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Monroe County investigators pen book about cold case murder

Perhaps the idea for the book began out of curiosity.

Or maybe it was the fact that one of the authors happens to drive by the site of the murder every day he goes to work.

The book, “Etna - A Murder Out of Time,” written by Michael Mancuso and Eric J. Kerchner, was published this past fall on the 140th anniversary of the brutal rape and killing of 17-year-old Etna Bittenbender in 1880. The crime occurred on Halloween night in Hamilton Township and was one of the oldest whodunits that had been lost in the archives of Monroe County.

Breathing life into a cold case

Mancuso and Kerchner began investigating the murder eight years ago.

“We started to put what we knew then into a couple of chapters,” said Mancuso, who has been a seasoned prosecutor as a first assistant of the District Attorney’s office in Monroe County for the past 20 years.

“By 2015, we had about half the book done, and when the pandemic hit this year and our current caseloads were shut down, Eric and I were able to the finish the story.”

On that last day of October in 1880, Bittenbender was beaten with stones and a club. Her body was found on the side of the road.

Law enforcement officers and bounty seeking vigilantes searched for the murderer. Several suspects were arrested, but then let go after interrogations proved nothing.

Local authorities had hired the famous Pinkerton Detective Agency to solve the crime, but ultimately no one was ever brought to trial and the case remained unsolved.

Kerchner, a resident of Effort and a chief detective for the Monroe County District Attorney’s Office, is a veteran investigator of drug-related illegal activities, internet crimes, murders and white-collar crimes. His interest in local history and unsolved murders motivated him to collaborate efforts with Mancuso to write the book.

“About 20 percent of cold cases are solved overall,” he said. “I was particularly drawn to the Bittenbender case because it occurred during the Victorian Age. Our research focused around the culture and behaviors of the time and the methods that the justice departments back then used to investigate this crime.”

Who was Etna?

The book provides a back story of what is known about the victim.

She was the daughter of a well-to-do family and is buried in Mount Zion cemetery in Hamilton Township, next to her parents. Her gravestone reads, “Murdered by some person unknown on Sunday evening, October 31st, 1880, between the hours of 4 and 6 o’clock. Aged 17 years, 1 month, and 8 days.”

Investigating a ghost

Mancuso, a resident of Saylorsburg and a graduate of Pocono Mountain High School, has been prosecuting homicide cases since 2004. He explained the difficulties with the investigation of this particular cold case that is nearly two centuries old.

“There is no case file,” he wrote in the book. “It was either lost or thrown away. Details from the 1880 census, archives from the Eastern State Penitentiary, maps and numerous newspaper accounts of the crime were helpful.”

In their book, the authors document another cold case, the murder of Alfred Barnes in Chestnuthill Township in 1968. The crime remained unsolved until 2015 when several 80-plus-year-old witnesses came forth to finger a man named Richard Keiper, who was then found and apprehended in Texas.

Keiper’s motive for the murder was stealing Barnes’ brand-new Ford Thunderbird, and in order to do so, he killed the victim with two shots, one by the car and another as Barnes was trying to get away. Keiper was finally brought to trial 47 years after the murder.

In the Bittenbender investigation, Mancuso and Kerchner had to conduct their search past whatever evidence was found in 1880 and uncover leads to the crime that had long since been forgotten and had become nothing more than a faded memory.

Now, with the advantage of technology, searching for clues has become much more efficient than what was the customary legwork the legal authorities performed in the 19th century.

Mancuso believes the current landscape of the location of the girl’s murder is worth a detailed observation because “the scene of a crime can give you a look inside the mind of the killer.”

In the end, investigating a cold case is the search for truth. All the people involved have obviously long since died, but Mancuso takes exception to those who say, “It’s so long ago. Everyone moves on. Who cares anymore?”

“I find that attitude to be offensive,” said Mancuso. “Everyone needs to understand what happens to the killing of an innocent victim. It doesn’t matter when it happened. And if you believe in the hereafter, then Etna Bittenbender deserves our attempts to seek justice for her and give her closure.”

Kerchner added, “Crimes that are never solved are still talked about today. Their cases are still very much alive and need to be solved for the sake of the ancestors of the victims.”

In the foreword of the book, an unknown author is quoted: “Oh, mystery thou shall not elude me; my wisdom and strength shall cast aside all darkness. You will not blind me nor lead me astray. The light will find me and shall unto me deliver the truth.”

The truth is revealed in Mancuso’s and Kerchner’s investigation into the murder of a teenage girl and is written in their book.

“Etna - A Murder Out of Time” can be purchased on Amazon books in hardcover, softcover and e-book versions.

Eric J. Kerchner and Michael Mancuso talk about the murder mystery book. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO
The tombstone of Etna Bittenbender.