Suspected Murrysville serial killer subject of crime sleuth's book
Andrea Niapas has always loved an interesting crime thriller.
The Ligonier author and documentary filmmaker chronicled the 2006 murder of a Blairsville dentist by state Trooper Kevin Foley, the focus of her 2012 book, “Death Needs Answers: The Cold-Blooded Murder of Dr. John Yelenic.” The book led to her consulting work with Discovery Channel's investigative series on the murder.
Niapas' interest in sleuthing was piqued when she came across old news reports detailing the bravery of a Somerset County woman, Mary Ann Marker, in helping to bring an end to the story of suspected serial killer Gary Allen Robbins, 53, of Murrysville on April 14, 1988.
Niapas tracked down Marker and multiple investigators in several states for interviews for her new book, “The Secret Life of a Bridge Player.” The book details investigators' suspicions and Niapas' belief that Robbins, a divorced businessman and tournament bridge player, was responsible for sexual assaults and murders in Pennsylvania, Michigan, Iowa, Maryland, Ohio and West Virginia between 1970 and 1988, when he killed himself.
“Mary Ann is probably the most courageous and the bravest person I've ever met. I don't think she ever got the credit she deserved,” Niapas said.
“On that day, almost 30 years ago, this man, Robbins, after stalking Mary Ann, shows up at her home, but she held the door shut and wouldn't let him in,” Niapas said. “He pulls out a .22 and shoots her in the left cheek.”
Marker, the wife of state trooper David Marker, managed to stay composed and lock the interior door of the couple's home in rural Brothersvalley. She got a description of Robbins' car as he drove off and called state police.
“She was able to do all that ... still bleeding ... with a bullet still lodged in her jaw,” Niapas said.
Within a half hour, a trooper pulled Robbins over along Route 219 in Somerset County. Robbins grabbed a .357 handgun he kept in the glove compartment, put it in his mouth and shot himself.
“He figured he was finished,” Niapas said.
Marker, who still lives in the family home, downplays talk that she's a hero.
“I'm a devout Christian, and it's only by the grace of God or I would not be here today. Even though it's been 30 years, I still suffer from post-traumatic stress from it and deal with that day by day ... although it's not as bad as it used to be,” Marker said.
“Some days it does seem like it was 30 years ago, but many days it only seems like it was last week,” she said.
Stranger at the door
Marker clearly recalls that April morning.
She peeked out a window and saw a stocky, “very nervous” stranger wearing a charcoal gray suit jacket and a tie ringing the doorbell, then opening the screen door and “aggressively knock on the door.”
When Marker cracked open the interior door, Robbins asked directions to Meyersdale. That wasn't out of the ordinary because the town's annual maple festival was under way. Then he pulled out a handgun and tried to force his way inside.
Marker was able to keep him out of the house during the struggle.
“I still can see the fire coming out of the gun, and the shot hitting my left cheek. But even though I fell to the floor ... and again, thanks to the Lord, I was able to get the door closed and locked. ... I think he thought I was dead,” Marker said.
“He stalked me the day before when I took my youngest son to gymnastics, and then to the Giant Eagle the night before. I believe I would have been abducted and ended up like all of his other victims if not for God's good grace,” she said.
She said talking about the ordeal has been part of the healing process.
“It's part of the process of trying to put it behind me. But it's still fresh in my mind, and it will always be there,” Marker said.
Trail of evidence
Inside Robbins' car, troopers found a briefcase containing a gun, duct tape, nylon rope, tennis shoes and an Instamatic-type camera, Niapas wrote.
Later, investigators descended on the former insurance salesman's home and truck along School Road in Murrysville. A story in the Pittsburgh Press a day after Robbins' death noted the Beaver Falls native was a suspect in the deaths of women in Steubenville, Ohio; Reed City, Mich.; and Bel Air, Md., as well as sexual assaults of women in Center Township and Maryland.
The Butler County assault victim and one of Robbins' survivors, Nancy Bonnett, spoke at a 2011 conference on “Predators and their Prey” at Duquesne University hosted by the Cyril H. Wecht Institute on Forensic Science and Law.
Robbins would attack women, tie them up, assault them and kill them after about 20 hours, according to Niapas' research. She believes he is responsible for eight similar, unsolved murders.
“Most of those cases were never considered closed. They're still open,” Niapas said.
Among the cases Niapas believes Robbins was involved in was the July 30, 1979, disappearance of Carol Jursik, a 1974 Penn State University graduate who lived in Squirrel Hill. Jursik's body was discovered six days after her disappearance in Frick Park, about a mile from her home.
Wecht ruled that she died of a stab wound to the chest.
Niapas said investigators suspected Robbins, noting his former real estate office, M&M Realty, was on nearby Murray Avenue. The state revoked his real estate license in 1985 because he admitted stealing money from clients, she said.
“And he also had a townhouse in the Squirrel Hill area,” Niapas notes.
Niapas said she chose the book's title because Robbins was a “tremendous bridge player and used to play in tournaments around the country, where I believe he found some of his victims.”
Niapas extensively interviewed Jefferson County, Ohio, Sheriff Fred J. Abdalla. He was among about two dozen investigators from Ohio, Maryland, Michigan and Pennsylvania who went the state police barracks in Greensburg two weeks after Robbins' death to look at evidence troopers collected from his car and home. That included three pistols, a nail-studded belt, duct tape, ropes and handcuffs, according to a Pittsburgh Press story.
Based on those items and information that Abdalla independently obtained in May 1988, the sheriff determines that Robbins killed Christine Campbell, 36, of Chester, W.Va. Her body was found blindfolded, bound and shot five times in his jurisdiction July 4, 1987.
One item found in Robbins' house was a red and green designer-brand scarf, identical to one used to gag Campbell, the sheriff told Niapas. Abdalla said the scarf used as a gag was knotted in the same manner as other items at Robbins' home.
Niapas contends Robbins would have found “more victims for many years if it wasn't for Mary Ann's bravery. She's the one who deserves all the credit for finally stopping him.”