Unresolved: The Tragic Death of Alberta Cousins

Alberta Cousins, Mercer County

Note: The case of Alberta Cousins is officially a closed case, but no suspect was ever charged nor revealed to the public.

The sad reality is murder victims are often forgotten, unless they were people of importance. Too often, the murderers are remembered more than their victims. It was a murder victim that brought me to the sacred grounds of Mount Washington Cemetery, located west of Mercer. The cemetery grounds were busy the morning I entered the sacred grounds. The caretakers were busy mowing while other visitors were placing flowers on the graves of their loved ones in preparation for Memorial Day.

While I had no relatives buried here, I brought with me a small bouquet of flowers I had purchased earlier in the day to place at the grave of a young lady I came to remember. I carefully scanned the graves, following the directions I had been given. The directions soon had me standing at the simple of grave of Alberta Scheer Cousins. I knelt to clear the recently mowed, wet grass from her stone and placed the small bouquet next to it.

Other than her name, only the birth and death years were marked on the small stone. Nothing on the stone reveals that Alberta – who was pregnant at the time – was the victim of an unsolved murder that happened in 1956 in the state of Delaware.

Alberta Cousins was described as a religious lady with dark hair and fair skin. The young housewife was born and raised in Mercer and had attended Eastern Nazarene College in Massachusetts, before dropping out to marry her childhood sweetheart.

In August 1956, the young couple had been in Delaware for three months having moved there for husband’s job. They had one son who was eighteen months old at the time and was staying with her husband’s parents in Pittsburgh – the plan was he would stay with his grandparents until the birth of his sibling, which was due at any moment.

 August 23, 1956 started like any other day. At 1:45 that afternoon, with her husband at work and her son with his grandparents in Pittsburgh, Alberta went to a local park to relax and read, something she had done numerous times. She found comfort in the shade of a tree at the Valley Garden Park on the western side of the Hoppes Reservoir. Finding a place to sit, she kicked off her shoes and began reading Postmarked Moscow, the memories of an ambassador’s wife living in Russia.

Valley Garden Park, which had been a peaceful, beautiful location, was about to become a valley of death.

What exactly happened is not known. It is believed that Alberta was startled when a bullet sped past her head. She got to her feet and headed to her vehicle when she was killed by another bullet which entered her right side and pierced her heart.

Exactly when the shooting took place is not known – witnesses initially spotted the body around 2:20, meaning Alberta had been killed shortly after her arrival at the park. Witnesses who noticed her believed she had fallen asleep and passed by, leaving her unchecked on the ground.

It was not until five that afternoon, when the truth was discovered. Sergeant Joseph McVey was patrolling the park when he noticed Alberta lying in the grass. Believing she had fallen asleep he went over to check on her and made the shocking discovery. Upon touching her, McVey realized the truth – Alberta was dead by an unknown assassin’s bullet. It was believed she had been dead for three to three and a half hours before being discovered.

Alberta and her unborn child were returned to Mercer for a funeral and was laid to rest in Mount Washington Cemetery. Her husband would quit his new job, leaving Delaware to return to his family in Pittsburgh.

Delaware State Police set out to find the young lady’s killer. An investigation of the park uncovered two shell casings about one hundred and thirty-five feet away from the place Alberta’s body was discovered. It was determined the casings were from a .22 caliber rifle.

Delaware State Police had sent troopers to Mercer, Pennsylvania to see if there was anyone in her past who might have wanted to harm her. After talking to numerous people, they were convinced that no one who knew Alberta would want to harm her.

There was very little evidence found at the park that day. Delaware State Police stated there were few clues discovered at the scene. Only the footprints and the .22 casings were found at the place they believed the shots had come from. At the spot where the bullet casings were found, the footprints implied the killer had been waiting for someone.

Note: In the August 23, 1957 edition of The Morning News (Wilmington, De) there is a picture of the crime scene, marked with where Alberta’s body was discovered and where they believe the killer stood. The place where the shots were fired were in a very open area and not “in the woods” as mentioned in previous articles. Anyone fleeing the scene should have been noticed.

In the initial articles about the murder of Alberta Cousins, there is mention of witnesses seeing another car in the lot near Alberta’s vehicle. Although it was briefly mentioned, any details about the possible second car was never released, nor was it mentioned in follow-up articles. If another car was present at the time of Alberta’s death, it was gone before Sergeant McVey arrived.

On the evening of Thursday, August 23, 1956 a suspect was questioned after being stopped by Delaware State Police. In the man’s vehicle there was a .22 rifle that had been taken apart – the stock was in one part of the vehicle, while the firing mechanism was in a different part of it. The weapon was taken in for testing and was determined not to be the murder weapon.

On September 18, 1956 Arizona arrested two Delaware men who had fled the state shortly after Alberta’s death. The men were arrested for passing bad checks and when Arizona authorities searched their vehicle, they discovered a .22 rifle under the seat. Arizona State Police were going to test the rifle and send results to Delaware State Police. Note: I could not find any follow up on this weapon in the newspapers, but I’m going to assume it was not a match.

Authorities attempted to connect Alberta’s death to Gary Taylor, who had shot a number of young women in the suburbs of northern Detroit in late 1956. Despite using the same type of rifle and similar ambush tactics, authorities ruled him out as his work records proved Taylor was in Michigan at the time of Alberta’s death.

Divers searched ponds in the region and tested over two hundred and fifty weapons in an attempt to locate the murder weapon, none were ever located.

Despite being one of the largest investigations in the history of Delaware, the killer eluded justice.

In the end, Delaware State Police were left with a mystery – who wanted to harm the young wife and mother, who was eight months pregnant at the time of her death?

The theory police believe is that Alberta was killed by a stalker who wanted to kill someone. If this is the case, then who was stalking the young mother? With footprints and bullet casings found nearby, this theory is most plausible. Yet the question remains why? Alberta and her husband had only been in Delaware for three months at the time of her death and by all accounts, she was well-liked by those who knew her. Newspapers did not report if she had any problems with residents since moving there.

While the theory of a stalker was the one police seemed to have settled on, it was not the only one presented. At the time of her death, newspapers reported the murder was the result of a tragic accident. Despite finding the place they believed the killer fired from and .22 casings at this location, Delaware State Police searched a nearby quarry for bullet casings. The theory was a person was shooting at a target in the quarry and one of the shots strayed, striking and killing Alberta. Police did a search of the quarry and recovered over five hundred bullets, but none – at least it has never been revealed – matched the fatal bullet.

Another theory presented was Alberta’s death was a robbery gone wrong. In the weeks before Alberta’s death, there had been two assaults by teenagers on women walking in the park. State police attempted to link Alberta’s murder with the attacks, but no definite connection between the assaults and murder was ever revealed. Unlike the other victims, Alberta’s clothes showed no signs of a personal attack, meaning she had not been fleeing an attacker.

The final theory presented by authorities – and the most questionable to the theories presented – is Alberta was the victim of a prank gone wrong. This theory states the shooter had fired once at her to scare her and as she was headed back to the vehicle, the shooter fired a second time. This shot, which was also to scare her, accidently struck and killed her.

With no leads and little to go on, her murder slipped from the headlines and was soon forgotten about. Then in 1981, Alberta’s death once again appeared in the newspapers.

Twenty-five years after the murder, a witness stepped forward with some information. The unnamed lady said on the day after Alberta’s murder, she had spotted an unidentified man walking along the railroad tracks, roughly a mile from Valley Garden Park. The man did not carry a gun, but appeared suspicious to the witness. The reason the witness did not come forward earlier was because her husband was afraid it would be bad publicity and would hurt his chances of getting the job he wanted.

There was a composite made of the man seen walking on the railroad tracks. The composite matched a Florida convict who once bragged to a cellmate he killed a woman in Delaware. By the time the witness came forward, the convict had died in a Florida prison. Although Delaware State Police could verify the suspect was in Delaware on the day of the shooting, they were not actually able to place him in the park at the time of the murder.

Note: I am not an armchair detective, but there are two things that are never really fully resolved in the eyewitness account that I wish was clearer. First, was there something about the figure that made him stand out after twenty-five years, such as a scar or some other feature? To remember exactly how a person looked twenty-five years ago is remarkable.

Second, the eyewitness states she saw this figure walking down the railroad tracks the day after the murder – not the day of the murder – and she saw him near the apartments where Alberta and the eyewitness lived, but not at the scene of the murder. What did this figure do that caused him to stand out to her after all those years? The Morning News includes a rough map of the region in the August 25, 1956 edition that shows a railroad track, but this track does not go near the park. If the railroad did not go near the park where Cousins was murdered, then what did this figure do to be remembered by the eyewitness? I am not doubting the witness, but I wish that something would have released to better support the eyewitness sketch and testimony.

However, the composite made by the witness was a close enough. Armed with the sketch, along with the cellmate’s statement of the suspect claiming to have shot a woman in Delaware was enough. With the prime suspect now deceased, they were unable to pursue action against him so the case is considered closed.

Note: According to the December 2, 1981 edition of The Morning News when authorities were going through the file, there was mention of the cellmate’s statement in Alberta’s file, but it does not appear it had been followed up until after the witness came forward with her statement.

As I stood there reflecting on Alberta’s murder, more cars arrived in the cemetery and a family approached to place flowers on a nearby grave. I said a silent prayer before I left Alberta to rest on the Mercer County hillside, a victim whose murder has never been fully resolved but her senseless murder has not been forgotten.

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