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By Richard Hammer
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1992 Richard Hammer
All rights reserved.
August 5, 1987
Joyce Aparo was missing. The forty-seven-year-old former social worker, who was one of the most valued employees of Athena Health Care Associates, hadn't shown up for work on this hot and rainy Wednesday morning. It was not like her. A single mother raising a sixteen-year-old daughter after three bad marriages, she was dedicated to her work. She was never late.
At first nobody was concerned. About six weeks before, somebody had rear-ended the 1986 Volkswagen Jetta that Athena leased for her. She had suffered whiplash, and since then the pains in her neck had been growing progressively worse. Finally she had decided to see a chiropractor. One of the partners in Athena had arranged an appointment with the best man in Waterbury, Connecticut, where the company maintained its offices. The doctor was a very busy man, his calendar full, appointments scheduled weeks in advance. As a favor he agreed to make time for her. Joyce was due there at ten in the morning, so perhaps, without telling anyone, she had decided to go straight to his office from her home in Glastonbury, about thirty miles to the east, rather than show up at the Athena office first.
But just after ten Michael Zaccaro, one of Athena's founding partners and a very close friend of Joyce's, called the doctor's office to check. Joyce wasn't there.
Mrs. Aparo, the receptionist said, had not appeared for her appointment, and she had been about to call to find out if anyone at Athena knew whether she was merely late or, in fact, intended to cancel. Zaccaro said he had no idea why Joyce was late, and he was sure she intended to keep the date. He would try to find out what was holding her up.
Zaccaro dialed the number of the Aparo condominium on Butternut Drive, in the northern part of Glastonbury. There was no answer. Perhaps, he thought as he hung up, Joyce had been held up in traffic. Then his phone rang.
A little before seven that morning in Bernardston, a village near the border where Massachusetts meets Vermont and New Hampshire, Police Chief Peter Brulotte, a burly, weathered middle-aged man, was preparing his breakfast. Suddenly there was a knock at his door. His sergeant, the only other cop on the town's police force, stood outside. A car had just been discovered half in a stream at the bottom of the slope right beside Brulotte's house. It hadn't been there when the chief went to sleep. Sometime during the night somebody had driven it off the road, down the slope, into the stream, and then gone his or her way without disturbing the police chief's slumber. Brulotte and his sergeant hurried out into the morning's damp heat. In the stream they found a white 1986 Volkswagen Jetta, its license plates removed. The inside of the car had been stripped, too. There were no insurance certificates, registration or gasoline credit cards, but the key was still in the ignition. Somebody, Brulotte thought, had gone to an awful lot of trouble to dump a nearly new car and was trying to make identification of the owner as difficult as possible. All that was left were a couple of audiocassettes in the well by the driver's seat. Either the car had been stolen and then ditched, Brulotte thought, or the owner had simply abandoned it for some unexplained reason.
Brulotte copied the VIN (vehicle identification number) of the Jetta from the plate on the dashboard and then drove to his office in the town hall on South Street. It was just after eight in the morning. He began making calls, one to the Massachusetts motor vehicle bureau, another to the national registry of stolen cars. He waited. The reports came back. Nobody in Massachusetts had ever registered a car with that VIN, and there were no reports of that particular car on the stolen car computers.
Brulotte drove the twenty-odd miles into Greenfield, the closest city of any size, and went to the local Volkswagen dealer. Was there any way, he asked, to find out about a car through its VIN? There was indeed. "They apparently have an elaborate computer system," he recalled, "where they could tell where this car was last serviced and who owned it by the VIN number." The dealer punched the number in, and what came back were the name and number of a Connecticut leasing agency. Brulotte called. He was told that the car had been leased by a company in Waterbury, Athena Health Care Associates.
It was a little after ten in the morning when Brulotte called Waterbury.
"It sounds like one of our cars," Zaccaro told him. "It sounds like Joyce Aparo's car."
How, Brulotte asked, could he reach this Joyce Aparo?
Zaccaro gave him her phone number in Glastonbury.
But, Zaccaro said, he didn't really think Brulotte would have much success if he called it, though he certainly ought to try. Athena people had been calling for the last hour and hadn't gotten anything but unanswered rings. There was, though, somebody who might know where Joyce was, her teenage daughter, Karin. In all likelihood Karin was in Rowayton, staying with her violin teacher, Albert Markov. Karin, a promising violinist, or at least that's what her mother told everyone, had been studying with Markov for the past year at the Manhattan School of Music in New York and since the end of the term in June had been spending much time at the Markov home in Rowayton, taking private lessons. Joyce had left the Markovs' number with Athena in case of emergency. Zaccaro passed that number along to the Bernardston police chief.
What Zaccaro didn't tell Brulotte, though, was his immediate reaction to the news that the Jetta had been abandoned. Damn it, he thought, Joyce had hired somebody to steal the car and dump it somewhere. Or maybe she had even done it herself and was now making her way back to Connecticut. Ever since her accident she had been complaining about the car. It didn't run right. The people who had fixed it had done a terrible job. Every time she got into the car she told them that she was afraid something was going to happen. It had become a lemon, she said, and she had asked Athena's lawyer, R. Jeffrey Sands, to look into the state's lemon law to see if somehow the car could be turned back. She didn't want that Jetta anymore, she had told Zaccaro several times. Could he please arrange for her to get another one? She had even asked both Zaccaro and Sands about the insurance on the car, whether it would cover a replacement if the Jetta were stolen. That, thought Zaccaro, familiar with the way Joyce Aparo's mind worked, must be what was behind all this.
He called Jeff Sands at his office in Hartford's prestigious law firm of Wiggin & Dana and recounted the morning events. "Do you think," he asked, "that maybe Joyce took the car up there and ditched it and maybe she's making her way back here somehow or other and then she's going to report it to the police? Do you think that could be it?"
"Yeah," Sands said. "It must be some crazy stunt like that to dump the car and collect on the insurance. That would be just like Joyce."
After Chief Brulotte got no answer at the Aparo number, he dialed again. This time he dialed the number of the Glastonbury Police Department.
It was a little after ten in the morning when Officer Keith O'Brien of the Glastonbury police got a call from the dispatcher. He was to proceed to 3 Butternut Drive in the town's Milestone Commons, an area of culs-de-sac that had been developed over recent years into a number of moderately expensive town house condominiums. There he was to check on the whereabouts of a Joyce Aparo. O'Brien reached the condominium a few minutes later, went to the front door and knocked. Nobody answered. He called in the news, or lack of it, then waited while the desk officer tried to phone the Aparo number. After a dozen rings he hung up and radioed O'Brien that obviously nobody was home. O'Brien left a note in the mailbox asking Mrs. Aparo to call police headquarters when she returned, and then he drove back to headquarters.
An hour and a half later, just after noon, Lieutenant David Caron, who headed the town's police patrol unit, told O'Brien to go back to Butternut Drive and try again. There was still nobody home. Officer O'Brien tried the front door. It was unlocked. He walked inside. The five-room apartment was empty. He made a cursory search. To his eye, nothing seemed out of place. One of the two bedrooms, containing a four-poster bed with a frilly canopy, desk, dressers and bookcase cluttered with photographs, papers and stuffed animals and dolls, was undisturbed. The bed was made; everything was as neat and orderly as what was obviously a teenager's room could reasonably be expected to be. In the other bedroom the bed was unmade, obviously having been slept in, the sheets tousled. The bed had been shoved away from the wall, and a blanket and several pillows were on the floor beside it. Perhaps, O'Brien reasoned, that was the way the woman liked to sleep. He went to the phone and called Caron to report what he had observed. Caron decided he wanted to take a look for himself and told O'Brien to hang around till he got there.
Ten minutes later Caron arrived. Together, they wandered about the apartment. Like the front door, the sliding glass doors on the north side, facing onto Griswold Street, a main thoroughfare in that part of town, though hardly a heavily traveled one, were unlocked. The policemen looked in Joyce Aparo's bedroom again. They glanced about the living room; on the coffee table were a ten-dollar bill and a Texaco gasoline credit card, a concert program and some other papers. On the floor between the kitchen and the living room were some garbage bags, the open box the bags had come in and a blue, orange and yellow afghan that, they later learned, Joyce Aparo had crocheted. "It was strange the way the bedroom was," O'Brien says, "the bed unmade and shoved away from the wall, pillows on the floor, things like that, but to tell the truth, my curiosity was not piqued."
Finished with their search, finding nothing to indicate to them that anything untoward might have happened there, O'Brien and Caron left the apartment and locked the door behind them. Back at the station, Caron called Brulotte in Bernardston and reported to the police chief that there was nothing suspicious at the Aparo residence.
About eleven-thirty, with still no news of Joyce Aparo, Mike Zaccaro dialed the Markovs' number in Rowayton. It was not something he wanted to do; he had no desire to alarm sixteen-year-old Karin. Albert Markov answered. Karin Aparo was indeed there. She took the phone. She had been with the Markovs since the previous Friday, she told Zaccaro. She and her mother had driven down from Glastonbury at the start of the weekend, had gone to a party at one of Athena's nursing homes in Greenwich and then driven with the Markovs to Binghamton, New York, where the Markovs' twenty-four-year-old son, Alex, a violinist with a growing international reputation, gave a weekend concert. They had driven back from Binghamton late on Monday night, reaching the Markov home at about four on Tuesday morning. Joyce was up early and had left in her Jetta about eight-thirty to check on a new nursing home in Old Saybrook and from there had driven back to Glastonbury. Karin had stayed on in Rowayton. She had originally intended to return home Tuesday, but Joyce had told her to stay over an extra day. She and her mother had spoken over the phone at about six and then again about eight or nine on Tuesday evening and everything had seemed normal. When Zaccaro told Karin about the car, she said she had no idea why or how it might have come to rest in northern Massachusetts. As for her mother, she had no idea where she might be. She seemed only moderately concerned.
Just before twelve, only minutes after Zaccaro's call, Karin placed one herself, to the Tallwoods Country Club in Hebron, a few miles southeast of Glastonbury, where her boyfriend of the past year, nineteen-year-old Dennis Coleman, was spending the summer working as a short-order cook at the concession stand. Later she said the reason she called him was that he lived in Glastonbury and she thought he might have heard something. Dennis told a different story about the reason for that series of calls and what was said between them.
Karin never told Dennis that she had also been called by Chief Brulotte and that she had repeated to him the story she'd given Zaccaro before giving a description of her mother.
About two-thirty that afternoon an eleven-year-old boy was walking his dog along Route 10, Bald Mountain Road, in Bernardston. As they neared a small bridge over the Fall River, the dog suddenly began tugging at the leash, trying to break loose and race down the slope under the bridge. There was something lying there just at the edge of the river. The boy, holding the leash, let himself be dragged down the slope. He got about twenty feet from that something when he stopped. It was a body. He didn't stay long enough to find out anything more. He turned and raced up the slope, ran home and told his stepfather of his discovery. The stepfather called Chief Brulotte and described the scene.
The chief got into his car and headed for the river. When he reached it, there was nothing to be seen. Wrong bridge. He drove another half mile, to a second bridge over the river. This was the right bridge.
On the riverbank under it, covered with some leaves and brush, was the body of a dark-haired woman in her mid-forties. She had on only a nightgown, one shoulder strap dangling low on her arm. There were bruises all over her body, some apparently from a struggle before she died. There were abrasions and a layer of dirt coating her arms, legs and body, obviously from her having been dragged across rough ground to this spot. Her face was bloated as well as badly bruised, nearly unrecognizable. She had been strangled, and the panty hose used to garrote her were still wrapped tightly around her neck. Stuffed in her mouth was a yellow paper towel. Later, when they moved the body, the investigators found a gray work glove.
Murder was something far outside Peter Brulotte's experience. No one could remember the village's last killing. Indeed, there were few crimes of any kind that took place in Bernardston, perhaps a burglary now and then, or some kids smoking marijuana, or someone going too fast or driving while drunk or parking too long. That was about it.
Bernardston was a middle- and upper-middle class community of private houses, the residents sleeping there at night, going off during the day to well-paying jobs in Greenfield, Amherst, perhaps even as far as Northampton. They enjoyed the good and secure life in a rural countryside near the Fall and Connecticut rivers, far from the dangers of urban society.
Still, Brulotte knew what was expected of him. He called the medical examiner. He put police tape around the crime scene, sealing it off. He examined the area carefully and thoroughly. The only things he found were the sneaker prints of the eleven-year-old who had come upon the body and the scuffling marks of the boy's dog because the early-morning rain had washed away whatever other marks there might have been.
Returning to his office, Brulotte called the investigative branch of the Massachusetts State Police. And then he made the connection. He had an abandoned car leased to a Connecticut woman in her forties named Joyce Aparo. He had found the body of a woman in her forties who had been murdered about a mile and a half from the abandoned car. He had his dispatcher call the Glastonbury police to tell them the latest news.
That was the end of Brulotte's connection with the case. Investigators from the Massachusetts State Police arrived on the scene soon after his message reached them. He gave them what information he had, and then they took charge. They had experience with this kind of thing and he didn't, and he was just as glad to have them in command. He went back to his normal duties of keeping the peace in his small town.
As the small boy and his dog were stumbling on a body under the Fall River bridge in Bernardston, about seventy miles to the south the Glastonbury police were beginning to take some action of their own. What they knew for certain was that a woman of the town was missing and her car had been found in a brook in another state. Lieutenant Thomas McKee called the Markov house in Rowayton and spoke to Karin Aparo. He told her it would help in the investigation of her missing mother if she would return to Glastonbury as soon as possible, come directly to police headquarters on Main Street and not go to the condo. She said she'd be there as soon as she could find a ride.
Excerpted from Beyond Obsession by Richard Hammer. Copyright © 1992 Richard Hammer. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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