Robert Rivera

Delaware County, Pennsylvania
Date of Alleged Crime:  August 10, 1999

Robert Norman Rivera was convicted in 2002 of murdering his 20-month-old daughter, Katelyn Rivera.  On Aug. 10, 1999, Robert picked up Katelyn at her day care in Boothwyn, PA, took her to the zoo, to a fast-food restaurant, and to other places.  Technically, Aug. 10 was not a scheduled day for Robert to have custody of Katelyn.  Robert then repeatedly tried to return her to her mother, Jennifer Helton, but Helton refused to take her.  Apparently, Helton wanted greater custody rights and wanted to prolong Rivera's care of her so she could argue that he did not return her.  Later that night Rivera took Katelyn to a tourist location (Longwood Gardens) and while there said he met a couple and ended up giving them custody of Katelyn as he had no money to continue caring for her.

A gas station attendant in Chadds Ford, 3.1 miles east of Longwood Gardens had seen Rivera with a little girl, presumed to be Katelyn, when Rivera bought $2.00 worth of gas at 7:17 p.m.  He later saw Rivera return without any girl at 9:16 p.m. when Rivera pawned his watch for $10 worth of gas.

Rivera was arrested in Boothwyn the next day, after traveling to Elkton, Maryland, an hour's drive away, where he stayed overnight at the home of a former neighbor, Thomas Whittaker.  Being illiterate, Rivera did not know the name of the place where he gave Katelyn away, but the night of his arrest he accompanied investigators and directed them to Longwood Gardens.  Police stated he became emotional when he pointed out the spot in the parking lot where the exchange of Katelyn took place.  He said Katelyn said, “No, daddy,” when she realized she was being given to the couple.

Evidence indicated that Rivera had been to Longwood Gardens the previous night, as he knew there were three large tour busses in the back parking lot.  Rivera's past behavior and his story that he also stopped at a firehouse near Longwood Gardens to show Katelyn the fire trucks, suggest that he went to Longwood Gardens to entertain Katelyn.  Prosecution witnesses at Rivera's trial indicated rather pointedly that Rivera loved his daughter.

Despite providing corroborating details to his story, authorities began searching many areas where Rivera had been as though he had killed and buried Katelyn somewhere.  Despite an eventual 5000 man-hours of searches using cadaver detection dogs, no body was ever found.

Rivera's conviction was due, almost entirely, to the testimony of prison informant William Lively.  Lively confessed to forging his own attorney's name on a document, offering Rivera a plea deal if he revealed the location of Katelyn.  Rivera did not take him up on this offer.  On Aug. 23, Lively claimed Rivera told him the location of a shovel supposedly missing from Rivera's former neighbor, Thomas Whittaker.  The implication was that Rivera used this shovel to bury Katelyn.  This shovel was located at a construction site a few miles from Whittaker's house and identified by Whittaker.  Whittaker was a parolee from Delaware County.

There were problems with this evidence:  (1) Since Katelyn was not seen with Rivera in Chadds Ford, PA or by Whittaker in Elkton, MD, she must have been kept in the trunk of Rivera's car for hours prior to her burial.  No explanation was given for this unlikely behavior.  (2) Whittaker testified at trial that he told an FBI agent on Aug. 12 that his shovel was missing.  However, a detailed report of the agent's interview with Whittaker fails to mention this missing shovel, despite its obvious relevance to the agent's search for a missing girl.  No police report mentioned any missing shovel prior to Lively's claim of obtaining its location. (3) Even if Rivera had taken Whittaker's shovel, Whittaker's trial testimony regarding it was so unlikely that it indicated a willingness of Whittaker to commit perjury.

On Aug. 31, Lively claimed that Rivera told him that he removed Katelyn's clothes prior to burial so her body would decay faster.  He then claimed Rivera had thrown these clothes out his car window as he traveled down southbound Rt. 202 in Delaware, just past the Pennsylvania border.  Rivera would have passed this point about 15 minutes after he left Chadds Ford, PA in his hour long trip to Whittaker's.  A shoe and sock belonging to Katelyn were later found at this location.  No other clothing was found.

There were problems with this evidence:  (1) Being illiterate, it is unlikely that Rivera would entertain any theory about how leaving clothes on Katelyn would inhibit her decay, or why it was important that her body decay faster.  (2) The found evidence, the shoe and sock, appeared to be the most identifiable and minimal necessary of Katelyn clothes to be found.  Lively's police contact, Lt. David Peifer, had an picture of Katelyn wearing the very same sequined shoe and yellow sock which was later shown at trial to the jury.  No superfluous items were found such as another shoe or sock or items whose identification with Katelyn might be questionable.

(3) Rivera and Helton had given Whittaker and his wife Katelyn's hand-me-down clothes for use by their daughter who was 5 months younger than Katelyn.  These clothes were given to the Whittakers prior to their June 1999 move to Maryland, a fact that Whittaker confirmed.  Lt. Peifer was at the Whittakers earlier the same day that the shoe and sock were found.  He had not reportedly been there for two weeks.  Peifer's presence there gave him the opportunity to take Katelyn's hand-me-down shoe and sock and plant them where they were later found.

(4) If Rivera disposed of Katelyn's clothes at their found location after he buried Katelyn, then she must have been buried near Chadds Ford, PA.  If so, Whittaker's alleged shovel had to have been planted, as Katelyn could not have been buried near Elkton, MD.  If Rivera had buried Katelyn near Elkton, then her shoe and sock must have been planted, since according to Lively her clothes were not removed until just prior to burial.  In either case both Lively and Peifer must have given some perjured testimony.  If they perjured themselves one piece of evidence, there is little reason to believe that would not have perjured themselves on other pieces of evidence.  Since Lively could not have planted any evidence, as he was imprisoned, he must have been directed by his sole police contact, lead investigator Lt. Peifer, to report the false evidence.

Besides the Lively based evidence, Peifer presented an alleged Nov. 1999 confession in which Rivera gave a non-incriminating answer on audio tape, which sounded incriminating because Peifer asserted that it is in response to an incriminating question that was given before his tape recorder was turned on. Peifer testified he had worked on more than 100 homicide cases.  It later became known that in 1982 he had testified against accused murderer Nick Yarris, a defendant who was sentenced to death, but exonerated by DNA evidence in 2004.

At trial, Rivera's court-appointed attorney, G. Guy Smith, made no attempt to dispute the prosecution's evidence, and he even agreed to a stipulation by the prosecutor that on-tape statements made by Rivera confirmed that Peifer had asked him incriminating questions off-tape.

Rivera was charged with capital murder in April 2000 and convicted of second-degree murder in Jan. 2002.  He was sentenced to life without parole.  Because the prosecution needed an additional felony conviction to bolster the severity of a murder conviction, the prosecution broke new legal ground and made Rivera become the first parent in Pennsylvania history to be convicted of kidnapping his own child.  The PA Supreme Court had ruled twice in the 1800s that a parent cannot be convicted of kidnapping his or her own child, but the kidnapping conviction has been upheld on appeal.  [12/05]


Posted in:  Victims of the State, Eastern Pennsylvania Cases, Son/Daughter Murder Cases, Murder Cases Without a Body