The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A young girl’s murder went unsolved for nearly 58 years. A 20-year-old college student helped crack the case.

A poster of Marise Ann Chiverella at a Pennsylvania State Police news conference in Hazleton, Pa., on Feb. 10. (Michael Rubinkam/AP)

A man was giving his 16-year-old nephew a driving lesson on the afternoon of March 18, 1964, when the pair peered into a nearby dumping site in Hazleton, Pa., and saw what looked like a large doll, police said.

They soon realized it was the body of a little girl.

Police identified the child as 9-year-old Marise Ann Chiverella. She had been abducted that morning, then bound, gagged and raped before being strangled and left in the former coal-mining waste pit, police said.

Despite months of nonstop work, investigators at the time were unable to crack the case.

On Thursday, nearly six decades after state and local police began investigating, authorities announced they had solved the cold case by identifying the killer through DNA and genetic genealogy.

The rise of consumer genetic tests has provided law enforcement with new tools that have the potential to break open cold cases. (Video: Daron Taylor, Taylor Turner/The Washington Post)

“This should instill in the families of victims across the state and across the country, a sense of hope,” state police Cpl. Mark Baron, the lead investigator, said at a news conference on Thursday. “That no matter how long it may take, we, as law enforcement, will never give up in trying to find the perpetrators of these heinous crimes. So, God willing, in life or in death, you will be found.”

With the help of a 20-year-old college student who moonlights as a genetic genealogist, law enforcement said they had determined the man responsible was James Paul Forte, who died in 1980 and would have been 22 when he killed Chiverella.

A plane spotted his ‘SOS’ and saved him in 1982. It was the same night he killed two women, police now say.

The Chiverella cold case is the latest decades-old investigation solved with the help of genetic genealogy. In May 2021, police in Colorado said a man they had rescued from a snowstorm in 1982 had allegedly killed two young women hours earlier. Using DNA found at the crime scenes, law enforcement arrested and charged the man with murder, kidnapping and assault. He is now awaiting trial. In July, an anonymous donor funded genetic testing for a 1989 murder of a 14-year-old girl in Las Vegas. The investigation set a record for the least amount of DNA used to solve a case. The man identified as the killer died by suicide in 1995, police said.

On a normal school day, Marise Chiverella’s brother and sister would walk her to St. Joseph’s Parochial School in Hazleton, Pa. But on March 18, 1964, Chiverella — a shy, happy little girl who played the organ and aspired to be a nun — wanted to get to school early so she could give some canned goods to her teacher before going to morning Mass, according to her family. She never made it to school, police said.

Chiverella was last seen around 8:10 a.m., about four blocks north and four blocks east of her home, police said. Her body, clothes and belongings were found around 1 p.m. near the Hazleton airport, state police Lt. Devon M. Brutosky said at the news conference. For the next several decades, police would continue investigating.

“Pennsylvania State Police was founded in 1905, so over half of our existence we’ve investigated this case,” Brutosky said.

In 2007, the state police’s DNA lab created a profile of the suspect using bodily fluids left on Chiverella’s jacket. In 2018, they teamed up with Parabon NanoLabs, a DNA technology and genetic genealogy company. The following year, the company shared the DNA profile with genealogical database GEDmatch. They soon found a match with a distant relative, Brutosky said.

In 2020, Eric Schubert, an 18-year-old college student at the time, volunteered to help state police develop a family tree. Schubert has a track record of helping law enforcement solve cold cases, Brutosky said.

“I was looking for my next case where I could potentially be of help, and Marise’s case … I remember vividly was the first one I came across,” Schubert, now 20, said at the news conference, adding that he contacted investigators over email. “I knew that I could, at least potentially, get this case a little closer to being solved.

A coffee cup tied him to a 1972 murder. He killed himself hours before he was convicted, police say.

Soon, detectives began interviewing relatives to find more leads and taking DNA samples from family members offering to help, Brutosky said. Police narrowed in on a suspect: James Paul Forte, who in 1974 sexually assaulted a young woman, pleaded guilty to aggravated assault and served one year of probation. He was arrested again in 1978 and charged with reckless endangerment and harassment. Police said they did not have any more information on the outcome of the case.

Forte died in 1980 at 38 years old of a possible heart attack, police said.

“Unfortunately, Mr. Forte is not alive for us to prosecute,” Brutosky said. “However, he is the person that committed this crime.”

The case, which has been handed down to generations of detectives, is deeply rooted in the town’s history, said Baron, who led the investigation.

“We’re always told not to get attached to a case, but you can’t help it,” Baron said, his voice shaking. “It’s a vivid memory for everybody who grew up in this area … And what happened to her ushered in a change in this community.”

At the news conference, Chiverella’s brothers and sister thanked the investigators, who they said never stopped trying to solve their sister’s case. Now, it is time to move forward while still feeling the “emptiness and sorrow of [Marise’s] absence,” said Chiverella’s sister, Carmen Marie Radtke.

“Our parents’ sentiments were expressed a long time ago,” Radtke added, noting that both had died. “They never sought punishment or revenge but did want justice. Thanks to the Pennsylvania State Police, our family now knows the identity of Marise’s murderer. Thanks to the Pennsylvania State Police, justice has been served today.”

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