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52 years after West Virginia coeds found decapitated, investigators hope high-tech "X-Ray machine" help will locate final evidence

Exchange-Crime Scene Search
Rod Everly inspects the site Wednesday, June 1, 2022, where the decomposed, decapitated bodies of Karen Ferrell and Mared Malarik were found in 1970 in a wooded, rural expanse, near Morgantown, W.Va.  Ron Rittenhouse / AP

Leaving no stone unturned at a 52-year-old, once-and-former crime scene isn't easy.

Not when investigators have to do their digging mainly by hand, so as not to disturb any evidence that still may be lurking in the soil.

Armed with garden trowels and toothbrushes, West Virginia State Police forensic investigators and others have been doing just that in earnest for the past several weeks at a wooded, rural expanse near Morgantown.

It's a location that has chilled and captivated generations of University City residents. It's the place where the decomposed, decapitated bodies of Karen Ferrell and Mared Malarik were found in 1970.

The WVU freshmen and friends were spied getting into a cream-colored sedan on a cold night in Morgantown four months before. They were hitching a ride back to their dorm after a movie downtown.

A side note to the account is just as poignant as it is grisly: The heads of the victims have yet to be located after all these years.

That's why the meticulous, archeological-style work started in the middle of May.

Albert "Rod" Everly, a retired contractor and vocational teacher, was in the National Guard unit that discovered the bodies on that April afternoon 52 years ago.

A recent book and podcast about the murders reawakened his interest - a series of anonymous letters purported to have been written by the perpetrator of the crime, specifically.

He gridded out the site in accordance with author's directives, and, in the middle of May, six cadaver dogs, yelping and with their tails wagging furiously, went to the two areas where the writer said the final evidence could be found.

As recently as last Monday, two other groups of dogs - every canine worked apart from one another - all had the same reaction, to varying degrees, at the above-mentioned areas.

"That's what's keeping me going," he said. "The dogs are all hitting the same scent at the same two places."

Everly briefly employed a backhoe and professional operator to dig down a couple of feet more at both sites to increase the field of investigation.

In the meantime, some high-tech help is on the way.

Michael Kief, who does forensic investigation work with the West Virginia State Police, said the agency this month is purchasing a ground-penetrating radar unit for work on such cases.

"It's basically an X-Ray machine," said Kief, who recently retired as a State Police lieutenant and worked several cold cases during his career.

The technology uses radio waves to detect anomalies in the soil and strata, such as depressed, sunken-in areas where bodies - or body parts - could be buried, he said.

"We can get a 3-D picture of an area," he said. "We can grid everything out."

Kief said the agency is finalizing the paperwork for the purchase this month. It works out, the technology could be in use that expanse near the Morgantown housing to the remains of two lives ripped away.

It truly is about closure, both and Everly said, if a final discovery could be made.

Steve McGuffin agrees. His aunt and uncle were Richard and Bess Ferrell, the adoptive parents of Karen Ferrell.

He was 2 when his cousin and her friend were killed. As the family is close, he likely met Karen Ferrell when he was a toddler - he just doesn't remember, he said.

What he does remember, he said, is the character of two people who simply willed themselves to keep going, in the face of terrible loss.

Two people who bought groceries and Christmas presents for their neighbors in need, and sometimes anonymously.

"They lost everything but they didn't draw in on themselves," he said of the couple.

"Instead, they did for others."

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