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Remains of murdered woman found in Delaware woods in 1977 are finally identified as wife of ex-cop

The remains of a murdered woman which were found more than 40 years ago in Delaware have finally been identified as belonging to the wife of a police officer who failed to report her missing and told their kids she had run away.

Marie Petry Heiser’s body was discovered in woodland near Townsend, Delaware, in 1977, approximately 60 miles southwest from where she lived with husband Bill Heiser Snr.

The remains of Marie Petry Heiser were found in 1977, but it took 44 years before she could be identified

But Heiser Snr – who died in 2006 – had never reported her missing, and their children believed she had packed her bags and left without saying where she was going

Heiser Sr was a daredevil motorcyclist performer with the Philadelphia Highway Patrol in the 1950s, but was forced to quit the department in the early 1960s after suffering a severe injury while rehearsing for a show.

It was only after a chance encounter between cold case officers from New Castle County Police and a crack genealogy sleuth from the Montgomery County Police Department that officers matched DNA from the remains with Marie’s surviving family members.

This week, her son Bill Heiser Jr told FOX 29 he had never suspected their mother might have been murdered.

‘We were told things weren’t good at the house,’ he told the station. 

‘She ended up packing up and leaving. We never in a million years ever, ever thought that it was foul play or something would happen to her.’

The breakthrough, announced this week by the New Castle County’s Cold Case Squad, was the result of years of painstaking genealogy tracing and police work. 

New Castle Police said ‘extensive investigations’ were undertaken to identify the remains at the time the body was discovered in a wooded area off Old Union Church Rd, near Townsend, Delaware, by a teenager biking home.

At the time of her disappearance, police relied on fingerprints and dental records to match missing persons with human remains.

Parabon Nanolabs, which specializes in a forensics technique known as DNA phenotyping,  was able to complete a computerized composite of the mystery woman's remains

Parabon Nanolabs, which specializes in a forensics technique known as DNA phenotyping,  was able to complete a computerized composite of the mystery woman’s remains

In 2008, the case was reviewed by the New Castle Police Department’s Cold Case team, and details were entered into the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System (NamUs).

A team from the University of North Texas Center for Human Identification extracted a DNA profile from the remains.

The profile failed to show up any matches in the nationwide database, known as the Combined DNA Index System (CODIS).

Then in 2017, advances in forensics led New Castle Police to reexamine the case.

They approached a Virginia-based  company called Parabon Nanolabs, which specializes in phenotyping, a specialist area that uses DNA to predict a person’s physical traits and family ancestry.

Forensic artist Thom Shaw drew a sketch of the victim, which the lab used to create a computerized composite of the missing woman. 

Parabon Nanolabs provided a detailed genetic analysis of the victim’s DNA and a potential family tree to several ancestry databases.

In 2019, officers from New Castle Police attended Law Enforcement Cold Case Seminar where Steven Smugeresky, a genealogy specialist with the Montgomery County police department in Maryland, was speaking.

Smugereskey had been instrumental in catching Giles Daniel Warrick, who was suspected of raping 10 women in the Washington DC area.

He took over researching the ancestry of the victim’s DNA profile.

Bill Heiser Jr, pictured recently, said he never for a moment suspected his mother could have been the victim of foul play when she vanished without trace in 1977

Bill Heiser Jr, pictured recently, said he never for a moment suspected his mother could have been the victim of foul play when she vanished without trace in 1977

‘He worked tirelessly on potential family trees in an attempt to develop information on the identity of the remains,’ New Castle County Police said in a statement. 

The police department began matching the DNA profile with missing person cases from the area, and obtained DNA samples from potential family members.  

Relative’s DNA profiles were entered into the national DNA database and a positive match eventually came back to the remains found in 1977. 

The match was confirmed by the Delaware Division of Forensic Science’s Chief Medical Examiner. 

Heiser Sr joined the Philadelphia Police Department Highway Patrol in the 1950s, and performed ‘thrill shows’ on his motorbike in packed stadiums and arenas.

He retired after being seriously injured while rehearsing for a show in the early 1960s.

According to New Castle Police, he worked as a truck driver for transportation company before moving to South Daytona Beach, Florida, in the late 1970s. He died in 2006.  

Prior to her disappearance Marie Petry Heiser had been a homemaker who worked part-time at a country club in Cheltenham, Pennsylvania, in the 1970s. 

The Heisers’ son, Bill Heiser Jr, told police ‘he appreciated all of the hard work by law enforcement in identifying his mother as it gave his family some sense of closure regarding her disappearance.’


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