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Franklin Co. coroner retires, but becomes chief deputy

January 10, 2000|By DON AINES

CHAMBERSBURG, Pa. - Life as a coroner is rarely pleasant.

But some times are worse than others, said former Franklin County Coroner Kenneth L. Peiffer, who retired last week.

"The worst thing you have as coroner is notifying family," Peiffer said Sunday. "Some go into denial. Some want to bargain with you: 'Tell me it's not true.'"

Others go into hysterics, and he recalled people answering doors late at night with guns when he had to tell them a loved one was dead.

Then there are unsolved cases.

"The two cases I'd love to see resolved are the Debbie Witmer case and the case of the fetus in Shippensburg, (Pa.)," he said.

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The partial remains of Witmer's dismembered body were found in a quarry in the early 1980s, Peiffer said. The young woman's mother recently died, never knowing who killed her daughter.

"That's one of the most heinous cases we've had in Franklin County," he said.

The fetus was found several years ago in a sewage line in Shippensburg. "I had the job of going down and pulling it out. ... The child had its throat and its wrists slashed," he said.

Although he spent eight years as chief deputy coroner for the county and another 12 years as coroner, Peiffer must take a week-long course to return to his old position as chief deputy.

Peiffer, 63, has taught photography for the course and last year was vice president of the Pennsylvania Coroners Association. As a sitting coroner, he was not required to take the course when it became law several years ago.

Despite his retirement, Peiffer was named chief deputy coroner by his successor, Jeffrey R. Conner. In his new position, he will take and teach courses at the Pennsylvania State Police Academy this April.

Over five decades, Peiffer developed a boyhood interest in photography into a variety of careers, including journalism, before becoming chief deputy to the late Herman Bender in 1980. Peiffer was elected to the first of his three terms in 1987.

"My photographic career began when I was in high school," Peiffer said Sunday. Phyllis, his wife of 45 years, recalled that his first darkroom was a closet in his grandmother's home.

He photographed his first autopsy in the 1950s, a man who had been beaten to death outside a bar. After a stint in the Army, Peiffer returned to Chambersburg and worked at a photography studio. In the early 1960s, he was a radio news director and stringer for The Morning Herald and area television stations, sending rolls of film by bus.

Peiffer took a job as a photojournalist with a Chambersburg newspaper in 1965. During that time he and the late Robert V. Cox worked together on the case of "Mountain Man" William Hollenbaugh, who kidnapped a teenager, killed an FBI agent and set off Pennsylvania's largest manhunt.

Cox won a Pulitzer Prize for his coverage, and in 1969, he and Peiffer went to a Waynesboro, Pa., newspaper. They co-authored "Missing Person," a book about the murder of Debbie Kline of Waynesboro in 1976.

That case brought psychic Dorothy Allison to the area. Allison, who died last year, made predictions Peiffer said "appeared accurate in hindsight."

"I'm very skeptical," Peiffer said about psychics. He said Allison made statements about another missing person from the area that proved false when he returned home after several years.

Allison's involvement in the case was "a motivational factor for police," he said.

Peiffer often worked both sides of the street during his career in journalism. He helped outfit a "spook van," an old dairy truck police used for photographic surveillance.

While he would take crime scene photos for police, he said the ones he used for newspapers had to be taken from the same vantage point of other news photographers. When he was both a news photographer and deputy coroner, he gave other local media a "heads up" on stories.

"It was kind of a unique position to be in because you couldn't violate the trust the police put in you," he said.

Phyllis was sometimes drawn into investigations. She remembered an evening they went to dinner and Ken was called to a murder scene.

"He gave me a flashlight and a notebook," she said. "I remember thinking, this is no way to end a perfect evening."

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