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Unsolved Cases: Barbara Lewis' Body Found a Mile from Home in Churchill

The murder of the 30-year-old secretary has never been solved.

Long Road in Penn Hills gets a fair amount of morning rush hour traffic—school and Port Authority buses, along with commuters leaving their homes and heading for their jobs in Pittsburgh.

Weekday mornings, at the end of Long Road, cars often form a line waiting to make a left turn at the Churchill Valley Country Club onto Beulah Road. As they drive up the hill, they pass the Blackridge Civic Association clubhouse and then, at the top of the hill, intersect with the Parkway East or Penn Avenue toward Wilkinsburg.

When Barbara Jean Lewis graduated from Penn Hills High School in 1964, she had her eye on a secretarial career. Her dream to enter the business world came true. She was a secretary at the downtown Pittsburgh offices of Rockwell International, located in the U.S. Steel Building.

Every work day, Barbara Jean Lewis left her home at 425 Long Rd., walked the length of five houses up to the intersection of Long Road at Paris and Joan drives, crossed the street and waited for a bus.

And so it was presumed she did the same on Nov. 19, 1976. Barbara, who had turned 30 years old four days earlier, was still getting ready for the day as her sister, Mary Beth Lewis, left their home for work that morning at about 6:15 a.m.

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At 9:03 a.m., a cleaning lady at the Blackridge Civic Association on Beulah Road in Churchill, just over the Penn Hills border, made a trip to the large commercial-grade trash bin behind the building. There, she discovered the still-warm body of a young woman, partially covered with old ceiling tiles.

The woman had been manually strangled, according to former Churchill police Chief Richard James, who had worked the case. The Pittsburgh Press reported that Nov. 21 that paper gauze had been packed tightly in her nostrils and mouth after death. A wool belt and one of her nylon stockings bound her hands behind her back.

Barbara was known as a conscientious employee at Rockwell—and when she failed to show up for work, co-workers knew something was wrong.

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There were a few interesting twists in this case, most obviously the sexual component.

In the book “Who Killed…? Pittsburgh, Pa.,” author Jack Swint noted that when Barbara's body was found partially clad, her underwear were on inside out and her bra was torn and askew. Yet, the coroner’s office ruled that she had not been sexually assaulted—and James recalled for a story in Gateway Newspapers on Nov. 12, 2003, that there was no apparent sign of rape.

Another twist was whether Barbara was actually waiting for the bus that day, as had been her habit. That question was raised by two Penn Hills officers in the Gateway Newspapers story.

Penn Hills police Lt. Dennis Poland said it was never established for certain that she was abducted from the roadway. Chief Howard Burton speculated that perhaps Barbara had willingly entered a car, possibly with someone she knew.

Burton said if she was being abducted, it would be likely that Barbara would have tried to fight off the attack. Yet James said that, aside from her being strangled, there were no bruises on Barbara's body.

Another twist that adds credence to their speculation is that Barbara's purse, blouse and coat were found a few days after her death by children playing in a wooded area off Princeton Boulevard in Wilkinsburg, near Woodlawn Cemetery. They had not been scattered as she fought off her attacker.

With the aid of Allegheny County homicide detectives, Churchill and Penn Hills police conducted an extensive investigation into Barbara's death. For the 10 days after her body was found, police officers stopped motorists traveling on both Long and Beulah roads about the time the incident occurred in hopes of finding some clue.

James and Burton recall that despite their hard work, nothing really came of it. They followed every possible lead and grew frustrated when it all ended nowhere.

In 2003, the Pennsylvania State Police cold cases division began looking into Barbara's death to see if it had any connection to a rash of homicides involving young women that took place in Washington County during the mid-1970s. James said, at the time, he didn't think there was a connection because the modus operandi didn't match that of a serial killer.

Ironically, there is another twist. Three newspapers in the former Dardanell Publications weekly chain—the Penn Hills Progress, Churchill Area Progress and Wilkinsburg Gazette—all carried a story about the one-year anniversary of Barbara's murder.

The day that story ran—Nov. 23, 1977—a man attempted to pick up a woman waiting for a morning bus along Ardmore Boulevard in Wilkinsburg, just blocks from where Barbara's belongings had been found. The woman at the bus stop told her story to Patch for the first time last year.

And several hours later, just a few blocks up Ardmore Boulevard and a block off the highway, Beth Lynn Barr, a cute 6-year-old schoolgirl, was kidnapped on her way home from school. Even more coincidental—Lewis’ belongings had been found in a wooded area off Princeton Boulevard in Wilkinsburg, the street where Beth lived.

Beth's body was found 16 months later in woods adjacent to Restland Memorial Cemetery in Monroeville, just a little more than a half mile from where Barbara was buried in Good Shepherd Cemetery.

The biggest remaining question isn't whether or not Barbara made it the 50 feet from her home to the bus stop at Long Road and Paris Drive, whether she survived the 1.1 mile, three-minute drive to the parking lot of the Blackridge Civic Association or met her fate en route, or whether she knew her killer.

It is simply: "Who killed her?"

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