By Mark E. Vogler
---- — It took more than four decades for U.S. military officials to finally locate Marine Cpl. Robert Daniel Corriveau of Lawrence and determine he was a murder victim and not a deserter.
Corriveau was less than a month shy of his 21st birthday back on Nov. 18, 1968 when he vanished from a locked psychiatric ward at the Philadelphia Naval Hospital. Officials declared him as A.W.O.L. (absent without official leave).
The deserter classification stuck for 43 years until DNA testing positively identified Cpl. Corriveau as the “John Doe,” whose body was discovered by a state trooper along the Pennsylvania Turnpike about three hours after hospital officials noticed he was missing.
This week, the Pennsylvania State Police announced they have opened a criminal investigation into the unsolved cold case and are looking for the public’s help. They want to talk with Marines or sailors who may have served with Cpl. Corriveau, and Naval personnel or patients who were present at the Philadelphia Naval Hospital in October and November of 1968.
“He was a war hero — not a deserter,” Virginia Cleary, 58, of North Conway, N.H., said in a telephone interview yesterday.
“My brother survived being wounded in Vietnam three times only to come home and be murdered on the streets of Pennsylvania. He wasn’t a draft dodger. He wasn’t somebody who burned his draft card,” Cleary said.
“He volunteered. He went into the Marines at 17 1/2. He had to get a consensual signature in order to join. I never believed my brother was a deserter,” said Cleary, whose persistent efforts to search for her brother and clear his name were actually motivated 20 years ago, when she went on a website only to find her brother listed as a deserter.
“I explained to them that he had been gone since 1968 and I wanted to get some records so I would be able to go forward and try to determine what happened to my brother,” she said. “Some tried to be cooperative. But they didn’t want to release any information without a death certificate.”
Cleary credited that incident “and a promise I made to my father that I would never give up looking for my brother and bring him home” with fueling her relentless pursuit of the truth. “On the day I was able to supply the death certificate, the Marine Corps went in and began the process to change the status of the deserter classification,” Cleary said. “He ended up with four rows of ribbons and several medals.”
In September, she went to Pennsylvania to get a court order to bring her brother’s remains back home, where they were buried at the family plot in St. Mary’s Cemetery in Lawrence during a private ceremony with full military honors, including taps, a 21-gun salute and active marines serving as pallbearers. It will be 44 years ago tomorrow that the mystery surrounding Cpl. Corriveau’s disappearance and death began. He had previously received psychiatric treatment for a combat-related condition at the Chelsea Naval Hospital, but later became a patient at the Philadelphia Naval Hospital.
“When he came home from Vietnam, it would have been PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder). They didn’t have a name for it him back then,” recalled Cleary, who was 14 at the time of her brother’s disappearance.
“My father called Philadelphia Naval Hospital to find out whether my brother would be able to travel home for Thanksgiving. But they regretted to inform him that he had been missing since Nov. 18. That was about a week. They hadn’t even notified the family. At that point, he was listed as being A.W.O.L. and 30 days later, he was classified as a deserter,” she said. An unidentified body was discovered in a seated position about 30 miles west of Philadelphia. An autopsy determined the dead man had been stabbed once through the heart. He had tattoos, which helped identify him years later. But he carried no identification on him. “We don’t know what happened, but we always had a strong feeling something happened at Philadelphia Naval Hospital, where he was in a locked psychiatric ward,” Cleary said.
Cpl. Corriveau remained buried in an unmarked Pennsylvania grave until July 2009 when Pennsylvania State Police and the Chester County District Attorney’s Office had his unidentified body exhumed. Bone samples were sent to the University of North Texas Center for Human Identification for a DNA profile, which was later entered into a national missing persons DNA database. Cleary said she was first contacted by the Marines on Oct. 19 of last year. They asked if she could identify any tattoos her brother had. Then on Dec. 5, 2011, she got a call from the Naval Criminal Intelligence Service (NCIS).
“That’s when I was notified it was my brother and asked whether I would give a DNA sample. The State Police traveled to my house, the day after Christmas to get a sample,” she said. Clearly’s DNA was the clincher.
Though a 44-year-old cold case is difficult to solve, Cleary remains optimistic that she can still learned who killed her brother and why.
“At this point, it’s in the state police hands. The fact is, 44 years is a long, long time ago and there are a lot of obstacles in trying to determine things now,” Cleary said.“I hope that someone comes forward.”
She’s also getting help from two retired New York City police detectives who are doing their own investigation pro bono.
“John Kelly and Tom Nerney are retired and former Marines. Once the positive ID was made, John, who had been following the case online, called me and said he wanted to help,” she said. Cleary said she owes it to her brother to wage her own relentless battle for the truth.
“He was a wonderful person and a fantastic brother,” Cleary said. “He taught me how to ice skate and how to play baseball. ... I have a lot of good memories of my brother,” she said.
Cpl. Corriveau was born in Lawrence on Dec. 1, 1947, son of the late Phillip G. and Kathleen Hannagan Corriveau. He was a faithful parishioner at St. Mary’s Church in Lawrence, where he was baptized.
“He wasn’t so sure he was going to come out of the Marines. He said he might make a career out of it,” she recalled. Instead, Cleary made a search for her brother and a quest for information on what happened to him her own personal career.