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Unsolved Penn Hills murders from decades ago prompt blog to share details

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Kelsey Shea | Trib Total Media
Barbara Jean Lewis' body was discovered in a dumpster behind Blackridge Civic Association in Penn Hills just hours after she was murdered on Nov. 19, 1976. Her killer was never found, and the case remains open.

Nearly 40 years after the death of Barbara Jean Lewis, many residents in Penn Hills still remember her name, but local police still can’t name her killer.

Lewis, 30, a Penn Hills resident who was a secretary in downtown Pittsburgh, didn’t show up at work on Nov. 19, 1976.

Her coworkers alerted police who found her body several blocks from her usual bus stop on Long Road. She had been strangled and some of her undergarments were on inside out, police said. Her purse and coat were found in the woods.

Years later, the death of the seemingly ordinary Penn Hills resident still is a mystery.

“Once cases go cold, they mostly just lay there and get colder,” Penn Hills police Chief Howard Burton said.

In the aftermath of her death, Burton remembers stopping cars on Long Road as an officer in the department to see if commuters saw any incidents involving Lewis.

“Penn Hills was a bedroom community with 70,000 blue-collar workers at the time,” Burton said. “Something like that (Lewis’ murder) was unheard of.”

Burton said not many tips have come through the department since her death. Family members of Lewis did not return calls for comment.

Penn Hills native Zandy Dudiak remembers riding the bus with Lewis’ sister, and could see the spot where her body was found from her childhood home’s bedroom window.

“It was a scary time. There were a lot of murders around (Western Pennsylvania) in the 1970s,” said Dudiak, a former reporter and editor for Gateway Newspapers.

“I remember being terrified driving home from college some nights.”

Dudiak a former reporter with The Wilkinsburg Gazette, has written about Lewis’ death and several other cold cases throughout her career.

Now a communications coordinator with Mercy Health Systems, Dudiak is writing about another cold case, the death of Beth Barr, 6, in Wilkinsburg on her blog One Day in November, whokilledbethbarr.wordpress.com.

Dudiak draws parallels between Lewis’ death and Barr’s death.

“I have no idea if they’re connected,” Dudiak said, “But there’s a number of coincidences there that will make you think twice.”

Dudiak said that the two homicides took place almost exactly one year apart, both Lewis and Barr were heading towards bus stops when they went missing and Lewis’ coat and purse were found close to Barr’s home.

Barr disappeared while walking home from school in Wilkinsburg on the day before Thanksgiving 1977.

Her body was found 16 months later in a shallow grave near Restland Memorial Park in Monroeville.

Allegheny County police handled the Lewis investigation and Burton said he isn’t familiar with specifics of Barr’s death, but he doesn’t think the cases are related.

Crime author John Cameron speculates that both Barr and Lewis may have been killed by the same man, Edward Wayne Edwards, the subject of Cameron’s book, “It’s Me.”

Cameron noted that Edwards was released from probation in Western Pennsylvania around the time of the deaths of Barr and Lewis.

Though the ages of the victims, the method of killing and mode of operation don’t match, Cameron said this shouldn’t rule Edwards out as a suspect.

“He killed just to kill,” Cameron said.

The former parole board analyst got to know Edwards while working for the Montana Board of Pardons and Parole in Deer Lodge Prison.

Edwards was convicted in the slayings of three people, one of them a boy who lived with Edwards and his wife. He was sentenced to life in prison and died in 2011.

Kelsey Shea is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-320-7845 or [email protected].

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