How a College Student Cracked the 57-Year-Old Unsolved Murder of a 9-Year-Old Pennsylvania Girl

The incredible work of 18-year-old Eric Schubert helped bring long-awaited justice to Marise Chiverella's family

Split: Eric Schubert: KFdO-Iyr_400x400-2.tif Credit: courtesy Eric Schubert and Marise: Marise Ann Chiverella.tif Credit: Courtesy Ronald Chiverella
Eric Schubert; Marise Chiverella. Photo: Courtesy Ronald Chiverella; courtesy Eric Schubert

For 57 long years, the death of 9-year-old Marise Chiverella was one the most notorious unsolved murders in Pennsylvania. The third grader had set off by herself on the 10-minute walk to St. Joseph's Parochial School in blue-collar Hazleton at around 8 a.m. on March 18, 1964, without any of her four siblings because she wanted to get there early, to deliver cans of pears and beets to Sister Josephine in honor of her teacher's Feast Day.

At about 1 p.m., a man teaching his teenaged nephew how to drive near an abandoned strip mine turned garbage dump noticed what they thought was a large doll lying on top of the refuse.

It was Marise. Her hands were tied together with one of her shoelaces and her ankles with the other. She had been sexually assaulted and strangled to death.

Among those investigated by the Pennsylvania state police were a priest, who had been suspected in a murder in Bristol, Pa., as well as a local exhibitionist who committed suicide after he was asked to come in for a polygraph test.

Over the decades, more than 250 members of the Pennsylvania State Police worked the Chiverella case — amassing over 4,700 pages in the police file — but they never came up with a single arrest.

"It seemed like everybody could have committed this crime," Pennsylvania State Police Corporal Mark Baron tells PEOPLE. "There were a lot of messed up people back in the early 1960s."

Marise's parents, Carmen and Mary, died without knowing who had killed their jump-rope loving, organ-playing, little girl who aspired to be a nun.

"She and I used to tease each other, but we had a special relationship between us," says Marise's older brother Ron. "Little sister and I was the older brother. I used to get my back scratched, so she'd scratch my back, and then we would all take advantage of her on that one too. She used to bite her nails, but she would scratch our backs and so forth. She got to a point where she learned that she would be able to ask for a quarter or nickel back then for her time. But she did it out of love."

After her death, says Ron, the family was "in a state of desperation."

Ron vividly remembers the day after they found Marise, back in 1964. "The house was in chaos," he says. "People screaming, crying, rolling around, literally, on the floor, some of the aunts, because of the horror of it all. My mother was totally in shock. The family doctor was there administering some type of sedative to her. My father was like a zombie. It was horrible, even to just try and describe."

pics of Marise Chiverella? Courtesy of Ron Chiverella.
Courtesy of Ron Chiverella

Then, about two years ago, the Pennsylvania State Police decided to try solve the case with the help of a "kid." The "kid" was 18-year-old college freshman Eric Schubert, who did genealogical research as a hobby, mostly helping people draw their family trees but also working with law enforcement to search for suspects.

Schubert, who is now a junior history major at Elizabethtown College about 80 miles from Hazleton, had read online in the local newspaper about the police's efforts to find Marise's killer, so he reached out to offer his services. "I just figured I'd send them an email and say, 'I'd love to help if I'm not stepping on any toes, because I like to think I know what I'm doing'," Schubert says.

However, before he got to work with the state police he had to be vetted first. Investigators set up a meeting at a coffee shop on campus. "We went into that meeting, and Mr. Schubert came prepared like it was a job interview," says Baron, the lead investigator on the Chiverella case. "He had pretty much a portfolio for us."

Also making a big impression: his drink order. "We offered to buy him a coffee and he said, 'Oh, I don't drink coffee. I'll take an apple juice,'" says Baron. "We're like, this kid's going to drink apple juice here and he wants to help us solve a homicide?"

Still, Baron says, after listening to what Schubert had to say, "we walked away thinking the kid was on point."

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"It reenergized a lot of people and gave us new hope, and then it was full speed ahead," says Baron. "He's calling my phone here in the office, and then later on it was text messages, and cell phone calls. But I would say emails multiple times a day. Once we brought him on board, he didn't stop."

After spending as many as 20 hours a week for 18 months researching every possible lead Schubert zeroed in on a local bartender named James Forte, who had a criminal record but was never considered a suspect. Forte died of natural causes in 1980 at age 38.

The Forte lead turned out to be compelling enough to convince a judge to approve the exhumation of his body. A DNA sample removed from clothing Marise wore the day she died was a positive match to Forte's on Feb. 3. "I think the odds of the DNA not being his were one in something septillion. So that's 24 zeros," Schubert says.

Marise Ann Chiverella case solved with genealogy. James Paul Forte a relative of Marise was found to be the killer. DOB 07/21/1941. He died 5/16/1980. Credit: Pennsylvania State Police Trooper Anthony Petroski III Public Information Officer Pennsylvania State Police (570) 459-3900 ext: 216 | Twitter: @PSPTroopNPIO
James Paul Forte. Pennsylvania State Police

After the confirmation, police held a press conference to announce that they'd closed the case. Schubert skipped three classes to attend the conference. "We took Eric out for milkshakes that day," says Baron, 39. "He was my partner in this investigation. He's top-notch." "I was the big brother," he adds about their dynamic.

Schubert says that using genealogy to hunt for a killer is an enormous process of elimination. In this case, the state police had the killer's DNA uploaded into CODIS since 2007 but there were no matches to any felons in the databank. In 2019, the state police then uploaded the crime scene sample into a genealogy website, which spat out hundreds of possibilities. From there, Schubert would research possible relatives and then send them to Baron who would then track them down and rule them out through DNA.

"He was good to give us information and a new route to go down every day," says Baron. "He was giving me names and saying, 'Hey, can you go ahead and look into seeing what you can find out about this person or that person?' How he came up with the names that he came up with, I have no idea. The voodoo that Eric Schubert does is amazing."

Baron says it also helped that the people they reached out to for information and to collect DNA samples were very cooperative. "Nobody ever went ahead and said, 'I'm not helping you. Don't ever call me again. Everybody was willing to help."

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Schubert built about 50 complete family trees to find a connection to Hazelton. He finally located a man who had immigrated from Italy to Hazelton in 1904 — Forte's grandfather. Schubert then looked for descendants who had been in the Hazleton area when Marise was killed. Forte and his brother soon became prime suspects, but both were dead. Fortunately, when the police tracked down the brother's wife, she had an old hairbrush from her husband, and a DNA test of it ruled him out — which left James Forte. "I was just so relieved for the family," says Schubert.

Ron says he is thankful to the state police and Schubert for solving his sister's decades old murder. "There's an emptiness there that's never going to change," he says. "But now that we do know, that helped close that door, which is a blessing."

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