True Crime in the Ohio Valley: Seeking Justice for Sister Robin

Harry Croft, left, who had investigated the murder of Sister Roberta Elam in 1977 as a detective with the Ohio County Sheriff’s Office and currently as a homicide investigator with the Ohio Valley Cold Case Task Force, describes the facts of the case as Fred Connors, right, retired reporter and founder of the tast force, listens before a packed crowd Saturday at the Ohio County Public Library. Photo by Robert A. DeFrank

WHEELING — Investigators have not given up on solving the 1977 rape and murder of Sister Roberta Elam, a postulant nun at the Sisters of St. Joseph convent located near Oglebay Park, and new clues and technological developments continue to offer hope that justice will be done.

That was the message during a true crime talk in the meeting room of the Ohio County Public Library on Saturday. There is still interest in the case, and more than 100 people attended to listen to this and other hour-long discussions through the afternoon. Harry Croft, currently a homicide investigator for the Ohio Valley Cold Case Task Force, and who served with the Ohio County Sheriff’s Office when Elam’s body was found, spoke about how more leads and advances in DNA testing might impact the future of the case.

Fred Connors, a retired investigative reporter and founder and coordinator of the Ohio Valley Cold Case Task Force, introduced the speakers, Linda Comins and Croft, and described the circumstances of the case. He emphasized Elam’s murder is not a cold case, since it has been under investigation since 1977 by multiple entities. He laid out the facts of the case when Elam, known as Sister Robin, was found strangled and her body left in an area where the nuns visited to contemplate and pray.

The spot is about 500 yards from the motherhouse building at Mount St. Joseph. Elam was 26 years old.

“It continues to be an ongoing investigation,” Connors said.

Comins, who covered the case as a reporter with the Wheeling News-Register, said she had worked as a full-time reporter for two weeks when she began covering the murder and subsequent investigation.

“Nothing could have prepared me for covering a case of this magnitude,” she said, adding that her first year saw close to 10 murders in Ohio County.

Comins spoke about the impact of Elam’s murder.

“The mood of the community was one of disbelief. It was just such a heinous crime. Someone who was preparing to devote her life to serve God, and for such a terrible thing to happen,” she said. “It was also a great mystery … This was in the middle of a beautiful June day. The golf course from Oglebay is not that far away.”

Croft opened his talk by referring to the shooting that happened Saturday at a synagogue in Pittsburgh, another heinous crime at a house of worship.

“You ought to be safe in a house of worship. Roberta was in a place of worship. She should have been safe,” he said, adding that the crime shocked and saddened a community. “We’re never going to give up on this or any other case we have.”

Croft said there were numerous possible suspects, from construction workers to teenagers, to married, family men.

“I’ve talked to dozens, maybe hundreds of people over the years. Who could have done something like this?” he said. “How dare someone come into my county, or come into a place so beautiful … and do something that bad?”

While investigators obtained DNA, the process of examining the evidence and getting results is a lengthy one.

“It’s not like television,” he said. “It might take months. It might take years.”

Furthermore Croft said there was a lack of cooperation between departments at the time.

“The only way it’ll be solved on this earth is if all the investigators get together and talk it out,” he said, adding that he has secured cooperation from some of the older investigators. “There’s reports all over the place.”

Despite the years that have passed since the murder, Croft remains steadfast that the case can be solved. He pointed out cold case occurrences where an investigator may follow a lead that had been overlooked, or a witness might come forward wanting to unburden themselves.

“These things happen all the time,” he said. “Somebody out there knows something. Either something their family did, they acted weird that day, they acted strange. They sensed something out of the way. Somebody knows something. If you know anybody that has any idea about anything, we need to talk to them.”

Another hope comes in the form of the advancement of DNA, which is now capable of identifying a subject’s family

A question and answer session followed the presentation, with many asking about the capability of DNA examination or about other circumstances surrounding the case. Among the guests was Vivian Elliott of Wheeling, who said she was working in the Mount St. Joseph area at the time and said she had heard of a suspicious vehicle sighted in that area at the time.

The Cold Case Task Force can be reached at Box 2180, Wheeling, West Virginia, 26003, or at mwcotn@comcast.net.

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