It’s been more than 50 years, but Peggy Reber, a troubled 14-year-old girl murdered in horrific circumstances in her Lebanon city home, still has no justice.
It was in the early morning hours of May 26, 1968, when Mary Reber returned to her home at 770 Maple St. after a weekend trip with friends to Atlantic City, New Jersey, and found her daughter, Margaret Lynn “Peggy” Reber, dead on a bedroom floor. She had been brutally assaulted before her murder, according to police.
Her killer has never been identified.
But that doesn’t mean authorities have given up on tracking Peggy’s killer down.
“That case has never been off of our radar,” Lebanon County District Attorney Pier Hess Graf told LebTown.
Hope was sparked in June 2018, when police in Lancaster County arrested a local disc jockey for the 1992 rape and murder of schoolteacher Christy Mirack (ABC News story).
Former Lancaster County District Attorney Craig Stedman said at the time the break in the investigation came when a DNA sample from the crime scene was uploaded to a public genetic genealogy database. They got a hit off a relative of Raymond “DJ Freez” Rowe, and — after more than a quarter-century — detectives were able to tie him to the crime scene.
Rowe later plead guilty to the murder.
Unfortunately, the exciting break in investigative technology that solved the Mirack murder doesn’t seem likely to help in Reber’s case.
“We had a DNA expert review our evidence,” Graf said. “The DNA expert indicated nothing we presented would turn up any additional results with DNA testing.”
Graf said the trail surrounding Peggy Reber’s death has gone cold, but they’re still working to find the killer.
“Cold cases are always challenging, in that the more time which passes, the older evidence and witness recollections become,” she said. “Investigators never give up, and the Reber case is no exception.”
A county detective is assigned to the case, Graf said, and the detective still “follows up any leads which come in and revisits the evidence we have.”
Even after so many years, she said, “we are always hoping for additional pieces of information or leads. Every family and each victim deserves justice.”
Anyone who knows something about the murder should call the district attorney’s office at (717) 228-4403, she said.
What happened in 1968?
The Rebers lived in a run-down apartment building in a bad part of town, reports on the murder have noted. Her mother was known for drinking and partying with a revolving stable of boyfriends, and she allegedly worked as a prostitute. Peggy’s sister had gotten married at age 14 and moved away, leaving the younger Peggy to fend for herself, often alone in the apartment without food or electricity.
By the time Peggy was 14, she was sexually active and had a 19-year-old boyfriend, according to reports. She missed a lot of school and, according to a report written by The True Crime Times, child protective services had an open file on the family but never acted to remove Peggy, a ninth-grade student at Henry Houck Elementary School, from the home.
According to a timeline published by the Lebanon Daily News in May 2018, Mary Reber found her daughter’s “dead and mutilated body” when she returned home at about 3:30 a.m. on May 26, 1968. On May 29 of that year, the day of Peggy’s funeral, Assistant District Attorney George Christianson said there were at least 12 male suspects under investigation.
The murder, as described by The True Crime Times, was especially horrific.
Peggy, the report says, was beaten, bitten and strangled. She was sexually assaulted so violently that internal organs were damaged.
Cliff Roland, who was chief of detectives for the Lebanon city police in 1968, told Philadelphia Weekly in 2008 that the crime scene was contaminated so badly, by people walking through and touching or moving items in the room, that collecting evidence was practically useless.
People who lived in the area were reluctant to talk to police, the report says.
The following month, two people who were being investigated — Marlin Jones and Morris Purcell — committed suicide in separate incidents. Police said both men were connected to the investigation but were cleared as suspects in the case.
Nearly six months later, police charged Art Root Jr., a petty thief who had been seen near Peggy’s home, for her murder. In February 1970, Root was acquitted after a 10-day jury trial.
The years that followed produced little new information. In 2008, Lebanon County District Attorney Dave Arnold convened a grand jury to look into the case again.
In 2009, the grand jury reported no findings that would lead to an arrest; the grand jury’s report also criticized several parties — Lebanon native Michelle Gooden, who authored a book on the murder; city police officer Kevin Snavely, who alleged he had been fired to stop his investigation into the case; and the Lebanon Daily News — for creating public pressure to reopen the case and “for allegedly spreading conspiracy theories and not cooperating with the grand jury process.”
In its report, the grand jury expressed doubts that the case would be solved, saying that “only a detailed and corroborated confession and/or the existence of compelling forensic evidence could lead to a final resolution of this case,” the Lebanon Daily News reported
Investigators in the intervening years since Peggy’s death have tried to keep the case open but without any new information to go on.
Arnold, who served as district attorney until winning a special election last year to represent the 48th State Senatorial District, died Jan. 17 after a battle with cancer. He said in 2018 he still hoped to see the case solved.
“I understand that it has deeply impacted a lot of people in our community,” Arnold said. “However, everyone also needs to remember that it’s quite possible that the correct person, Arthur Root, was arrested and tried, but found not guilty at trial[…] That being said, we will always hold out hope and put forth our best effort to get a true answer as to who murdered Peggy. Unfortunately, we have not received any valid or useful new information that would lead to us being more optimistic than we were previously.”
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