35-year-old Elizabeth Township murder case remains unsolved
Thirty-five years ago Monday, the remains of Elizabeth “Betty Jane” Berquist were found in a rural part of Springfield Township.
Berquist, who was a nurse at what is now UPMC McKeesport, had gone missing on Dec. 17, 1977.
Berquist worked a shift at the hospital that day and stopped briefly by her parents' home in the township to leave her 2-year-old daughter with them for the night.
She left their house still wearing her nurse's uniform and went home to change clothes and go out for the evening.
It was the last trace of Berquist until James Grimm found his dog playing with a human skull in his yard in a remote part of Fayette County known as Hawkins Hollow on April 15, 1978.
A vigorous search ensued, but the skull was the only part of Berquist's remains that were recovered.
Investigators in three police agencies worked on the case — and there are theories about who may have committed the murder — but evidence that could lead to charges or an arrest never surfaced, and the case remains open.
Berquist's daughter, Tara Berquist-Kite, now 37 and living in Elizabeth Township, said a recent news story of the investigation has sparked renewed conversations and interest in arresting her mother's killer.
“It's been out of sight, out of mind,” said Kite, who was raised by her mother's now-deceased parents in the township. “It was actually surprising. People are contacting me and saying, ‘I worked with your mother.' ”
Kite, who is married and has four children, said she feels as though she's gotten to know her mother more through those recollections.
She hopes someone who knew her mother, or knows something about the murder, will come forward with a clue that finally helps solve the case.
“Age softens people. Time creates a need for a cleansing of the conscience,” Kite said. “Whoever did it needs to admit it.”
The investigator, State Police Trooper John Marshall, said input from the public is key to any hope of solving the case.
“People need to know that even the slightest little detail always helps,” he said.
While DNA evidence did not exist as an investigative tool at the time of Berquist's murder, and in the course of more than three decades people have died or moved on and places have changed, the trooper said there always is the chance that new information can surface that leads to an arrest.
“Do I have strong suspects in this case? Of course I do,” Marshall said.
Though no tips have come in since the case re-emerged in the news this winter, he said recent coverage of other cold cases is proving productive.
Of 13 freshly reopened cases in Fayette County, he said the department has received new evidence in five of them, which has been forwarded to prosecutors.
“The hardest thing is the logistics,” said Marshall, who noted that Elizabeth Township and Allegheny County police first handled the investigation until his agency was called in because it had crossed county lines.
Marshall said he wants to set up a meeting with all of the investigating departments to share information.
Elizabeth Township police Officer Adam Blake, who has followed the case over the years, said he's looking forward to that meeting.
“That's something I'd like to facilitate,” said Blake, who noted departments had a harder time sharing information 35 years ago than they do today because of improvements in network technology.
That kind of technology — cell phones, social media websites and emails — plays a key role in investigative work now, he said. One of the challenges in the Berquist case, he said, is that kind of evidence did not yet exist.
The Daily News in McKeesport reported in 1977 that when the then-24-year-old Berquist disappeared, she told her parents she was going out on a date but did not say with whom or tell them where she was going.
When she failed to call home or pick up her daughter and was reported missing, police went to her apartment on Seneca Street in Greenock and found her nurse's uniform on her bed. Her purse containing identification cards and car keys was in the apartment, and her car was parked in front of the building.
Berquist had finished training at the Allegheny Community College of Nursing the previous June and had worked at the Canopy Restaurant in McKeesport before getting her job at the hospital.
She had returned to work only a few days before her disappearance, following a leave of absence for a head injury. Those familiar with the case now say Berquist had been in an abusive relationship.
Police who worked the case at the time say they would like to see Berquist's killer prosecuted.
“Everything we had,” retired Elizabeth Township police Sgt. Jim Morgan recalled, “we threw at it.”
Morgan, like other police with knowledge of the case, says someone needs to speak out if justice is to be served.
“Someone needs to talk and let the cat out of the bag,” he said.
Anyone with information is asked to call state police at 724-439-7111.
Fayette County Crime Stoppers is offering a $1,000 reward for information leading to an arrest in the case. It can be reached at 888-404-TIPS.
Eric Slagle is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-664-9161 ext. 1966, or firstname.lastname@example.org.