Over the course of seven months in 1988, eleven women disappeared off the streets of New Bedford, Massachusetts, a gloomy, drug-addled coastal town that was once the whaling capital of the world. Nine turned up dead. Two were never found. And the perpetrator remains unknown to this day.
How could such a thing happen? How, in what was once one of America’s richest cities, could the authorities let their most vulnerable citizens down this badly? As Carlton Smith, a Pulitzer Prize finalist for his coverage of the Green River Killer case, demonstrates in this riveting account, it was the inability of police officers and politicians alike to set aside their personal agendas that let a psychopath off the hook.
In Killing Season, Smith takes readers into a close-knit community of working-class men and women, an underworld of prostitution and drug abuse, and the halls of New England law enforcement to tell the story of an epic failure of justice.
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The woman wasn't sure she could make it much farther. She knew she shouldn't have had so much coffee. How long, how long, she wondered, until the next exit? Just the thought of pulling off and finding a restroom seemed to make it worse.
Outside, the trees rushed past as her car flew north on State Route 140 outside of New Bedford. She didn't want to stop; people driving around her would wonder why, and probably guess. It would be embarrassing. Women weren't supposed to use the woods for toilets.
But the pressure was becoming excruciating. Well, she thought, it's either off to the side of the road or it's have an accident. Succumbing, the woman slowed her car and pulled off on the shoulder of the four-lane highway. She opened the door of her car and clambered down the brushy embankment. She found a concealed spot in the scrubby trees. That's when she saw the sight that forever afterward would fill her mind every time she headed north on the road from New Bedford. The sightless eyes stared back at her, and the woman knew she would never forget the afternoon of Saturday, July 2, 1988.
Sergeant Alan Alves was tinkering around on his boat that afternoon when the call came in. Skeletal remains, the word was; just over the Lakeville town line into Freetown's jurisdiction. A woman driving north had stopped to walk her dog — how the cops laughed at that — along Route 140 and had stumbled over what was left of a human being.
Fifty yards more, just fifty. Why couldn't the person who left the body have driven just a little farther north? Now Alves would have to go to work on his day off.
Alves was the township of Freetown's only detective. He was widely regarded as a no-nonsense cop. A solidly built, darkly complected man with a pockmarked face and a bushy mustache, Alves's tough appearance seemed incongruous with his often humorous demeanor. Alves knew the streets about as well as anyone in southeastern Massachusetts, and he knew the drug scene. But what Alves was most noted for was his grasp of the subtleties of Satanism, or at least, devil worship as it was practiced in this largely rural portion of the country's second oldest state.
Alves pulled his car off onto the shoulder of the highway, where units from Freetown and the township just to the north, Lakeville, were already gathered. A call had already been made to the Bristol County district attorney's office, and experts from the Massachusetts State Police were on their way. The uniformed officers showed Alves the site.
It smelled awful. Alves guessed the skeleton had been there rotting away for several months. He was pretty sure the dead person had been a woman. The skeleton lay on its back, eye sockets pointed upward aimlessly. The arms and legs were thrust outward, as if the victim had been spread-eagled by the killer at the moment of death. The reason Alves thought the dead person was a woman was because of the panties bunched and dropped to the side, and the brassiere that was still twisted around the neck. Alves had the impression that the woman had been raped and murdered right here on the spot. Or maybe, with some of these guys you could never tell, maybe she had been murdered, then raped, Alves thought.
After the photographs, the light began to fade, so the scene was secured with yellow crime-scene tape, and plans were made to return the following day for a more thorough look.
A decomposing skeleton is an ugly thing, and it did not occur to Alves for even a second that the stinking, whitening bones he saw before him could ever have been connected to his beautiful, laughing friend, and sometime undercover informant, Debra Medeiros of Fall River. A self-admitted prostitute, Debbie was much too alive to ever be dead, at least in Alves's mind. But dead is what Debbie was, although it would be months before anyone realized the bones they were staring at that day were Debbie's.
Nor did anyone then realize that the ghastly remnants marked the start of one of the largest manhunts in Massachusetts' history — a frantic search that would take years, cost millions, and register the deaths of ten other young women besides Debbie, along with one suspect and a key witness.
It would be a manhunt that would destroy professional and public reputations, torture 11 families with agonizing doubts and bitter hatreds, and finally, irrevocably demolish what had once been one of the most promising political careers in the Commonwealth called Massachusetts.
But all of this was to come with hindsight years later, for Alves and everyone else. By then, though, it would be far too late.
While finding a dead body off the side of a major highway leading out of New Bedford was hardly an everyday occurrence, it had happened before.
Ever since the city had begun its slide into the drug abyss, occasional victims of overdoses, dope rip-offs, unpaid drug debts, or periodic outbursts of homicidal insanity, were unceremoniously dumped near some roadway, there to decompose undisturbed until finally discovered.
Indeed, the roads from New Bedford offered a multitude of places where a dead person could be gotten rid of quickly and easily, with no witnesses, with no ties back to the living; and with the added advantage of the unlikelihood of immediate discovery. Such sporadic incidents were part of modern life in most American cities, and New Bedford was no exception.
The major roads from New Bedford — I-195 and Route 140 — are much like their federally financed counterparts in most other parts of the nation: long, smooth, elegantly engineered ribbons of asphalt or concrete, gently banked and marked, well-signed and shouldered, instrumentalities of transportation that are the envy of the world.
It is possible, for example, to leave New Bedford heading west on I-195 and be in Providence, R.I., within 40 minutes; or New York City within a matter of hours. Or one can drive north on Route 140 and be in Boston in less than an hour, or in New Hampshire in just a little over that.
Lined with dense stands of trees, heavy brush, sometimes extending miles between exits and on-ramps, the sides of the highways near New Bedford are thus quite attractive for the impatient cadaver caster. By the time the body is found, it is highly likely that the dumper will be hundreds of miles away, or even several states removed from the scene of the crime.
And if the would-be body dumper is too nervous to use one of the major highways, there are plenty of side roads throughout the countryside which can serve just as well. The back country around New Bedford is a sparsely populated region of isolated clumps of settlement, linked together tenuously with narrow, twisting lames of blacktop and gravel that run through gloomy wood, heavy brush, past scattered farms, pastures, cranberry bogs, sharp outcroppings of granite, concealed ravines, meandering creeks, and sudden marine estuaries. All of them are excellent places to get rid of an unwanted corpse, if one is so inclined.
On the day after the skeleton was discovered on Route 140, Alves and State Trooper William Delaney returned to the scene for a closer look. Another state trooper, Kenneth Martin, supervised the recovery of the skeleton, and an ensuing search for related evidence. It was one of the hottest days of the summer, in a summer that would later be known as one of the hottest in years. The heat, of course, made the dead decompose far faster than usual.
Martin's task was often the hardest part of investigating a murder that took place outdoors. In almost every case, victims in outdoor crime scenes bring with them tantalizing clues to their last hours before death — usually in the form of microscopic fibers, often stray hairs, sometimes paint flakes, material under fingernails, and even small amounts of powdery soil residues. Careful inspection and sifting of the site where a murder victim's remains are found can, under some circumstances, yield a small collection of such "trace evidence"; the minute materials are sometimes the only way to prove the guilt or innocence of possible suspects.
Collecting this sort of evidence was Trooper Martin's most important job. He was the State Police forensics expert for Bristol County, the region of Massachusetts that included New Bedford and its surrounding townships. Carefully, Martin took samples of the mud found around the skeleton for later processing to see what might turn up, and checked for worms and insects whose generations of offspring might indicate just how long the skeleton had been there. Later, Martin would check the nearby brush for hairs and fibers; sometimes birds picked up tiny threads or loose hairs and wove them into their nests.
But Martin well knew that the odds of getting anything useful from an outdoor site diminished with each passing day. Every day it rained, more potential trace evidence washed away. In that sense, the forces of nature were an outdoor killer's greatest ally. It appeared to some that the skeleton might have been off the highway for as long as nine months.
As Martin worked, the skeleton itself went on its way to Boston, where pathologists from the State Medical Examiner's office would perform an autopsy. One thing about the skeleton was already apparent, however. Whoever the dead woman had been, she had recently suffered from a broken jaw. In fact, the bones of her mouth were still wired together.
The way things worked in Massachusetts, the one man most responsible for solving the crime of murder wasn't even present on that third day of July 1988, as Martin, Delaney, and Alves inspected the site.
In Massachusetts, the most important figure in any homicide investigation is the district attorney, and that year in Bristol County, that meant Ronald A. Pina, then in his third term as the area's top cop. Under the statutes of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, the legal responsibility for investigating murder belongs to the D.A., not the police.
True, most of the actual work on an investigation was normally performed by state troopers like Delaney and Martin, assisted, where necessary, by local cops like Alves. Essentially, the state police functioned as a sort of statewide FBI, administered from a central headquarters in Boston, but operationally controlled by local D.A.'s like Pina.
Thus Pina was the man who had ultimate responsibility, even if the state police were the people who would gather the evidence. Still, finding a body by the side of the road, while not an everyday occurrence in Bristol County, was not so unusual that it required Pina's immediate presence on the scene.
Pina's absence was not a problem, at least as far as Delaney was concerned; in fact, many in the state police preferred it when Pina stayed away, Alves knew.
As he watched Delaney and Martin process the site for evidence, Alves was very much aware that there was bad blood between Pina and his state police contingent, stemming from a feud of longstanding duration; and Alves was likewise aware that it was only when a crime promised to generate a lot of publicity that Pina usually put in his appearance. So Alves thought Delaney was just as happy not to see the big boss, whom Alves suspected Delaney detested anyway.
Alves knew many state troopers held Pina in contempt. To them, Pina was just another politician on the make — hardly a real cop, but someone who had to see his name in the paper or his face on television as often as possible, someone likely to do just about anything as long as he thought it might make him look good in the news media. When there was a big case to be prosecuted, Ron Pina was sure to hog the limelight, as far as the cops were concerned. Hadn't he done exactly that with the Big Dan's pool table rape?
No, the way Alves saw things, Delaney and Martin were probably quite happy the district attorney hadn't shown up. But then, there were no television cameras present that day, either.
Even as Alves, Delaney, and Martin were working along Route 140 that July 3, only a few miles away, four other men were preoccupied with the routine of their own lives; none then realized that the bones found by the side of the road would eventually affect them in ways too terrible for any of them to imagine.
One was a young East Freetown stonemason and occasional construction worker named Tony DeGrazia. That afternoon, just a few miles north of the site of the skeleton, the 26-year-old Tony couldn't decide whether he was more happy than nervous, or the other way around. On this day before the Fourth of July, Tony had asked his longtime girlfriend, Kathy Scanlon, to marry him, and Kathy had said yes.
Kathy was a beautiful young woman, and in Tony's eyes, perfection. Her soft brown hair, spectacular figure, and dancing eyes thrilled Tony, who deep down couldn't believe his good fortune. That made him very happy. For someone like Kathy to choose to be with him seemed unreal, Tony often thought, and that was what made him nervous.
The truth was, Kathy and Tony were about as different as Beauty and the Beast, and Tony always secretly feared that one day Kathy would awaken and see him for what he really was. But then, Tony realized, this was only his self-hatred talking, that little man inside, who kept trying to keep him down.
Tony remembered the time he had first really gotten to know Kathy, ten years earlier. It still seemed like a dream, or at least, an answer to a prayer. Tony had been 16 then, living on his own, sleeping wherever he could find a place that seemed safe. It was, Tony said, better than going home. In the summer of 1978 he'd found himself a tool shed in the back of a vacation home, near Long Pond in East Freetown. When the nights were clear Tony would leave the shed, take a blanket, and curl up in the woods.
One night it rained, and he awoke, shivering and covered with a swarm of biting mosquitos, as an older woman tried to rouse him. He knew the woman, and the woman knew him, Tony realized. It was Mrs. Scanlon, little Kathy Scanlon's mother. Lorraine Scanlon invited Tony to sleep on the screened-in back porch of their house a few hundred yards away. Tony gratefully accepted; by the end of the summer he was almost a part of the Scanlon family, and falling in love with Kathy, who was then 14.
Sometimes, when Tony looked back on that summer, it seemed like the happiest year of his life. The Scanlons fed him, gave him clothes, taught him things — sometimes basic things, like how to wash, comb his hair, and brush his teeth. Mostly, they just accepted him, without judgment, with humor, understanding that he was lonely, frightened, and confused; that he was just a child thrown into a cruel, adult world by no choice of his own. Eventually the Scanlons allowed Tony to live in a trailer in their backyard, and by the end of the year, Tony was calling the Scanlons "Ma" and "Pa."
The years passed, and as Tony found his grown-up footing, and his own place to live, he watched with awe as Kathy grew into a spectacular beauty. Kathy returned Tony's interest in her; she was attracted to his powerful form, his dark, sometimes brooding nature that could be swept aside with the power of her smile. There was something about Tony that called out to her: she would never forget the night he had come in from the rain, a lonely, tragic figure, as vulnerable as he was proud, someone who wanted love so bad it was pitiful. Tony was wild, sometimes, she knew; he did crazy things, got into fights and scrapes and other troubles with the law.
But underneath, Tony was good, a kind, gentle person who struggled mightily to overcome his horrifying childhood. And Tony believed deeply in God; he carried his rosary beads in his back pocket no matter where he went, and he attended church and confession faithfully throughout all the years Kathy had known him. The person closest to Tony was a priest, Father Robert Harrison, at St. John Neumann Catholic Church along Long Pond in East Freetown. And if Father Harrison was Tony's strength, Kathy Scanlon knew she was his inspiration.
Kathy also knew that Tony's heart would break if she refused to say she would marry him. So she agreed, even though something told her it wasn't going to work. No date was set; but on that night, July 3, 1988, while Delaney, Alves, and Martin were picking up the last fragments of a human being, Kathy moved in with Tony at his small lakeside house, and both of them prepared themselves to face the future. It was Kathy's twenty-fourth birthday.
About 15 miles to the south, a brash, outspoken, often volatile 38-year-old New Bedford lawyer named Kenneth Ponte was contemplating his imminent retirement to the sun-drenched Florida Gulf Coast. He was finished with New Bedford, Ponte told his friends and family; he was going to move to the land of sand, warm breezes, and palm trees, and put his old life behind him forever.
Excerpted from "Killing Season"
Copyright © 1994 Carlton Smith.
Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Preface and Acknowledgments,
The Trunk Case,
Judy and Nancy,
"That's My Sister",
The Weld Square Dance,
"I Think We Got One ...",
Not the General Public,
"Ron Pina Should Shut His Mouth",
"It's Not the Right Guy",
A Reasonable Hunch,
Hear, Consider, and Report,
Present No Man,
Spies Like Us,
"I Took Them",
SUMMER AND FALL 1989,
"He'll Make It Up",
"She Did Die",
Making It Run,
Return of the Boston Strangler,
No Smoking Gun,
Diane's Florida Vacation,
"I Have Nothing to Fear",
Very Crucial Testimony,
Over the Line,
The Real Killer,
About the Author,