TOWNSEND, Del. – When Marie Petry Heiser vanished more than 43 years ago, her children were told she’d left them and her husband, a former Philadelphia police officer, and never looked back.
“He just said she just packed up her stuff and left,” her son, William Heiser Jr., recently told The New York Times.
Heiser Jr., who was at boarding school when his mother disappeared, said he was never suspicious of his father’s claims. Then a teen, Heiser believed his parents must have separated or divorced, despite some of his mother’s belongings remaining in the family’s home.
Over the years, when he or his sister questioned why she’d never phoned or written to them, William Heiser Sr. would tell them he didn’t know where Marie Heiser had gone to.
“I haven’t heard. I don’t know where she’s at,” Heiser recalled his father saying, according to the Times. “We had no reason to question him because we hadn’t heard, either.”
All their questions gained new urgency last week when authorities announced that human remains found in Delaware in 1977 belong to the missing wife and mother. Marie Heiser is now officially classified as a murder victim.
Marie Heiser, who was 50 when she vanished, was never reported missing.
William Heiser Jr., who followed his father’s footsteps into law enforcement, told the Times he is certain his father, who died in 2006, knew nothing of his mother’s killing.
“He would be the last person that would ever hurt anybody,” said Heiser, who is retired from the Volusia County Sheriff’s Office. “He was a saint — took care of his family, never raised his voice or hands or argued or anything.”
Delaware authorities said last week, however, that the elder William Heiser’s explanation of his wife’s whereabouts is under scrutiny.
“We’re looking into every aspect of the case and, trust me, that has not passed us,” New Castle County police Master Cpl. Michel Eckerd said.
New Castle County authorities said March 23 that DNA and genetic genealogy had led them to Marie Heiser’s identity. Heiser was a homemaker and part-time employee at the former Ashbourne Country Club in Cheltenham, Pennsylvania.
“She was very involved in the community in Philadelphia,” Eckerd said.
The corporal said he hopes someone who knew either Marie Heiser or her family will come forward with information about her disappearance and murder.
A grisly discovery and unanswered questions
A teenager riding his bike along Union Church Road, about four miles south of Odessa, on the evening of June 27, 1977, spotted the badly decomposed body of a woman in a ditch approximately 30 feet off the roadway. New Castle County investigators quickly classified the case as a homicide.
They estimated the woman had been dead for several months before her remains were found, contemporary news reports said. Because of the extremely poor condition of the body, it was difficult to put a name on the woman.
Forensic pathologists were able to say the remains belonged to a white woman between 5 feet, 3 inches and 5 feet, 6 inches tall. She was estimated to weigh 95 to 105 pounds and was between 40 and 50 years old.
Her hair was light brown streaked with gray, but had previously been dyed dark and bleached.
Pathologists determined from her bones that she had given birth during her lifetime.
“Police conducted an extensive investigation into the woman’s murder but were not able to identify her or obtain any leads,” New Castle County police officials said last week. “The case grew cold. At the time, police relied heavily on fingerprints and dental records in hopes to identify human remains.”
The state medical examiner in 1998 reconstructed the dead woman’s face, produced sketches and created a bust that estimated what they believed the woman looked like, the News Journal in Wilmington reported in 2018.
In 2008, the details of the case were reviewed for entry into the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System, also known as NamUs. As part of the case entry process, a DNA profile from the remains was extracted by the University of North Texas Center for Human Identification.
That profile was entered into the FBI’s Combined DNA Index System, or CODIS, but no matches were found in the database, police officials said.
Then came Parabon NanoLabs.
The Virginia-based forensics company has garnered headlines over the past several years as the practice of genetic genealogy has increasingly helped law enforcement agencies across the country solve hundreds of cold cases, from sexual assaults to homicides.
One of Parabon’s specialties is DNA phenotyping, a process of predicting a person’s physical traits and ancestry through their genetic profile.
The company began assisting New Castle County detectives with a sketch of the victim, created by certified forensic artist Thom Shaw.
“The lab subsequently provided a Snapshot phenotype report to include a computerized composite of the victim,” New Castle County officials said in a statement.
That composite was released to the public in the summer of 2018.
“Parabon NanoLabs further submitted the genetic information to ancestry databases and provided genetic genealogy analysis, which included a potential family tree for the victim,” police officials said.
The breakthrough in the case came when Steven Smugeresky, a police officer in Montgomery County, Maryland, caught the attention of investigators at a law enforcement cold case seminar. In 2019, Smugeresky took over researching the ancestry of the victim.
“He worked tirelessly on potential family trees in an attempt to develop information on the identity of the remains,” New Castle County police officials said. “New Castle County Police followed up on these leads and obtained DNA samples from possible relatives.”
The Delaware Division of Forensic Science DNA Laboratory expedited the analysis of the samples from those potential relatives. Their DNA profiles were entered into CODIS, and the data matched that of the 1977 Jane Doe.
Dr. Gary Collins, chief medical examiner for Delaware, confirmed that Marie Heiser was the 1977 Jane Doe.
Detectives learned that Marie Heiser, who was 50 when she was last seen alive, was the wife of William Heiser Sr., who served as a member of the Philadelphia Police Department’s Highway Patrol in the 1950s and early 1960s.
“They were known for performing thrill shows in area stadiums and arenas,” New Castle County police officials said. “Heiser Sr. had to leave the police force after being seriously injured while rehearsing for one of these shows.”
William Heiser Sr., who subsequently worked as a truck driver, relocated to South Daytona Beach, Florida, in the late 1970s, the same time frame in which the then-unidentified remains of his wife were found.
Authorities have not said if he is specifically a person of interest in his wife’s death.
William Heiser Jr., who is now 18 years older than his mother was when she was slain, said he has fond memories of his mother, who took him to the Jersey Shore for strolls on the boardwalk.
“She took care of us, and we had good times when I was smaller,” Heiser told the Times. “She was just a good person.”
He said it was a shock when Delaware authorities called him a couple of months ago, seeking his DNA because they believed they’d learned his mother’s fate. A few weeks later, he got the news that his DNA matched that of the remains found so long ago.
“You’re thinking, ‘Well, as horrible as this story is, there’s some closure,’” he said.
But disturbing questions remain.
“Before, we wondered where our mother was,” Heiser said. “Now, we’re wondering what happened to our mother.
“So one door closes, another opens.”
New Castle County police detectives are continuing their investigation into Marie Heiser’s death.
“We are specifically interested in anyone who may have known the Heiser family, especially from the area of Crafton Street in Philadelphia or the former Ashbourne Country Club in Cheltenham, Pennsylvania, as well as the greater South Daytona Beach area in Florida,” the police statement said.
Anyone who has any information about the case should contact Detective Jeffrey Sendek at 302-395-8110 or via email at Jeffery.Sendek@newcastlede.gov, or retired Lt. Teresa Williams at 302-395-8110 or Teresa.Williams@newcastlede.gov. Tipsters can also call the New Castle County Police on the department’s nonemergency line at 302-573-2800.
Anonymous tips can be submitted by texting NCCDE to the number 847411 or going online at nccpd.com. Tipsters may also call Crime Stoppers at 800-TIP-3333 (800-847-3333).