Identified After 46 Years: Sandy and Martha Stiver

Sisters Identified

In the summer of 1968, two Philadelphia girls, 14-year-old Sandy Stiver and her 17-year-old sister-in-law Martha Stiver, disappeared from their home. In August of that same year, the body of a young girl was found near Joanna, Pennsylvania, approximately 50 miles northwest of Philadelphia. She had been shot several times with a .22.

Eight months later, in April 1969, the skeletal remains of another young female were found approximately five miles away from the remains in Joanna at the French Creek State Park by a man looking for mushrooms. Although no cause of death could be determined, the manner of death was determined to be probable homicide.

Because of the proximity in the ages of the two females and the fact that they were wearing identical white, Italian sandals, it was believed that the deaths were related. Despite exhaustive efforts to identify the girls, no leads were developed, and both were buried in adjoining, unmarked graves in the Berks County Potter’s Field near Reading, Pennsylvania.

The Berks County Potter’s Field was established in the 1800s and has an estimated 3000 graves crammed into an acre and a half, most of which are unmarked. The field, once the site of the Berks County Almshouse complex, contains the remains of many of Berks County’s indigent, mentally ill, prisoners, unidentified, elderly, and one of the original Three Stooges, Paul Deweese.

Years later, the sister of Sandy Stiver was searching a website that seeks to put names to the unidentified dead and found similarities between the two unidentified girls and those of Sandy and Martha Stiver. She then notified the Pennsylvania State Police who, in turn, requested an exhumation.

Arriving at the Berks County Potter’s Field, Dr. Snow found a large cemetery with virtually no markers on any of the graves. A map showed the graves to be exhumed near the southwest corner of the cemetery, but the absence of grave markers made the actual locations problematic at best. Slight depressions from the soil settling above the collapsed wooden caskets, however, suggested a general location in which to look for the graves.

An exhumation order had been obtained that allowed for the excavation of only four graves, two of which had to contain the remains of the unidentified females. Should the girls not be located within these four graves, the coroner would have to go back to the district attorney and obtain an exhumation order for more graves, which could take days or weeks.

Excavation began with a backhoe, and at a depth of approximately four feet a collapsed wooden casket was discovered. Examining the remains, Dr. Snow determined that the remains were those of an adult male, not those of one of the unidentified females. Excavation of the second grave revealed the same thing—an adult male.

The third grave, however, revealed a small, fragmentary skull, and examination of the pelvis confirmed that the remains were those of a young female. Buried in the soil close to the skull was a metal plate with the engraving “Unknown Female/Found April 17, 1969/Buried Aug. 1969/Auman Service.” This was clearly the remains of the young female found in French Creek Park. As it was now late in the day, excavation of the other grave was put off until the following day.

The following day, excavation began on what the coroner hoped would be the grave of the other unidentified female. Sure enough, a metal crucifix was soon located on the top of a casket. The crucifix had a metal plate engraved with “Unknown Female/Auman Service.” The coroner now had the remains of both unidentified females.

A year later, DNA confirmed that the remains were those of Sandy and Martha Stiver. Although the family had since relocated to Ohio, Sandy’s father returned to Philadelphia once a year from Cleveland to learn the status of the investigation. Sadly, Sandy’s father died in 1974, never knowing what happened to his daughter. Sandy’s remains were returned to her mother who died several years later; Martha’s remains were returned to Tom, her widower. The investigation into their deaths is ongoing.