Episode 95

Was There a Washington Strangler?

June 21, 2021   Tags: , ,
Apple Podcasts
Six women were murdered within eight months in or near Washington County, Pennsylvania in 1976 and 1977. One was discovered in a trash can, another in the trunk of her car, others were left on hillsides. All but one was strangled. An entire community and law enforcement dubbed the killer The Washington Strangler. But was it all one offender?

Two of the cases have been solved, but four remain open.   

The Murder of Barbara Lewis:
In the fall of 1976, 30-year-old Barbara Lewis was working as a secretary at Rockwell International in downtown Pittsburgh. She lived at home with her parents and sisters on Long Road in the Penn Hills area 

Every morning a little before 6:30 AM, Barbara would walk just 50 feet to the bus stop. On November 19th, it's unclear if Barbara walked the 50 feet that morning or not because she never made it work.  

Less than three hours later, a woman cleaning Blackridge Civic Association in Churchill--discovered Barbara's body. It looked as if someone may have tried to cover the body with old ceiling tiles. 

The body was still warm. She had been manually strangled. Inside her mouth and nose were paper gauze. The coroner stated the gauze was placed post mortem. The offender had used her wool belt and nylon stockings to bind her hands behind her back. 

She wasn’t nude. But her underwear was inside out. Her bra was torn and not straight on her body. Her coat, shirt and purse were missing. The coroner ruled she hadn’t been sexually assaulted or raped. 

Aside from the strangulation, there was no physical sign of violence. She had no bruises. No defensive wounds. 

The Murder of Susan Rush:
21-year-old Susan Rush lived in Washington County and had just graduated from beauty school. She worked at Murphy’s Mart inside the Washington Mall in South Strabane. 

On November 24th, 1976, Susan left the mall at 6:10 PM. The devout young woman was supposed to meet her family for a Thanksgiving Eve service. She never made it. At midnight her brother Gary was officially worried and reported his sister missing. 

They searched for Susan in the morning. Around 9 AM he found his sister’s car on North Avenue--less than a mile from the mall. The doors were all locked. On the seat of the car sat Susan’s underwear and bra. 

He opened the trunk. Inside was Susan’s body. Her pants were torn. Her turtleneck was inside out. She had been sexually assaulted. The body showed no signs of trauma except for ligature marks. 

She had been strangled with a piece of string or leather. One newspaper reported it was a shoestring. The autopsy said she had a crushed larynx. The estimated time of death was sometime before midnight. 

The Murder of Brenda Lee Ritter:
18-year-old Brenda Lee Ritter lived in North Strabane. She was a secretary at a construction company in the area. Brenda and her parents had talked about the strangler cases. 

Brenda spent the evening of May 18th, 1977, at her boyfriend Larry’s house. She left the house a little after 10 PM. Brenda never made it home. 

Her car was located the next day. It was parked on the side of a rural road in South Strabane. Her purse was still inside, untouched. But there was no sign of Brenda. As diligent as Brenda was about her safety and the way her car was parked, it resembled a traffic stop. 

The car was processed for evidence. It didn’t look like a struggle had happened inside. But fingerprints and hairs were collected.

Officers began to search the area for Brenda. About three quarters of a mile from her car, a state police helicopter located Brenda’s body. It was on a wooded hillside. Her clothes were 50 feet away from the remains. 

Brenda was also strangled. According to the Post-Gazette, the killer had used Brenda’s underwear with a stick from a nearby shrub to make the ligature. She had also been raped. Authorities were able to locate a sample left behind by the offender on Brenda’s body.

The Murder of Robin Elam:
On June 1st, 1977, 26-year-old Robin Elam arrived at Mt. St. Joseph in Wheeling, West Virginia to become a nun. On the 13th she was beginning an eight day silent retreat.  

Around 10:30 AM Robin walked to a green metal bench on a hill near the Mother House. It was an area many of the nuns used for reflection. Four hours later, Robin’s body was located 30 feet from the peaceful bench.

Robin had been raped and strangled. Her arms were stretched out. Her shirt and bra were pulled up to her shoulders but not torn. Her jeans and underwear were pulled down--completely stripped from one of her legs. 

On the left side of her face, there was a mark. It looked like the offender had struck her. 

The bench was also toppled over. Her canvas bag and books were scattered near the bench. 

Law enforcement interviewed all the nuns at the convent. Then they went to the neighboring business--the Speidel Golf Course.

Witnesses reported seeing a man in a vehicle near the area between 10:30 AM and 11:30 AM. The man was described as unkempt, with a dark complexion, shaggy black hair, black eyes and a beard. The witnesses thought he looked around 30-years-old and was between 5’10” and 6 feet. 

The car was a 1969 Chevy Impala--gray or faded blue. It was rusted and dented. The witnesses also noticed three distinct stickers on the vehicle. Two were religious--with the name “Jesus” and the other of praying hands. The third was in relation to coal mining. The man was never identified but a sketch was created.

Ultimately we don’t know if the four remaining cases are connected. But we do know each victim deserves to have her killer caught. So we are going to run through the information once more. 

30-year-old Barbara Jean Lewis was killed on November 19, 1976. It is believed she was abducted somewhere near her home on Long Road in Penn Hills after 6:15 AM. Her body was discovered in a trash can behind the Blackridge Civic Association on Beulah Road. She was manually strangled with her hands bound behind her back. 

21-year-old Susan Rush was murdered on November 24th, 1976, after leaving her job at the Washington Mall around just after 6 PM. Her remains were found in the trunk of her car the next morning on North Avenue. She was strangled with some sort of string or strap. She was raped.

Brenda Lee Ritter was killed the night of May 18th, 1977. She left her boyfriend’s home a little after 10 PM. Her body was discovered the next day in South Strabane. She had been strangled with a makeshift garrote of her underwear and a stick from a nearby bush. She was also sexually assaulted. 

And the last case is that of Sister Robin. Sister Robin was murdered on June 13, 1977, in Wheeling, West Virginia. She had been strangled and raped on the property of Mt. St. Joseph’s.

If you have any information on this case, please contact us.


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