New DNA tests could help investigate 2020 Bland murder

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Jasmine Franconia | Employee

Along a remote highway known for its scenic views and rich history, a small makeshift memorial was erected hundreds of miles away by family members to mark the spot where 57-year-old Bruce Ritchie died more than was stabbed two years ago.

In the months and years after state police began their investigation into the Pennsylvania man’s murder, members of the South Gap community have helped care for the memorial while a cold-case agent continues to work to solve the case.

“This is a modern day murder,” said Special Agent Russell Edwards. “I hate to think that we can’t solve it.”

Edwards was assigned to the case last October when he was selected as an investigator for the State Police Department’s Division 4. Although a case is typically not considered “cold” until it has gone unsolved for five or more years, the lack of witnesses and lack of physical evidence has made solving Ritchie’s death difficult.

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“Usually you have a witness, good physical evidence… but this one? Super random. They have no witnesses, no video surveillance – absolutely nothing – in the middle of nowhere,” he said.

Edwards was among the first investigators to work the Wilderness Road crime scene on May 23, 2020 after a passerby discovered Ritchie’s body in a ditch.

At the scene, Ritchie’s rented Nissan Sentra was parked in a wide gravel parking lot, a small pool of blood on the ground in front of the car, another near the passenger door, and other stains on the car’s body.

In a grassy ditch 20 to 30 feet from the road, Ritchie’s body lay with a single stab wound to his back and an defensive wound to his right hand. Nearby, investigators found a discarded Mossy Oak hunting knife.

Ritchie, a nuclear training specialist for Westinghouse, had been driving through the area on Interstate 77 and was returning to Herminie, Pennsylvania from a business trip in Georgia when he turned off the Interstate at exit 62 to relieve his headache.

Ritchie’s widow, Dawn Ritchie, said her husband suffered from frequent headaches and called her around 10:30 p.m. last night to let her know he was leaving the interstate.

“He had a headache 24 hours a day, seven days a week but it had gotten really bad that night so he had been on medication and stopped at the side of the road to rest and let the medication work before continuing on to his hotel,” she said.

She said she told her husband to call her when he entered the hotel room he reserved across the state line in West Virginia.

“But obviously he never made it,” she said.

Dawn Ritchie said she fell asleep shortly after her husband’s call that night. When she woke up the next morning, Ritchie said she just assumed he’d forgotten to call when he got to his hotel and that he was already on his way.

“But when the time came, he should have been home and I still hadn’t heard from him, I said ‘OK’. So I started making a lot of calls and didn’t get an answer,” she said.

Under what she called “typical TV maintenance” that a person can’t be reported missing until they’ve been missing for 24 hours, Dawn Ritchie said she waited until that night to call the police with her concerns.

“And about an hour later, the[Pennsylvania]State Police showed up at our house,” she said.

Bruce Ritchie’s body was not discovered until around noon that day. The tall grass around him made it impossible for passers-by to see him from the road, Edwards said. The late hour and location of the departure on the remote road also meant there were few people around who could have noticed anything out of the ordinary.

“We interviewed several people who saw the car,” Edwards said, “but no one saw anyone nearby.”

Using cellphone data, investigators were able to determine that Bruce Ritchie made his final stop before pulling into Bland County at a Luv’s Truck Stop in Lambsburg to refuel. CCTV at the gas station enabled them to determine that he was the only person in the car.

Edwards said an interesting fact about the condition of Ritchie’s rental car is that the driver’s seat is still in the reclined position “as if it either jumped quickly out of the car or maybe was forced out.”

The agent said the crime appeared random and disorganized, although he’s still not sure what the motive might have been. He noted that nothing had been stolen from Bruce Ritchie’s car and it did not appear that anyone had searched it. The man’s wallet, computer bags and luggage were still inside.

“I believe — and it’s not proven or anything — that Bruce Ritchie gave up a fight and probably startled a person who might have been trying to rob him,” Edwards said.

The agent said there appeared to be some hand-to-hand fighting, noting that the neck and tail area of ​​Bruce Ritchie’s shirt had been stretched as if he had been grabbed by the shirt. He also noticed the defensive wound on his right hand.

A swab of Bruce Ritchie’s blood was later found on his car’s passenger door handle. Edwards believes the swab came from Bruce Ritchie’s defensive wound, which suggested the agent might have tried to open the door during the attack.

“I think he was going to get his cell phone when he got stabbed in the back,” Edwards said, noticing the pool of blood on the floor by the door.

Investigators had hoped the knife found at the scene would lead them to Bruce Ritchie’s attacker. In stabbing cases, Edwards explained, the attackers often accidentally injured themselves, leaving traces of their own blood.

But DNA analyzes performed at the Roanoke State Crime Lab and a private lab in Texas revealed only DNA belonging to Bruce Ritchie. Examination of all other samples from the crime scene yielded the same results.

Edwards said the investigation led them down a number of paths, all of which ended in dead ends, but he didn’t want to rule any of them out at this point.

“We went down several rabbit holes,” he said.

And to date, the police have not received a single tip in the case.

“There’s no advice on that at all,” he said.

Investigators later heard from a state police profiler who spoke to them about the case. The profiler told them the perpetrator appeared disorganized and may have been a transient, a person in transit with no connection to the area.

Edwards said investigators spoke to two transients during the early stages of the investigation.

“One thing we’ve ruled out, the other we can’t rule out,” Edwards said.

While other avenues have been explored, Edwards believes the transient theory is the most likely. He’s hoping to have some answers soon, or at least a little more evidence to work with. About a week before speaking on the case, Edwards learned that Virginia prosecutors had agreed to fund additional forensic testing at a private Florida lab. He hopes the lab can find touch DNA on Bruce Ritchie’s shirt.

Touch DNA is a relatively new method of analyzing DNA and requires very small samples to test.

“I think when the person lays hands on him, there’s going to be some DNA, some sweat. A person doing something like that is going to sweat a little,” he said, although he noted that the presence of so much Bruce Ritchie’s blood and a downpour the morning he was found could make that task more difficult.

But for now, Edwards said, “DNA testing is our best hope.”

The Florida lab will also test a shirt collected from the transient, which investigators couldn’t rule out. Edwards said that person is considered a “person of interest” and not a suspect at this time.

Dawn Ritchie said she hoped the tests would help close the family.

“His passing is a very significant loss, not only for me and our children, but for our friends, family and community at large,” she said. “He was just such a person.”

Dawn Ritchie described her husband, a father of six and a US Navy veteran, as “the most honest, supportive and caring person you could meet. He was always there for everyone.”

He was the kind of guy who went out of his way to help everyone, she said. She wonders if this good-natured and helpful personality might have played a role in his death.

“That’s my own kind of theory, but if he was lying asleep and someone knocked on his window to get his attention and he came out thinking he was helping someone… that’s just how he was,” she said.

Dawn Ritchie said she would like to see the person responsible for her husband’s murder brought to justice, but tries not to elaborate, saying: “It’s just too difficult to get my head around. “

“I just decided early on that the person who took him from us isn’t going to get anything else from us. So instead of thinking about the situation, I tried to just focus on moving forward, taking care of the kids, just living the way he wanted us to be.”

She added, “God knows who did it, and in the end, if they haven’t given their lives to Him and turned it around, then I believe they will have theirs in the end.”

Dawn Ritchie expressed her deep gratitude to the members of the Bland County community. After her husband’s death, she said, several parishioners reached out to her on social media.

“A special thank you to everyone in this church who has reached out to us and let us know that they are praying for us and things like that. It meant a lot to me,” she said.

She still keeps in touch with some of these people. She said her family was also touched by the community’s willingness to help maintain the small memorial, trimming and clearing the area around it of debris.

“It’s just overwhelming to me that someone would take the time to do that for us and just keep their memory alive for us there,” she said.

As of Monday, Edwards did not yet know when the collected items would be sent to the Florida lab for testing. Both he and Dawn Ritchie encourage anyone who may have seen anything that night to come forward. Tips can be reported at 276-228-3131.

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