Student search ends in tragedy

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An intensive search for 19-year-old Washington College student Jacob Marberger came to a tragic end Saturday afternoon, when the Pennsylvania native’s body was discovered in a county park an hour and a half drive northwest of Philadelphia.

Marberger’s body was found inside his family’s green 1997 Land Rover in the picnic area of Hawk Mountain Sanctuary in Berks County. The cause of death was a self-inflicted gunshot wound, according to an official report.


While there has been no word yet from Marberger’s family, a statement on the tragedy was released by his school, located in Maryland’s Eastern Shore town of Chestertown.

“It is with great sorrow that we must inform you this evening of the passing of sophomore Jacob Marberger,” the statement began. “We extend our deepest sympathies to the Marberger family in their time of unimaginable grief.

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“This is a terrible blow to our community, and the outpouring of compassion and support we have shown each other will help us through this difficult time,” the statement continued. “We need to continue to be supportive of each other as we mourn individually and as a community.”

An emotional candlelight vigil for Marberger was held Nov. 18 at the synagogue he attended and where his bar mitzvah was held, Old York Road Temple-Beth Am in Abington, Pa.


He had last been seen on Nov. 16, on security camera footage at a Hamburg, Pa., Walmart, where he was believed to be buying ammunition for a rifle he allegedly took from his parents’ house. That led officials at Washington College to decide to close the campus until after the Thanksgiving break.

Rabbi Robert S. Leib of Temple-Beth Am, who has known the Marbergers for 15 years, said he was notified that Jacob’s former middle school teacher was attempting to organize the candlelight vigil. Karen Shaffron had contacted several synagogues in the area before reaching the synagogue, unaware that the Marbergers had been longtime members there until recently.

“We had nothing to do with the vigil, other than hosting it,” Leib said. “But we were not prepared to host without the blessing of the Marbergers. I reached out to the family and eventually received approval.”

“It was quite astounding so many people came on such short notice,” said Rabbi Leib of the vigil. “I began the vigil, then Jon read a statement in which he thanked everyone for coming and pleaded for his son to come home. … I’m still very close to both his parents, even though they’re no longer members here. All I can tell you is how they’re always extolling their love and pride about their son, who’s been a brilliant young man.”

Jon Marberger’s statement urged his son to come home. “You have no reason not to come home,” said Marberger. “Please come home and show yourself. Jacob, wherever you are, whatever discretions you have done, they are all recoverable.”

Jeffrey Schwartz, the Reform engagement associate at Cornell University Hillel, said before Marberger, his childhood friend, was found dead that he believed “Jacob is having some kind of trouble. I just hope he comes home, and he is safe. I hope that he doesn’t do anything regrettable.”

Over the last few weeks, Marberger had been troubled. According to an interview his father gave the TV station NBC-10 in Philadelphia, Marberger was the victim of a dormitory prank involving a trash can filled with water that spilled into his room.

Jon Marberger said shortly after that, his son, who had been collecting antique guns over the past year, was drunk when he brandished an unloaded rifle in front of some students. Two weeks later, after police recovered a weapon of his at a house off-campus, he was suspended from school and forced to undergo a forensic psychiatric evaluation.

The psychiatrist allowed Marberger to return to school after determining that he did not appear to be a threat to others or to himself.

However, when he returned to campus, things began to unravel. Marberger was kicked out of his fraternity, Phi Delta Theta. He also faced an Honor Board hearing.

Soon after that he resigned as speaker of the Student Government Association’s Senate. He headed home, where he reportedly removed a rifle and its case from his father’s collection.

“I believe we did the right thing hosting the vigil,” said Leib, who received a text from Jacob’s mother, Debra Marberger, on Nov. 19, expressing appreciation. “This has been an awful calamity for this family.”

Jewish Exponent senior staff writer Jon Marks reported from Philadelphia. Suzanne Pollak is a senior staff writer at Washington Jewish Week.

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