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15 years later, murderer might still be in Arnold

Chuck Biedka
| Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Stephanie Coyle's killer might still be living in Arnold.

Today is the 15th anniversary of her slaying. Two criminal profilers and two coroners say there are several reasons why the killer likely hasn't strayed far from Coyle's old neighborhood.

The profilers insist there is no reason for alarm to others living in the neighborhood despite the fact that this case involved rape and a brutal slaying.

Police say there is no evidence that Coyle's killer has struck again.

The profilers aren't so sure.

Police haven't said much about the case in 15 years.

"When we find someone with inside information, they either will be the killer or they're someone who talked with the killer, and we can find the killer through that person," said Patrolman William "Willie" Weber, the case investigator.

Weber and Westmoreland County detectives also refuse to make public details of two previous FBI profiles conducted for this case.

Nevertheless, working from limited facts, two retired FBI profilers offered their opinions of the Coyle case to the Valley News Dispatch. The profiles are based on years of research of homicide cases.

The killer "more likely than not still lives in the neighborhood where she was killed," said Mark E. Safarik, of Fredericksburg, Va. Safarik is one of the most experienced ex-FBI profilers and a leading researcher on cases involving the rape and murder of elderly victims.

The 74-year-old Coyle was found in her garage apartment off Fourth Avenue on the morning of July 16, 1993. Police said she had been killed, raped and molested after her death.

She died from a stab wound to her throat. Her throat was cut and she had been cut and slashed a dozen times in her throat and neck.

A design also was carved into her back -- all likely after death. Police have kept details of the design under wraps.

Coyle's nude body was found face down on the bedroom floor of her apartment at 1611-rear Fourth Ave.

She was one of eight homicide victims in Westmoreland County in 1993.

"She may not have known her killer. But clearly the killer was familiar with the neighborhood and knew that she lived alone," said Dan L. Vogel, an ex-FBI profiler and one-time police officer.

Criminologist and Louisville, Ky. Coroner Ronald M. Holmes also thinks the killer is still in Arnold area or in a nearby community that looks like it.

"I don't think he has had the wherewithal to move," said Holmes, who has written books about profiling violent crime, sex crime, murder and criminals in general.

Pittsburgh-based Pathologist Dr. Cyril Wecht, who performed Coyle's autopsy in 1993, thinks Coyle's killer knew Fourth Avenue.

"It's unlikely that someone came in from Kansas City or some place else to do this," Wecht said. "I lean very strongly it was someone in the community who was familiar with her."

Wecht saw Coyle's post-mortem throat wounds, the design cut into Coyle's back, and the incision wounds on her neck.

Wecht thinks the killer "may have been under the influence of hallucinogenic drugs" because of how the killer treated Coyle's body after he killed her.

Safarik, Vogel and Holmes also believe that the killer's outrageous mistreatment of Coyle is significant.

They believe Coyle's killer was young, addicted to drugs, alcohol or both, uneducated and socially inadequate. He probably preferred to go out at night rather than the day.

Further, he was probably jobless or had a menial job, at best.

And he likely had to live with someone who took care of his basic needs.

The type of killer who molests a dead body almost always has a minor criminal record -- often many small scrapes with the law. But few have prior felony convictions and if they do, it's usually for burglary, studies show.

"So you're not looking for a registered sex offender, rapist or robber," Safarik said.

"He may have been caught looking into windows -- that kind of thing," Holmes said.

Holmes thinks the killer walked to the apartment because he didn't have a car -- maybe, even, because he was too young to drive.

Carving, cutting and molesting Coyle's body shows the killer was "experimenting," the men said.

The design, they say, didn't mean anything to him.

"He was messing around," Safarik said. "This is same for most people who do post-mortem cuttings and mutilations."

Vogel said it's likely the killer "probably never had a normal relationship with a female."

Because the so-called experimenting is usually done by younger offenders, Safarik and Vogel think the killer would have been no older than age 24.

Incredibly, Holmes believes the killer would have been 17 or younger.

That means that today, the killer would be perhaps 32 to 39 years old.

As to motive, Vogel said the killer could have misconstrued her effusive friendliness and Coyle wouldn't have known there was any sort of danger, let alone an imminent attack, until it was too late.

Holmes theorizes that Coyle may had made the killer mad through no fault of her own.

But Safarik believes the cutting and sexual assault on Coyle might reveal a singular, chilling motivation.

"There are some killers who have the need to gain control by humiliating and controlling the life of someone else," Safarik said.

Once the killing is done, this type of personality sometimes slips into obscurity and doesn't kill again.

Despite their analysis, a Florida psychiatrist who teaches criminologists and doctors said he wants to see more information before he will say that the man is living in Arnold.

"Maybe the offender is in prison serving time for unrelated crime, possibly burglary," said Dr. Wade C. Myers in an e-mail response.

Myers is a professor and director of the forensic psychiatry program at the University of South Florida at Tampa.

He said the killer may have fled from Arnold for "fear of impending arrest or for unrelated reasons" and that he may or may not have killed again someplace else.

If the killer's new way of killing is significantly different, "no connection can be made between Coyle's death and any subsequent homicides," Myers wrote.

Safarik responded that the killer hasn't repeat his crime in the same way or his methods would have been caught by a federal criminal data base he would have been arrested.

The federal Violent Crime Case Review data base -- usually just called ViCAP -- holds details about a killer's method of operation.

Thus far there haven't been any murders like Coyle's spotted on the federal criminal data base, police said.

Holmes guesses that the man has probably killed again because it would become easier.

But if he did, he didn't kill in the same way, the crime specialists said.

Arnold police and Westmoreland County detectives won't comment. They say they still gets leads on the case.

Privately, they say the 1993 and 1994 FBI profiles were "so general in nature" that they "really didn't point to a single suspect" -- contrary to the TV myths about profiling.

And, sometimes profiles miss the mark.

Using a criminal profile, police in Nashville, Tenn. thought they had the man who killed a girl delivering Girl Scout cookies in 1975.

Last month, after 33 years, police using another profile arrested a convicted rapist who they say assaulted and killed the girl.

Police still mum on case

The homicide of Stephanie Coyle remains unsolved after 15 years.

Even so, Arnold police, Westmoreland County detectives and the Westmoreland County district attorney have steadfastly withheld all but a few facts about the case.

Police in other cases sometimes release information to the public in an effort to jar someone's memory or bring to light a new lead.

Criminology experts see advantages to both tactics.

A psychiatrist who teaches criminologists and doctors said the "keep it secret" tactic is understandable in the Coyle case.

Police "need to be able to interview any future suspect who, if indeed is the bad guy and talks, would have no other source of knowledge about specific crime elements other than firsthand knowledge," said Dr. Wade C. Myers, professor and director of the forensic psychiatry at Southern Florida University at Tampa.

But retired FBI profiler Mark E. Safarik, of Fredericksburg, Va., thinks media attention early on would have been useful.

This type of killer, he said, "doesn't care what the police know or don't know."

Neighbors, family or friends might have noticed something unusual. Maybe someone brought home something unusual and refused to explain, he said.

Newspaper readers might recognize something and call police, Safarik said. They still can, he said.

Perhaps after 15 years, he said, someone with knowledge of the case will find it the right time to get it off their chest.

Anyone with information is asked to call Arnold police at 724-339-9663.

Who was Stephanie Coyle?

Stephanie Coyle became a widow at age 41 when her cancer-stricken husband committed suicide.

Years later, she also watched as a friend suffer a fatal heart attack during the holidays, so she knew tragedy, her family said.

Coyle raised four children to whom she gave birth within a 5 1/2-year span. The family lived near Freeport, moved to Brackenridge and then to Arnold.

Coyle was a bartender and had other jobs. She enjoyed cooking for family and friends.

Her friends largely came from St. Mary of Czestochowa Roman Catholic Church, and from the hair stylist shop then in the neighborhood. She also made friends at several Arnold social clubs.

Friends and family said Coyle was a young 74 and still dated.

"She never saw herself as elderly," said son-in-law George Williams.

Sometimes Coyle visited friends at Oprey's Tavern and the Slovak Club, both nightspots that were then open along Fifth Avenue in Arnold.

She also made frequent stops at the Alle-Kiski Valley Senior Citizens Center in New Kensington. She often walked about four blocks from her apartment through a high crime area to volunteer at the center, her friends and family recall.

"We warned her," son Dan Coyle said. "She told us no one ever bothered her."

"She was a beautiful person," said long-time friend Margaret Soska, now 87, who spends most of the year in Florida. "She was happy all the time and she loved everybody."

Soska said Coyle "lived to sing and dance" and was very friendly to customers where she was a bartender.

Soska worried that someone may have "misinterpreted Steph's friendliness" because "she'd even kiss and hug strangers."

Coyle's daughter, Sally Williams, of Natrona Heights, Harrison, saw the same thing.

"She was too trusting," she said.

Soska said Coyle's apartment had air conditioning, but she rarely if ever used it. Instead, she kept her windows and door open "to keep her electric bill low," like many people on a fixed income.

Fifteen years after her death, few people seem to remember Coyle in her last neighborhood.

On a recent July morning, more than two dozen people answered the door in Coyle's old neighborhood. Only four knew Coyle or what happened to her.

Even fewer wanted to talk.

Still, Coyle's family is asking anyone with information to finally step forward when they still can.

Fifteen years later, her family continues to offer a $10,000 reward for the arrest and conviction of the killer.

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