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Donations fund DNA testing, closing of cold cases

DNA Sequencing
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A Luzerne County nonprofit organization has established a fund to help investigators pay for the DNA testing and other expenses closing a cold case might require.

When state police were getting close to solving the 1964 murder of nine-year-old Marise Chiverella from Hazleton, District Attorney Sam Sanguedolce turned to the Luzerne County community for help.

“We were in need of some hyper-technical forensic evidence evaluation, and the state had expended its budget on that type of testing,” he said.

They needed to test DNA with technology that wasn’t available in 1964. But the community responded - relatives and people in the area contributed DNA samples and others offered to contribute money toward the effort.

That’s when The Luzerne Foundation got involved and established the Closing Cases Fund.

“The Closing Cases Fund has one goal in mind, and that’s to help close out these cold cases,” Luzerne Foundation CEO David Pedri said. “We were able to raise the money in this particular cold case and we’ll continue to raise funds for even more cold cases as the State Police and Luzerne County District Attorney work together.”

With about $8,000 of funding the foundation raised, State Police were able to identify the late James Paul Forte of Hazleton as the man they say raped and murdered Marise Chiverella in 1964. He died in 1980, but Sanguedolce said identifying him brought closure to the girl’s remaining family and to the Hazleton community.

“There were so many people that knew the family and knew her that I think it really was a call to the community that you can do something to help us solve it,” he said. “The community really cares about these victims.”

Since state police closed the Chiverella case in February 2022, the Luzerne Foundation has kept the Closing Cases Fund going. Pedri says the fund has some large donors contributing, but more often than not, county residents are just giving what they can.

“Those are the ones that mean the most to me,” Pedri said. “In my mind, it’s the grandma who writes me a $10 check because it meant something to her, she read about it in the papers and wanted to somehow be a part of it.”

Pedri also noted that interest in true crime has risen in recent years, likely due to a proliferation of TV shows and podcasts. He thinks that contributes to people wanting to help solve cases in their own backyards.

“I think that people know, for this particular fund, it’s going to take care of home,” he said. “It’s going to take care of your neighbor, it’s going to take care of the family.”

As Sanguedolce and State Police look toward other cases that extra funding could help close, he said the community’s support is a motivator.

“That tells me people of every background and every financial means care enough to take some money out of their pocket to try to help law enforcement and help families get to a conclusion,” he said. “It’s extremely meaningful to all of us.”

Anyone can contribute to the fund, and Sanguedolce said police have identified four more cases they hope to close with the help of those donations.

Sarah Scinto is the local host of All Things Considered on WVIA. She is a Connecticut native and graduate of King’s College in Wilkes-Barre, and has previously covered Northeastern Pennsylvania for The Scranton Times-Tribune, The Citizens’ Voice and Greater Pittston Progress.