Working a Cold-Case (Update, Arrest Made, Read Here)

These photos show Rich and Betsy working on one of their cold-case homicide cases, the Shauna Howe abduction and murder. The first picture to the right shows Rich visiting the death site just a few weeks before the 10th anniversary of Shauna’s murder. He is standing in a dry portion of a creek bed just a few feet from where Shauna’s battered corpse was found beneath an old, abandoned railroad trestle.

In the photo to the left detective Betsy Ross is shown standing on the former railroad bridge at the point where Shauna was thrown off. She fell more than 30 feet to her death. Note that the retaining walls have been constructed in recent years. The trestle is now part of a public bicycle trail.

 

This is a photo of Betsy Ross as she examines the abduction site at West First Street and Reed Street in Oil City, PA. Betsy is positioned in the location where a witness saw an unidentified man grab Shauna Howe as she walked home from a Halloween Party at a Girl Scout meeting.

Here is a photo of Rich consulting on the case with famed FBI profiler Robert Ressler. The photo was taken when Rich was on the case as a state trooper in 1998..


Shauna Howe was eleven years old when she was abducted as she walked home from a Halloween Party she had attended with her Girl Scout troop in Oil City, PA. The incident occurred at 8 pm at the corner of West First Street and Reed Street on October 27th, 1992.

Three days later, at 8:30 AM, October 30th, Shauna’s body was found in a dry portion of a creek bed beneath an old, abandoned railroad trestle. She was alive when thrown from the trestle. She died from injuries she received in the fall. Investigators believe she was held alive in captivity most of the time she was missing.

Rich Graham had been assigned to this case for several years prior to his retirement from the state police. Soon after his retirement, Shauna’s mother, Lucy Howe-Brown, who now resides near Camp LeJeune, NC, contacted Rich. Lucy was aware that ill-informed supervisors had prevented Rich and other investigators from pursuing certain leads that Rich considered credible. Plus, he was busy with numerous other cases, critically reducing the amount of time he could devote to this case. So, when she learned of his retirement and that he and Betsy had begun their own investigative agency, Lucy asked them to begin a private inquiry into her daughter’s murder.

The Pennsylvania State Police continue to have an open investigation into the case. FBI agents from offices in Pittsburgh and Erie have also provided valuable assistance, along with the Oil City Police Department. But Shauna’s killer(s) remains at large. A reward of more than $15,000 is available for information leading to the arrest and conviction of Shauna’s killer(s). You can learn more about the case by visiting the Pennsylvania State Police web site at www.psp.state.pa.us or go directly to the page by clicking here.. Follow the links to “PSP Case Files” and then “PSP Unsolved Case Files”.

Update – Arrests made in Howe Case!

Oil City Brothers Arrested

On Friday, July 2, 2004 the Pennsylvania State Police charged two Oil City brothers with Kidnapping, Sexual Assaults and Murder relating to the abduction and death of eleven year old Shauna Howe. Timothy Michael O’Brien, 37, and James Eric O’Brien, 32, were arraigned before Venango County District Justice William Martin. Both brothers are currently incarcerated in state penitentiaries for crimes unrelated to the Howe murder.

Third Arrest

On Saturday, July 3, 2004 a third suspect, Eldred “Ted” Walker, 44, was taken into custody at his Oil City area residence. Walker was arraigned before DJ Martin, and then placed in the Venango County Jail after failing to post a $250,000 bond.

Other Arrests Possible?

Venango County District Attorney Marie Veon told reporters that no other arrests are contemplated. However, some persons close to the investigation believe that others might have participated in the crime. Ms. Veon declined to provide a specific reason as to why, when a DNA match had been made between James O’Brien’s DNA profile and certain physical evidence, it has taken two-and-one-half years to finally bring charges. She simply commented that, “… the answer to that question is complicated.”

Investigation Focuses on O’Briens

It was PI Rich Graham (then Trooper Rich Graham) who had developed information in late 2001 that suggested the O’Brien brothers might have been involved in the crime. Due to misinformation provided to investigators during the first week or two of the case, investigators had always believed that the O’Briens were in jail when Shauna Howe was abducted. Thus, they were considered “cleared” from involvement.

Rich credits state parole agent Ed Flick (now retired) with convincing him (Rich) to further investigate the O’Briens. During an early December 2001 meeting with Mr. Flick about another matter, the conversation turned to the Howe case. Mr. Flick commented that he had always felt the O’Briens could have been involved, except that they were reportedly in jail when the crime occurred. Following that conversation, Rich decided to check official records regarding the O’Briens’ incarceration and found that the O’Briens had actually bonded and were not in custody when Shauna was abducted. For that very same reason, investigators had never requested DNA samples from the O’Briens.

DNA Sought

Rich then began efforts to interview the O’Briens and to obtain DNA samples for comparison to certain evidence that had been gathered at the crime scenes and during the autopsy. At that time, both of the O’Brien brothers were incarcerated in different facilities on separate charges.

James “Jimmy” O’Brien had been arrested in 1995 by Oil City PD and was convicted in 1996 for assaulting a young woman and attempting to force her into the trunk of his car. The woman escaped and O’Brien was later apprehended. He has been in custody ever since, and was then incarcerated at SCI Mercer, not far from Oil City.

Timothy “Timmy” O’Brien was arrested in the fall of 2001 by Oil City PD and charged with sexual assaults against two children. He was later convicted and has been incarcerated since then.

Note: Interestingly, Rich had arrested Timmy O’Brien in 1994 on a felony charge of Sexual Abuse of Children. O’Brien was later convicted and served a term in a state correctional facility for that crime. Rich was not assigned to the Howe case when that took place.

On December 20, 2001, the day after notifying his state police supervisors that the O’Briens were possible suspects, Rich was removed from the case and transferred to a new unit. No longer on the case, Rich requested one of his fellow troopers, Trooper Jon McClain (then assigned to PSP Meadville Station), to visit James “Jimmy” O’Brien at the state correctional facility in Mercer, PA and to request a DNA sample. Trooper McClain complied with the request and obtained a DNA sample in early January, 2002.

DNA Match Discovered

James O’Brien’s DNA sample was submitted to the FBI laboratory for further disposition. In early February, 2002 the FBI lab notified the state police of the match. With news of the match, the state police and the FBI assembled a team of investigators who now were able to focus on James O’Brien’s involvement in this despicable crime.

As word spread about a match, local news reporters interviewed James O’Brien and published details about his interviews. Mr. O’Brien confirmed to the media that he had provided a state trooper with a DNA sample. He further stated that a state trooper and an FBI agent had told him he was a match. But, Jimmy insisted that he was not involved in the crime and suggested that his DNA was not an “exact” match.

FBI Profilers Were Wrong

This is a case that was profiled on three different occasions by the FBI’s Behavioral Science Unit. Those units had always suggested that the crime was perpetrated by “a lone offender”.

Robert Ressler Had It Right

However, in 1998 Rich sought the professional services of famed criminal profiler, and best selling author, Colonel Robert Ressler. Mr. Ressler was one of the original agents who started the Behavioral Science Unit. However, Mr. Ressler was never involved in assessing this case during his tenure with the FBI. Mr. Ressler, who worked on the case pro-bono, was the one profiler who suggested that there might have been more than one perpetrator involved in the crime.

Note: You can learn more about Robert Ressler and his books by visiting his web site at www.robertkressler.com.

The Howe case is unique in that it does not confirm to the usual offender behavior in child abduction/murder cases. Usually, the child is abducted, sexually assaulted and murdered within hours. The perpetrator usually acts alone. But, investigators believe that Shauna was held in captivity and was not killed until the night before her body was discovered. Plus, several perpetrators were involved during Shauna’s captivity.

Case Progresses

Nearly two months after the long-awaited arrests, a day long preliminary hearing was held in Venango County Central Court. District Justice William Martin presided. Justice Martin ruled that a prima-facie case had been made and all three suspects were bound over for trial.

Each defendant was assigned two attorneys to defend them. All of the costs of prosecuting and defending the case will be born by the Venango County taxpayers. Estimates of total cost to the county to try the defendants range in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.

What About the Reward Money?

Authorities have not commented about the disposition of the $15,000-plus reward money that remains deposited in an Oil City bank account. That figure presumably has grown considerably over the twelve year period since the account was established.

Ross-Graham Investigations, LLC has a suggestion for use of the reward money, assuming that no person qualifies to claim the reward. Shauna’s mother, Lucy Howe-Brown, now resides in North Carolina. The expenses involved in attending court proceedings are prohibitive for her and her family. Each trip back to Pennsylvania means lost wages in addition to other expenses. Why not reimburse Ms. Brown for these losses to ensure that she can attend all proceedings in coming months and years?

Death Penalty or No Death Penalty?

Can anyone believe that the Venango County District Attorney might not seek the death penalty in this case? At this writing she has not so notified the court, as required!

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