As the sun went down on an evening in June of 1977, a teenager riding his bike discovered a woman’s body lying in a drainage ditch in Townsend, Delaware. The body had no identification to tell police who she was. Dental records also yielded no results, and the age and description of the woman — 5 feet, 3 inches tall, dark blonde hair, between 40 and 55 years old — could not be linked to any missing persons reports. But the police knew one thing for sure: the woman had been murdered. They investigated the death, but without leads to follow due to not knowing her identity, the case went cold.
In Pennsylvania that same year, a young man returned home from boarding school to find his mother not at home. He asked his father where she had gone. His father, a former police officer, told the young man and his sister that their mother had “just packed up her stuff and left.” The young man noticed, though, that she had left some clothes and belongings behind.
After Decades, DNA Evidence Breaks Open The Case
Information on the unidentified body, including a DNA profile, was submitted to the Combined DNA Index System, or CODIS, a national DNA database run by the FBI, in 2008. At that time, nothing turned up. But in February of 2017, police in New Castle County in Delaware learned of a company in Virginia, called Parabon Nanolabs, that specializes in DNA phenotyping. DNA phenotyping is a process by which physical traits and ancestry can be predicted using DNA.
Police submitted the woman’s DNA profile to Parabon Nanolabs, who in turn generated a sketch and a digital image of the woman. They also sent her genetic information to ancestry databases to try to link her to a potential family tree.
In 2019, police officer Steven Smugeresky was brought onto the case because of his experience working cold cases using DNA evidence. He combed through potential family trees and followed up on leads to collect DNA samples from possible relatives. These samples were then entered into CODIS, the same database where the unidentified woman’s DNA had been entered back in 2008. They got a match.
And so, after more than four decades, police have confirmed that the slain body found in the drainage ditch is Marie Heiser, the mother of the boy who returned home from boarding school to a motherless house. She was 50 years old when she was murdered.
Why Would A Father Never Report His Wife Missing?
Anyone looking at this case would find it extremely suspicious that William Heiser, Sr., a former member of the Philadelphia Police Department’s Highway Patrol in the ‘50s and early ‘60s, would opt not to report his wife’s disappearance to authorities. Even if she left of her own volition, the fact that she didn’t leave a note, that she never wrote or called even once, not even to the couple’s two children, ought to be cause for concern.
Also suspicious: In December 1977, William Heiser, Sr. sold the family home and moved to South Daytona Beach, Florida. This is not the behavior one would typically expect of a man who hopes his children’s mother will eventually return home.
William Heiser, Sr. died in 2006, so we can’t ask him. “We’re looking into every aspect of the case and, trust me, that has not passed us,” Michel Eckerd, Master Cpl. of the New Castle County Police Department in Delaware told the New York Times. But William Heiser, Sr.’s kids defend him.
William Heiser Jr., now 68, believes his father had nothing to do with his mother’s disappearance. “He would be the last person that would ever hurt anybody,” he told the Times. “He was a saint — took care of his family, never raised his voice or hands or argued or anything.”
But Was Marie Heiser A Woman Who Would Abandon Her Children?
Marie Heiser was a homemaker who also worked part-time at the local Country Club and was known for being very involved in her community. Her son recalls her being a loving mother, saying they’d go to the Jersey Shore and walk the boardwalk together. “She took care of us, and we had good times when I was smaller,” he told the Times. “She was just a good person.” Why would a woman so involved in her community up and leave, and no one — not even her own husband — report her missing?
The younger Heiser admitted his mother’s disappearance hurt him and his sister, Marie Petry Heiser. They would question their father about why their mother hadn’t called or written. “‘I haven’t heard; I don’t know where she’s at,’” Heiser said their father would tell them. “We had no reason to question him because we hadn’t heard neither.”
Domestic Violence In Families Where The Husband Is In Law Enforcement
We may never know if William Heiser, Sr. was involved in the disappearance of his wife. But we do know that there appears to be disturbing rates of domestic violence happening in families where the husband is in law enforcement. Statistics are difficult to nail down because of reluctance to report and a myriad of other factors, but several studies suggest domestic violence rates in law enforcement families are as high as 40% — four times higher than the general population.
Studies note that victims of domestic violence from a law enforcement officer suffer from “unique vulnerability.” The officer abusing them has a gun, knows where all the battered women’s shelters are, and “knows how to manipulate the system and shift blame to the victim.”
One study by the National Center for Women & Policing noted, “Victims often fear calling the police, because they know the case will be handled by officers who are colleagues and/or friends of their abuser. Victims of police family violence typically fear that the responding officers will side with their abuser and fail to properly investigate or document the crime.”
With regards to Marie Heiser, the statement released by police does not name a person of interest in her murder. The case is still being actively investigated.