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Unsolved Cases: Brenda Lee Ritter Raped, Strangled in South Strabane

Ritter was the fourth young woman killed in seven months in Washington County in 1976-77.

The rape and strangulation death of Brenda Lee Ritter, 18, of North Strabane Township on May 18 or 19, 1977, is a case that still haunts police.

Ritter's death occurred as the fourth in a series of slayings of young women in Washington County. The murders of Deborah Capriola, Mary Irene Gency and Susan Rush left county residents on edge. The death of Barbara Lewis in Penn Hills within the same time frame left investigators wondering if Ritter's strangulation death was at the hands of the same killer.

According to a Sept. 28, 2003, story in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Ritter left her boyfriend's home in Chartiers Township at about 10:10 p.m. on May 18, 1977, during a raging thunderstorm. The boyfriend, Larry Bonazza, and his mother made sure that the doors of Ritter's Ford Pinto were locked because of the slayings, and then, watched her drive away.

The slender blonde worked as a secretary for Kennedy and Carter, a Washington construction firm. Ritter's abandoned car was found in neighboring South Strabane Township the next morning.

Before a massive search got under way that afternoon, searchers in a state police helicopter spotted Ritter's nearly nude remains on a hillside off of rural Roupe Road, about three-quarters of a mile from her car. Her clothes were also found within about 50 feet of her body. South Strabane and North Strabane police received the help of 25 Pennsylvania state troopers in their investigation.

As a result of those efforts, investigators determined that Ritter was raped and then strangled using a tourniquet-type device made from her panties and a stick. Farrell Jackson, then the Washington County coroner, said that tests placed the time of death at between 11:30 p.m. and midnight.

Some forensic evidence—including hair and fingerprints—was found in the car.

At one point, a broken bracelet with the name "Jack" engraved on it, which was found in the vicinity of the murder, was considered potential evidence. Tests run on Ritter to see if a drug was used in her abduction came back negative.

Donald Sofchak, the South Strabane police chief at the time, said that an investigation determined that Ritter had not taken her normal route home from the Meadow Lands, where the Bonazzas lived. At the time, there was some thought among investigators that, perhaps, someone posing as a police officer could have gained access to Ritter's car without a fight. Her car appeared to have no damage to it.

Jackson shared a profile of the killer shortly after Ritter's murder, describing him as "between 20 and 30, not unattractive but average in appearance; not too intelligent but smart enough to know his victims' routes and follow them ... and began his sex life rather late and gets violent after the sex act." According to that profile, that man would likely be between 55 and 65 years old today.

There was some hope of solving Ritter's murder in 1983 when Henry Lee Lucas, a serial killer in Texas, admitted to killing women in 16 states. But Lucas was never charged in Ritter's death nor in any of the murders of area young women during that era.

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