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Court TV featured Pa. murder

August 26, 2004|by DON AINES

chambersburg@herald-mail.com

CHAMBERSBURG, PA. - No body or murder weapon were found and the physical evidence consisted primarily of two shell casings found 14 years apart at different locations, making the 1985 disappearance of Melvin Snyder a perfect case for "Forensic Files."

The disappearance of the Greencastle, Pa., man and the investigation, trial and conviction of Ronald W. Harshman were featured in an episode Wednesday night on Court TV.

Franklin County District Attorney John F. Nelson and Assistant District Attorney Angela Krom, who together prosecuted the case, were told by producers the show would air tonight. Alerted ahead of time, Krom did get to see and videotape the program, she said.

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Krom said the background facts were handled well as were the re-creations of events, given the fact that what actually happened is a matter of conjecture.

"We didn't have eyewitness testimony, they had to go on our theory of the case," she said.

Bill Flood, who produced the episode "Buried Treasure" for Medstar Television in Allentown, Pa., said "Forensic Files" has done a handful of shows about cases with no bodies and some in which a murder weapon was never found, "but we've never come across anything like this."

When doing on-location research, he said the television crew often will go through boxes of physical evidence preserved by police or the courts.

"In this case, they brought out an envelope," Flood said.

Inside were the two .25-caliber shell casings - one found in Snyder's barn after he disappeared May 25, 1985, the other found an inch underground outside Harshman's former home in Antrim Township in July 1999.

Harshman, who by then moved to the Hagerstown area, was charged by Pennsylvania State Police with criminal homicide in April 2000. A jury found him guilty of first-degree murder in 2001 and he is serving a life sentence in Rockview State Prison near State College, Pa.

Snyder and Harshman's then-wife had an affair in 1984, according to trial testimony. When Harshman learned of the relationship, he rammed his vehicle into Snyder's car and fired shots at him, court records state.

Harshman was placed on probation for that incident.

Snyder disappeared a year later and his pickup truck was found parked outside a supermarket near Baltimore, Krom said.

"Jack and I broke the case up into proving a crime was committed and that he (Harshman) did it," Krom said.

Her part of the case dealt with proving to a jury that Melvin Snyder was dead without any body, blood or DNA evidence, she said.

"We were searching for the body right up to the time the trial started," Nelson said. That included partial excavation of the basement in Harshman's former home and the use of cadaver dogs at a number of locations where police believed the body might have been taken, he said.

With little else to go on except a motive, "the shell casings were the key," Nelson said. Police knew Harshman purchased a .25-caliber pistol months before Snyder went missing and, although it never was found, a state police ballistics expert testified that markings on the casings showed they had been fired from the same weapon.

"I thought they did a good job of getting that right," Krom said of the role ballistics analysis and metal detectors played in cracking the case.

The science of using metal detectors was highlighted as part of the episode. Don Hinks of Gettysburg, Pa., was the metal detector operator who found the second casing despite the many pieces of metal that can be found around a farm like the one Harshman owned.

Daren Hockenberry, one of several state troopers who investigated the case over a decade and a half, was there when Hinks found the shell. Hockenberry said he gave Hinks a similar shell casing so he could program the detector to screen out other types of metal objects.

Harshman maintains his innocence and agreed to an interview, but officials at Rockview would not allow a television crew inside the prison, Flood said. Harshman's former wife declined to be interviewed, as did Snyder's widow, he said.

Nelson, Krom, Hinks and Hockenberry were among those interviewed on camera in May. The show included re-enactments of events by actors.

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