Who Strangled A 26-Year-Old Nun To Death Just 100 Yards From Her Convent?

In 1977, Sister Roberta Elam was found raped and murdered on a hill where she had gone to pray and meditate.

By Aly Vander Hayden
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Who Killed Sister Robin Elam?

On the morning of June 13, 1977, Sister Roberta “Robin” Elam strolled out of her convent in Wheeling, West Virginia.  

The 26-year-old had spent the past eight days in silent retreat contemplating her final vows to become a nun, and she walked to a nearby hill behind Mount Saint Joseph to pray and meditate.  

Elam was not seen again until that afternoon, when a caretaker discovered her partially nude body in the grass. She was lying on her back about 40 yards away from an overturned bench. Her pants and underwear had been pulled down, and her chest was exposed.  

Investigators found no signs of defensive injuries, and they determined Elam had been incapacitated, raped and strangled to death. They also learned Elam was on her period, and that her tampon had not been removed during the attack. 

For more than 40 years, Sister Robin’s murder has remained unsolved. Although authorities later developed an unknown male DNA profile from the sexual assault evidence, they have been unable to identify the offender. 

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While reexamining the slaying on “The DNA of Murder with Paul Holes,” cold case investigator Paul Holes circled back on a suspect who had been eliminated early in the original investigation — local man John Shoplak. 

Shoplak knew details about the case that had never been made public, but he was ruled out by authorities after his blood type did not come back as a match to the killer’s. The blood sample, however, was taken from his military records, which have a “fairly high error rate” due to outdated technology, according to Holes. 

To reassess Shoplak’s background and his likelihood as a suspect, Holes met with forensic criminologist Dr. Laura Pettler, who categorized Elam’s murder as a “power-based crime” and Shoplak as a “power-assertive” offender. 

At the time of the murder, Shoplak’s former girlfriend told investigators that her ex “did not like Catholic people,” and that he had once tried choking her.  

The two broke up in May 1977, and Elam was killed the following month. 

Another report from law enforcement noted that Shoplak had previously been accused of raping two girls as well as convicted of robbing his grandmother. In the process of the burglary, Shoplack cut off his grandmother’s finger to steal a ring and wrapped a telephone wire around her neck to stop her from screaming. 

“That’s a significant similarity between what we know about Robin’s murder, because she was also incapacitated to be quiet,” Dr. Pettler said. 

Sister Roberta Robin Elam 1

One of Shoplak’s former friends gave a statement to Wheeling police in September 1977 that Shoplak had attacked and murdered a nun near Oglebay Park. Shoplak allegedly said he had approached her from behind and used a belt to strangle her. 

Shoplak then told his friend that the nun “was either a virgin or was coming on the rag because he had blood on him,” according to the police report. 

“This is a specific detail that the killer would know … I think it’s critical to get his DNA to compare to the DNA evidence of Sister Robin,” Holes said. 

Shoplak died in August 2019, but because he was hospitalized prior to his passing, some of his tissue samples may still be within the hospital. 

The Ohio County Sheriff’s Office is currently pursuing Shoplak’s tissue samples to compare to the offender’s DNA profile.  

Sister Roberta Robin Elam 3

To hear more about the case and hear from Elam’s friends and family, watch “The DNA of Murder with Paul Holes,” airing Saturdays at 7/6c on Oxygen

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