WILKES-BARRE, Pa. — A motorist found her wrapped in a blanket on the side of the interstate, clad in shorts, a pink blouse with lace trim, and floral-print slippers. She’d been doused in sulfuric acid.
Pennsylvania State Police spent three fruitless months trying to identify the partially decomposed body, then closed the case.
That was in 1973. On Monday, state police dug up her grave along with the graves of two other unidentified homicide victims, all buried within yards of each other at a cemetery in northeastern Pennsylvania. Police then headed to a second cemetery outside Wilkes-Barre to exhume the body of an infant boy.
The hope is that forensic scientists will be able to give all four victims a name — and perhaps lead police to their killers.
“Maybe we’ll be able to give some closure to some families and let them know that we found their loved ones,” said Luzerne County District Attorney Stefanie Salavantis.
Pennsylvania State Police cold case investigators are working with forensic anthropologist Erin Kimmerle of the University of South Florida, who previously led an effort to exhume more than 50 old graves at a shuttered reform school in Florida.
Aided by a grant from the National Institute of Justice, Kimmerle’s team hopes to do facial reconstructions, perform chemical isotope testing that will help determine where the victims lived, and collect DNA samples that will be sent to a national missing persons database.
State police Cpl. Thomas McAndrew had been looking into the death of the woman doused in acid when he discovered the other unidentified homicide victims were buried in the same cemetery.
“They’re basically forgotten. That’s what it comes down to,” he said.
Working in a secluded hollow of Maple Hill Cemetery, police used a backhoe to remove the top layers of soil, then dug by hand with picks, shovels and buckets to expose their burial vaults.
Two of the bodies were found in concrete vaults; the third, in a corroded metal container. All had been laid to rest in autopsy bags, and Kimmerle said they were sufficiently preserved to be able to perform the forensics work.
Aside from the woman who’d been doused in sulfuric acid, the victims include:
— A woman whose nude body was found along an interstate in 1970.
— A man whose bullet-riddled body was found in 1979 by two men walking to a fishing hole. The victim wore a sterling silver bracelet with the word “Vedon” on the clasp and a gold serpent ring on his pinky.
— A boy no more than 3 days old. A landfill worker found him in the trash in 1980.
McAndrew acknowledged it will be an extraordinary long shot to crack the cases, but said it’s worth the effort.
“We will try our best and we are willing to take that fight on,” Salavantis said.