Wilkinsburg Kidnap-Murder Case Still Brings New Tips
After the ‘woman at the bus stop’ tells her story about the day schoolgirl Beth Barr disappeared in 1977, other Patch readers offer more clues.
Editor’s note: This story originally ran in November 2011 on many Western PA Patch sites. Since that time, several persons have come forward with more information they feel can be helpful to the case, including potential suspects, possible vehicles used and other information, which has been shared with Allegheny County homicide detectives. The identity of the woman interviewed for this story is being withheld for her safety.
The woman stood alone at about 8:30 a.m. on Nov. 23, 1977, at a Port Authority Transit stop in Wilkinsburg, waiting for the bus that would take her to her job in downtown Pittsburgh.
The 24-year-old had grown up in Wilkinsburg, and she and her husband had purchased a property on nearby Rebecca Avenue, which they were remodeling. The bus stop was close by on Ardmore Boulevard.
As she waited in the chilly November air, a motorist pulled his car off the street, partially into an alley and onto the paved area of an auto repair garage—right next to her.
“To the best of my recollection,” the woman said, during an interview last week, “... he made a suggestion I did not appreciate.”
Something about the man instinctually heightened the woman’s sense of danger.
When she threatened to call the police, he made a U-turn on Ardmore Boulevard and headed back toward the Parkway East. In 1977, there weren’t personal cell phones—so carrying out her threat would have required making her way quickly to a nearby business, home or Johnston Elementary School, which was across the street.
She did not report the incident to police after he left. But what the woman did do was to write down the red-and-white Ohio license plate number and note that he was driving a blue car.
“I didn’t think about it anymore,” she said.
About 2:15 p.m. that same day, Beth Lynn Barr, 6, left Johnston Elementary School on Franklin Avenue, which dismissed an hour early because of the holiday.
She crossed the street with classmates and began the two-fifths of a mile walk alone to her Princeton Boulevard home, heading up Ardmore Boulevard in the direction of the WTAE-TV studios—past the bus stop where the man had approached the woman hours before. Beth turned left onto Marlboro Avenue, then immediately right onto Traymore Avenue.
There, according to a witness, a man carried a schoolgirl fitting Beth’s description into a dull blue sedan with red-and-white license plates.
That was the last time anyone saw her.
Beth’s father, Charles, was a Wilkinsburg policeman. The police force sprang into action when she didn’t come home from school.
That evening, Wilkinsburg police knocked on the woman’s Rebecca Avenue door as they canvassed the neighborhoods around the school. She shared the information about the man who had approached her that morning.
Her description of the man and car pretty much matched that of the witness who saw Beth being carried to the car. Police described the suspect as a white male in his 40s, 5-feet-10 to 5-foot-11, medium build with medium brown, curly hair. He was wearing a gray suit and square, blue-tinted sunglasses.
“He would have reminded me of someone with an office job,” the woman said, adding that he was possibly wearing a necktie. She also remembers “he was not an attractive person.”
She was surprised that the police didn’t contact her again about the encounter as the investigation continued.
“I never heard anymore about it,” the woman said, noting it was more than a year later when they talked to her again.
Police thought they had found the car involved at Conley’s Motor Inn (now the site of a Home Depot) on Business Route 22 in Wilkins Township. The vehicle belonged to a car rental agency based in the motel and, according to records, had not been signed out on the days surrounding the kidnapping. A search of the blue car with red-and-white Ohio plates turned up nothing.
Police from Forest Hills, Wilkins and other local departments helped Wilkinsburg officers comb the woods behind Conley’s, which yielded no clues. Neither did a search of the homes and woods in Wilkinsburg.
On Dec. 10, 1977, there seemed to be a break in the case. Police arrested a McCandless Township salesman in connection with the kidnapping, but charges were dropped when he established an alibi that he had been in Johnstown that day.
Both the salesman and his brother agreed to submit to lie detector tests. Lt. Robert Thomas, then officer in charge of the Wilkinsburg Police Department, said in 1979 that he was not positive that they ever took the tests or, if so, what the results showed.
A psychic had been called in soon after the kidnapping, and some seven to nine others offered “visions” of Beth’s whereabouts, including “water” and “grave markers.”
In March 1979, Joseph Leonard of Monroeville stumbled upon a partially exposed skeleton as he walked with his dog in the woods off Johnston Road in Monroeville, across from the part of Restland Memorial Cemetery where the duck pond is located.
There was no doubt it was Beth. Though brush, dirt and leaves covered her skeleton, Beth remained dressed in the red pantsuit, blue tennis shoes and plaid coat she wore to school that November day.
Thomas delivered the sad news to Donna and Charlie Barr, and their son James, at their Princeton Boulevard home exactly 16 months to the day, within the same hour that their daughter disappeared.
The mounded grave appeared more piled than shoveled, former Monroeville police Det. Willis Greenaway said at the time. He noted, according to the crime lab, bodies sometimes surface following freeze-thaw conditions.
An autopsy revealed Beth had been stabbed several times in the chest, according to then-Assistant Chief Deputy Coroner Anthony Pankowski. He said the condition of the skeleton was consistent with Beth being dead since the time of her disappearance. Pankowski also said that there was no way to determine if she had been sexually molested, though the lab was to run tests on her clothing.
Some newspapers reported that the area adjacent to Restland Cemetery had been searched after Beth’s disappearance, but police officials at the time—Thomas; Harry Hodgins, who had been Wilkinsburg’s chief in 1977; and former Monroeville Chief George Gregowich—concurred the area had never been searched.
The woman said police tracked her down at work and interviewed her a second time, which she recalls was around the time Beth’s body was found.
“I said to them, ‘What ever happened?’”
They explained about tracing the car back to the rental agency, which is about three miles driving distance from where Beth was eventually found. When the woman asked about the car, they told her the rental agency manager said it had never left the premises.
“I found that absolutely astounding,” the woman said. “Obviously, they found the car. But the investigation never went anywhere.
“Frankly, that was the last I ever heard from them.”
Through the years, the woman has occasionally thought about the little girl who never made it home.
Not long ago, she and an old friend talked about how they remembered going to see “Walkin' Rosie,” a ghost said to haunt Restland Memorial Cemetery in Monroeville. The friend recalled that Beth’s body had been found adjacent to the cemetery —and that her killer had never been found.
That same friend mentioned a cold case story about Beth’s murder that appeared in Gateway Star Newspapers in 2003. The woman looked it up online and found herself mentioned as the “woman at the bus stop.” But as she read further, something bothered her.
The story noted that the day Beth was abducted, three newspapers in the former Dardanell Publications weekly chain—the Penn Hills Progress, Churchill Area Progress and Wilkinsburg Gazette—all carried a story about the one-year anniversary of the strangulation murder of Barbara Lewis of Penn Hills, whose body was found in a trash bin in the Blackridge Civic Association parking lot in Churchill.
Lewis’ belongings had been found in a wooded area off Princeton Boulevard in Wilkinsburg, the street where Beth lived. And then came the sentence that hit a little too close to home for the woman—the one that said that Lewis, too, had been waiting at a bus stop on Long Road in Penn Hills on the morning she was murdered on Nov. 19, 1976.
“There were just too many coincidences,” the woman said. “There’s got to be a connection.”
In fact, there has been some speculation that Lewis' murder was the last in a string of what is believed to be serial murders in western Pennsylvania between 1976 and 1977.
And just a few weeks before Beth disappeared, two boys walking in the woods at Brady's Run Park found the skeletal remains of Stephanie Ann Boller of Beaver Falls, an apparent homicide victim—and there were some similarities between the cases.
Some police believe that Beth's abductor was likely a pedophile and that there might not have been a connection to the incident at the bus stop earlier in the day.
In retrospect, the woman feels very fortunate that she was standing on the passenger side of the car that day, 34 years ago. She doesn’t want to think what might have happened if she’d been on the driver’s side.
“That could have made a world of difference,” the woman said.
Looking back, the woman thinks Wilkinsburg police “botched the case” by holding on to it so long before turning it over to Allegheny County police detectives and not accepting help from more experienced Pittsburgh police detectives. She isn’t alone.
A man, who identified himself as the son of a former Turtle Creek policeman, also contacted the author of this story after seeing an account of Beth’s murder. According to him, his father was at Keller’s Hardware Store in Turtle Creek around the time of the kidnapping when a man walked in and bought a shovel and a few other items that raised the policeman’s suspicions.
The son said his father called Wilkinsburg police with information, but that no one ever checked out the lead. Had the man who kidnapped Beth continued along Ardmore Boulevard, it is not out of the question that he might have been in Turtle Creek, taking the back roads to Monroeville.
Allegheny County police Assistant Superintendent Jim Morton said the county has received a grant to review cold cases and that there are three boxes of reports from the Beth Barr case. He said cold cases are never closed.
Eight months after Beth was laid to rest at Woodlawn Cemetery in Wilkinsburg, the woman and her husband relocated to a distant city.
“I always wonder why I moved away from Wilkinsburg,” she said.
She might have answered that question several years ago when the city where she had lived for more than 20 years started to feel "not so safe." That’s when the woman and her family moved again.
“It’s a shame,” the woman said, referring to the fact that Beth’s killer has never been found. “I still don’t believe it’s a lost cause. Someone’s going to come forward.”
Anyone with information about the murder of Beth Lynn Barr is asked to call the Allegheny County Police Homicide Division at 412-473-1300.
The author, Zandy Dudiak, has covered the Beth Barr story since the Nov. 23, 1977 kidnapping. Stories she wrote for Dardanell Publications from 1977-79 and Gateway Star Newspapers in 2003 are used for source material here.