New Effort to Solve Cold Cases in Luzerne County

HANOVER TOWNSHIP -- By some estimates there are about 40,000 unidentified bodies buried across the country. Many of those, are victims of homicides.

State police investigators and a forensic anthropologist dug up three graves in Hanover Township and a fourth grave at St. Anthony’s in Courtdale.

The bodies that were dug up were all victims of separate homicides throughout Luzerne County. Some date back nearly 50 years.

It’s a new effort to solve several cold cases in Luzerne County.

Authorities exhumed the bodies of four homicide victims from 1970 through 1980.

“You can’t apply current modern science unless we dig them up. Efforts to do that a lot of times have fallen short,” said Cpl. Thomas McAndrew, Pennsylvania State Police.

This time state police teamed up with Erin Kimmerle, a forensic anthropologist from the University of South Florida to get a grant through the U.S. Department of Justice.

“The goal is to identify them, to try and figure out who they were and what happen to them, and then they can get further in their homicide investigations,” said Kimmerle.

Three of the bodies, two women and a man, were exhumed from Maple Hill Cemetery near Wilkes-Barre. One of the women was found dead and naked along Interstate 81 near Nuangola in 1970. The other woman’s body was found near Conyngham in 1973. Her body was found wrapped in a blanket and doused in sulfuric acid. The man being exhumed was found dead and decomposing near a fishing spot in 1979.

The last body to be exhumed was at St. Anthony’s Cemetery in Courtdale. It’s of a newborn baby boy.

“It’s emotional standing there. This is a story that Luzerne County knows very well,” Luzerne County District Attorney Stefanie Salavantis said.

The newborn was found in 1980 when landfill workers in Larksville spotted his body lying among trash.

“We are coming together and trying to show our respect and trying to identify that child, and seeking justice for that child,” Salavantis added. “So I am so happy that I am a part of this initiative in trying to identify these individuals.”

For the next step in this process, the bodies will be taken to the Lehigh Valley Forensic Sciences Center in Allentown. They will undergo a series of tests using modern forensic measures.

Kimmerle hopes to be able to do facial reconstruction and get pictures out to the public at least to identify the victims, and maybe solve their cases.

"They would be difficult cases to prosecute, but like I said, at the end of the day, if we could bring some closure for families, some peace for family members," Salavantis added.