17," said her mother Carol Pyfer. "She never thought about calling. I thought she was at a friend's."

Five days later, on March 3, 1986, detectives and uniformed police officers found her body covered with cardboard boxes and debris near the edge of a 50- foot embankment in a wooded section of Fernwood Cemetery.

The teenager, who was 7 1/2 months pregnant, had been strangled and stabbed in the chest, according to police.

Despite an exhaustive investigation, Bethann Pyfer's death remains unsolved.

It's not the only murder in Delaware County that has left police and family members groping for answers:

* Yeadon police are hoping to find a cab driver who may be able to provide information in the investigation of the slaying of John Crawford, 37, a

financial analyst for Philadelphia National Bank, who was beaten and strangled with an electrical cord in his apartment on Aug. 20, 1985. The apartment was set afire by the killer in an attempt to cover up the murder.

* The lack of witnesses has also stymied an investigation into the slaying of Wayne E. Reiher, 32, a father of four who was gunned down in the early morning hours of June 23, 1985, at the Landhope Farms convenience store on Route 322 in Upper Chichester Township.

* The Darby Township police department has not been able to solve the 1982 slaying of 25-year-old Vanessa Sargent, who was found in a field near her home. She had been stabbed numerous times.

* Mystery continues to surround the death on Christmas Eve, 1987, of 69- year-old Burnette Cook, who was gunned down in his home in the 900 block of Pine Road, Darby Township. Former Chief William Johnson resigned last year amid criticism of his handling of the case.

According to FBI statistics, the five are among 118,700 people who were murdered in the United States between 1982 and 1987, including 3,650 from Pennsylvania.

Altogether, the county Criminal Investigation Division is involved in an

average of 25 homicide investigations a year and clears about 85 percent of them, according to Sgt. John Davidson of the CID homicide unit.

It's that unsolved 15 percent that causes the greatest agony. It represents countless man-hours for investigators searching for that one piece of evidence that could lead to an arrest and conviction. It also means continuing restless nights for grieving relatives and friends who wonder if justice will ever be served.

"A crime of this magnitude is on our minds every day," said Upper Chichester Police Chief William Robinson, referring to the Reiher killing. "I would not want to count the number of hours we put into this investigation."

While the victims listed here died under different circumstances, the reason the crimes remain unsolved is a common one - the unavailability of witnesses.

As Sgt. John Davidson, head of the CID homicide unit, tells it, one witness can make a difference to the outcome of an investigation. And in seeking to find that witness "you use all the resources available - federal, state and local," he said.

THE PYFER CASE

It wasn't until three days after Bethann Pyfer left home that the police were notified.

The following day, March 2, 1986, neighborhood children playing in the Fernwood Cemetery found a blood-stained knife on the grass. Pyfer's jacket, also bloodstained, was spotted hanging on a bush. The teens took the items to Carol Pyfer.

"I went hysterical," she recalled. "I knew she was out there hurt somewhere."

Early the next morning, police found the body on the edge of an embankment of the cemetery that borders Philadelphia.

The fact that she was both strangled and stabbed leads police to believe that more than one person was involved in the attack. The medical report stated that she was pregnant with a 6.9-pound baby girl.

The police department's mobile crime van was dispatched to the scene, photographs were taken, the evidence was bagged and sent to the FBI crime lab and the interviews began.

Detectives canvassed the neighborhood, talking to residents and stopping delivery-truck and taxi-cab drivers who might have seen or heard something on the night of Feb. 27, 1986, when investigators believe Pyfer was killed.

Investigators haven't given up hope of solving the Pyfer case, and in fact, last year started to re-evaluate the evidence and interview the witnesses again, even those with the remotest knowledge of the case.

"All the leads were exhausted and we realized it was time to start over," Upper Darby Sgt. James Kerns said. "A lot of people spent time re-acquainting themselves with the details of the case. You try and fit it in . . . you have to."

THE CRAWFORD CASE

On Aug. 20, 1985, Yeadon police officer Lawrence Richards was on routine patrol when he saw smoke coming from an apartment in the 1500 block of Patricia Drive at 2:20 a.m. Richards made several attempts to enter the second-floor apartment, but was forced back by heavy smoke.

When the body of John Crawford was removed from the apartment, it was discovered that he had been beaten and strangled with an electrical cord. The killer had set the fire in an attempt to cover up the murder of the financial analyst, according to Yeadon Police Chief Donald Molineux.

As with many of the homicide cases in the county, the CID was called in to assist the borough police.

Investigators found out that Crawford and a woman friend had gone to a cocktail party and later to a bar at 52d and Ranstead Streets in Philadelphia.

After leaving the bar at about 11 p.m,. the couple flagged down a taxi cab which dropped the woman off in the 1600 block of Cobbs Creek Parkway in Philadelphia and then headed to Crawford's apartment, which was about five minutes away.

"We spent a lot of time with numerous cab companies to try to track down the driver," Molineux said. One of the barriers was that the cab was not dispatched to the bar, but flagged down, he said.

The cab driver may have seen someone waiting for Crawford at the apartment or noticed something unusual, Molineux said.

"We do feel that the person who murdered him was known to the victim in some way," Molineux said. There was no forcible entry and Crawford was dressed in a robe as though he was preparing to go to bed.

The suspect must have been familiar with the apartment complex because the smoke detector was pulled out of the basement, possibly to delay fire personnel, Molineux said.

Yeadon police sent all available information on the case as well as background information on Crawford to the FBI for a profile of the crime and information on the type of person who would be a likely suspect.

"Over the years, this process has been a big help to police," Molineux said.

But, Molineux says he still believes that the cab driver could hold the key to the case.

THE REIHER CASE

Wayne E. Reiher worked full time as a sales representative at Future Electronics in New Jersey. But on the early morning hours of June 23, 1985, he was just "helping out" at the Landhope Farms convenience store in Upper Chichester when the killer walked in.

A newspaper deliveryman found Reiher lying semiconscious in the aisle in front of the checkout counter. He had been shot several times at close range and the killer escaped with less than $100, according to Robinson, the Upper Chichester police chief.

Despite the publicity generated by the case and rewards offered to help find the killer, the case remains unsolved.

"In the beginning, we were getting bits of information on a regular basis," Robinson said, shuffling through folders of memos and reports that were disseminated at the time of the tragedy.

There was a report of a car, possibly a grey Camaro, speeding west on Route 322 with no lights on, nearly stiking another vehicle, and a report of a man giving an employee a hard time at 5 a.m. that day at the Wawa store nearby.

The police also learned that a temporary employee at Glen Mills School was telling fellow employees that he was robbed at gunpoint at the Getty gas station, also known as the Landhope Farms, that morning.

"We really thought we had something there," Robinson said. But, police soon found too many inconsistencies in the story and had to discount the report.

"It must have been the Lord's will that he be there at that time," said Edna Reiher, Reiher's mother.

"They've done a good job," she said of the police department's efforts. ''There was a glimmer of hope in the beginning. I don't see anything now. . . . The only thing is if someone comes forward."

For police, the Landhope case stands out because of the "cold-blooded" nature of the killing, Robinson said. "It's one thing to rob an individual, another to shoot him several times."

The department is concentrating its efforts on trying to link the crime to similar slayings committed in the United States in an attempt to identify the killer.

And to do that, Robinson is using his connections with the Eastern Armed Robbery Conference, where law enforcement officers from Canada to Florida meet bimonthly to share leads and information.

Police continue to hope for that lucky break.

"In this case, time is now on our side," said Robinson. "Maybe someone who has been holding back information will come forward."

THE SARGENT CASE

It was 2 a.m., the day before Christmas 1982, when Vanessa Sargent was last seen. She was leaving Dixon's bar in Darby Township.

Her body was discovered Dec. 26 in a field near her home by a man walking in the field, police said.

During the investigation, one part-time police officer became a suspect, but was not arrested because of what police believe was a lack of evidence, police said. Another officer was charged with, but later acquitted of, obstructing justice and hindering an investigation for not reporting his alleged meeting with the victim at 2 a.m. Dec. 24.

"It was the lowest point in the history of this department," said Chief Robert Thompson, who was hired last year.

"Wild rumors were flying. There were so many different versions of what happened. We're still suffering from this. . . . It's not over."

"It's a hard case to do now since it's so old, but we're still working on it."

THE COOK CASE

It was Christmas Eve, 1987 - five years after the Sargent slaying - when an acquaintance of Burnette Cook went to the Darby Township police station and told Police Chief William Johnson that he saw someone with a ski mask behind Cook's door in the 900 block of Pine Road.

The acquaintance thought his friend "Cookie" was playing a joke on him.

Chief Johnson last year resigned amid criticism of his handling of the case. He apparently did not go to the house at that time he received the report about Cook on Dec. 24.

Later that day, police received a call to check on the welfare of Cook and found him lying in a pool of blood. He had been shot once in the face.

"Our belief is that it was a robbery-homicide," Chief Thompson said. ''Word was around that he had money there that day."

Thompson, who carries the case in his briefcase, said, "We examine the possibility of everyone who comes through here as a possible suspect. There's a certain amount of luck involved."

A criminal's life to a certain point is predictable, he said.

"Criminal people keep doing the same thing over and sooner or later they get in a position where we can get them and prosecute them."

NEW CRIME-FIGHTING TOOLS

New technologies, such as DNA analysis and laser fingerprinting, have been an invaluable help in speeding up the investigation process and reducing the number of cases that drag on for years, police say.

"DNA is like a fingerprint," said Sgt. Kerns of Upper Darby. Deoxyribonucleic acid, a basic material in the chromosomes of the cell nucleus, can be used to positively identify someone because every person's DNA is unique, he said.

In the past, forensic scientists had to rely on blood typing, hair and fibers to provide a link to the suspect. DNA can be used to positively identify the blood of a victim or suspect and courts are beginning to accept that evidence, he said.

DNA is "going to be a very powerful tool for identification of individuals via blood," said Jim Miller of the state police crime lab in Lima. "It's a very dynamic field. The technology holds a lot of promise."

The state crime lab in Lima does not yet perform the DNA analysis, but two of its employees are trained to isolate the cellular material to be transported for analysis at a commercial establishment, Miller said.

In the Pyfer case, Upper Darby police tried DNA analysis to determine if the blood on a jacket confiscated from a suspect's apartment was Pyfer's. But there was too little DNA material in the blood stain for a conclusive test, Kerns said.

Kerns still believes the case can be solved and the bags of evidence are stacked in the department's evidence room waiting for the next lead in the case.

"The problem with a major case is as time goes by, people's recollections change and diminish and the brutality of the crime is lessened," Kerns said. ''People forget what it really was all about."

THE OTHER VICTIMS

Bethann Pyfer. John Crawford. Wayne Reiher. Vanessa Sargent. Burnette Cook.

Five crime victims, but the human toll was much more. For every case, there are other, less visible victims - family members and close friends for whom the hurt never goes away.

"I know she couldn't wait to have the baby and take care of it," Carol Pyfer said of her daughter.

All the baby items had been purchased except for the crib, which they were scheduled to get that Friday, her mother said.

Pyfer, who had lived in the Stonehurst Hills section of Upper Darby all her life, was "more of a tomboy," her mother said. She enjoyed playing baseball in the summer and football.

She was a "great help" around the house and with her younger sisters, her mother said.

The night of Feb. 27, 1986, Pyfer had made chili for the kids and was talking on the phone, her mother said, adding that she believed that Bethann had made plans to meet someone on the corner.

"I just wish they'd find out who did it. I just want to know who and why."

Family members of John Crawford, also known as "Bookertee," remember him as a quiet, well-educated man and a sharp dresser who kept to himself.

He was a 1966 graduate of Darby-Colywn High School, where he had been a member of Future Business Leaders of America, ran track and played the trumpet.

Crawford, who was a graduate of Pennsylvania State University and had a master's degree from the University of Pennsylvania, had encouraged his younger cousins with their studies, always rewarding them for good report cards, family members said.

"He was so young," said his uncle, Lee Humphrey. "He had his whole life in front of him. We thought a lot of John. John was just like a brother to me. He was like my baby brother."

"He really liked the children," said Mary Humphrey, who is married to one of Crawford's uncles and had gone to high school with Crawford. "They thought a lot of him too. . . .

"It's really hard to accept what happened."

For family members of Wayne E. Reiher, "faith carried us through," Edna Reiher said.

"He enjoyed life very much," Edna Reiher said of her son, who was a graduate of Marple Newtown High School and had served in the Coast Guard.

"He could make you laugh, and nothing was ever too much for him," said his father, Edward Reiher.

Wayne and his fiance, Jackie, were both 19 when they were married, Edna Reiher said. They had met through the Aldan Union Church youth group, and later they became active with the Fellowship Baptist Church in Glen Mills, where they had sung as a family group.

"He justed wanted to make a home for Jackie and the children," she said.

Reiher was survived by his wife; four children, who were then ages 3 to 11; his parents, and a sister.

Shortly after the slaying, Reiher's 4-year-old son asked Chief Robinson: ''Did you get the guy that shot my Daddy yet?"

"There's nothing more motivating," Robinson said in an interview, "than when a young child makes such a statement."

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