The Unsolved Murder Of A Young Nun In 1977

Sister Roberta "Robin" Elam was in the process of finishing her vows to become a fully-fledged nun when her life was brutally cut short in a horrific murder that has never been solved. Some believe that during the course of the shocking investigation, the identity of the killer may have been revealed — although it has never yet been proven.

Sister Elam was found strangled and raped on a park bench located near her convent, Mount Saint Joseph, in Wheeling, West Virginia. Elam had walked away from the convent for a moment of prayer and contemplation on June 13, 1977, when she suffered a terrible attack. Police told The Journal News that they believed the attacker had come at her from behind and pulled her backward over the bench. No weapons were found, just the sister's prayer book, and the police concluded she was probably strangled by hand.

Her body was later found by a local caretaker at 1.50 p.m., partly undressed, with her underpants pulled down and her chest exposed, Oxygen reported. There was no sign of a struggle, and police suspect the killer may have incapacitated her beforehand. Her strange murder took place in broad daylight and very close to a local golf course, sometime after 11 a.m. that day.

An ongoing investigation

By September 1977, police had produced a description of a possible suspect based on several witness reports — they were looking for a man around 6 feet tall, with a beard, dabrk eyes, and bushy eyebrows (per The Marion Star). In the early days of the investigation, police also stumbled upon several leads that led nowhere. When the case first opened, The Weirton Daily Times reported that detectives were looking for a man with "a very loud and filthy mouth" who hung around the area and was known to the nuns.

Thankfully, police were able to collect enough evidence to construct a DNA profile of the killer, albeit initially, it was of no help. The case is still open today, in hopes that superior modern forensics can help to resolve the mystery. According to The Times Leader newspaper, in 2018 local homicide detective Harry Croft told the press that the case may take many more months or years to solve and that DNA work is not fast. He claimed the police had many leads but stated, "The only way it'll be solved on this earth is if all the investigators get together and talk it out. There's reports all over the place."

[Featured image by Nyttend via Wikimedia Commons | Cropped and scaled]

Did the killer confess?

According to Oxygen, there is a convincing case to be made that the nun's killer was already identified back in the 1970s but escaped prosecution. Cold case investigator Paul Holes argued that John Shoplak, a violent burglar and suspected rapist, might actually have admitted it. Police are looking to reevaluate the DNA evidence connected to Shoplak, who died in 2019.

In 1977, an associate of Shoplak came forward and told police that he had confessed to him in private. Supposedly, Shoplak claimed to have snuck up behind the nun and strangled her with his belt. According to his ex-girlfriend, Shoplak had a notorious hatred of Catholics and was so violent he once cut off his grandmother's finger to steal her ring. After assessing his statement, it became obvious that Shoplak was able to provide details about the crime that he is unlikely to have guessed. Shoplak claimed to have gotten blood on himself during the rape and murder, stating that Roberta Elam was either a virgin or on her period — a fact that proved to be correct, as her body was found with a tampon in it.

Shoplak was cleared of the crime when it was first investigated because his blood sample did not match the killer's. However, police say the military blood record they used at the time was quite likely to have been inaccurate. Police are looking to obtain new tissue samples connected to Shoplak from a local hospital, but they also still have many other suspects, ranging from construction workers to married men.

If you or anyone you know has been a victim of sexual assault, help is available. Visit the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network website or contact RAINN's National Helpline at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673).