“It isn’t always DNA.”
The recent resolution of a 40-year-old murder cold case in Bucks County has thrown light on the tenacious, sometimes relentless approach that law enforcement often has to solving homicides that are decades old.
The Bucks County District Attorney’s Office recently announced that investigators with the DA’s office, in partnership with Pennsylvania State Police, had solved a county murder case from 1980, bringing closure to a complex and multilayered crime story after more than four decades.
Peter Eric Marschner, a German national, shot and killed Richard Wesley Wheeler sometime around Sept. 18, 1980, the DA’s office said. Marschner had been acting under orders from a third man, Leslie Schmidt.
The case had languished in irresolution until earlier this year when Detective David Hanks and State Trooper Christopher Cleveland had finally determined the last pieces of the puzzle.
County Deputy District Attorney Megan Hunsicker, who worked with Hanks and Cleveland to solve the case, told the DVJournal that, contrary to what’s often depicted in popular media, high-tech solutions like lab work and genetic sampling are only part of a detective’s repertoire in these cases.
“I can tell you that the one Detective Hanks and Trooper Cleveland solved really came down to procuring records from arrests,” she said.
She noted that in cases where genetic material like DNA is available “improved technology” can “definitely…provide the closure for these victims’ families that they deserve.”
Investigators in this case made the connection that Wheeler, Marschner and Schmidt had been incarcerated at the same time in Connecticut’s Danbury Federal Prison. Schmidt was known to have dealt methamphetamine in Bucks County, and the men conspired to set up a meth lab in the county once they were released.
Upon Wheeler’s release, Schmidt provided him with $250,000 to care for Schmidt’s family while he was still incarcerated. Schmidt eventually became convinced that the drug dealer was mishandling the huge sum meant for Schmidt’s family. Schmidt, still incarcerated, subsequently ordered Marschner to kill Wheeler.
Within the case file, investigators noted witness testimony from 1983 that alleged Schmidt had hired “a German guy” to carry out the murder. Following the killing, Marschner lived out the rest of his life under a pseudonym in New Jersey, dying in 2006.
Cold cases are common throughout the United States. The nonprofit Project: Cold Case, citing FBI data, says that “nearly 340,000 cases of homicide and non-negligent manslaughter went unsolved from 1965 to 2021.”
Hunsicker said cold cases are a regular part of a detective’s workload.
“They are assigned to detectives,” she said. “Some detectives are carrying more than one.”
Investigators regularly turn to their cold caseload as their schedules permit, she said, “whether it’s going out and talking to witnesses still available, or reassessing evidence we still have.”
Manuel Gamiz, the communications director for the Bucks County DA’s office, said district detectives “are regularly working on a number of cases at a time.”
Official circumstances dictate whether or not, and how, a detective follows up on a cold case during any given workweek. “If it’s the priority for them that day, if they have a lot of leads, they know how to spread it around,” Gamiz said. “They know how to organize their time.”
Cold case resolutions in which a suspect is still alive are rare, Gamiz said, though they do happen. He pointed to the recent apprehension of Robert Francis Atkins for the 1991 murder of Bristol Township resident Joy Hibbs, as well as the 2020 conviction of Daman Andrew Smoot for the 2004 killing of Adam Brundage.
Though all three individuals in the 1980 Wheeler case are dead, the DA’s office said in its announcement that Wheeler’s family was “grateful that this crime is now solved.”
Hunsicker, meanwhile, said district investigators are continuing to work diligently to crack unsolved cases under their jurisdiction.
“My office has made it a priority as far as cold cases to not leave them cold,” she said.
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