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Posted: Jul 7 2008, 05:28 AM
Member No.: 2
Joined: 3-July 06
Bristol County highway killings, 20 years later
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By Curt Brown
Standard-Times staff writer
July 07, 2008 6:00 AM
On the eve of Independence Day in 1988, a motorist made a grisly discovery when she pulled off the road to pick flowers: the skeletal remains of a woman about 50 feet from the highway in a wooded clearing on the northbound side of Route 140 in Freetown near the Lakeville line.
The discovery of the woman's body — she turned out to be Debra Medeiros, 29, of Fall River — and the bodies of the eight other women who would be found alongside local roads between July 1988 and April 1989 became known as the highway killings.
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Bristol County highway killings, 20 years laterOld TVs getting tossed as digital switch loomsThree teens charged with vehicle breaksMotorcyclist dies in crashFall River man faces drug chargesMix of vitamins, minerals slows macular degenerationSolving a cold case: A look inside a detective's bag of tools Today, two decades later, it stands as Bristol County's most publicized, unsolved crime of the 20th century. Three of the investigators who worked on the case at its start believe they know who the killer was, but the current district attorney is not so sure and is waiting for a new FBI forensic report.
The nine victims shared similar pasts. They were all drug-dependent and frequented the Weld Square section of New Bedford, an area known for prostitution.
Two other women who fit the profile of the victims were reported missing at the same time and were never found.
And now on this melancholy anniversary, past and present investigators are hoping that continued investigation, and perhaps advances in DNA research, will one day help provide an answer to the identity of the killer or killers.
C. Samuel Sutter, the third Bristol County district attorney over the past 20 years to attempt to solve the killings, said he is committed to finding the killer or killers.
"We're resolved to do everything we can to solve those murders," he said, calling the killings "an open wound for the families and the people of Bristol County."
"I'm not saying we're going to solve this. I'm saying we're going to try."
Mr. Sutter said his office wants the investigation to identify the person or people responsible, regardless of whether they are living or dead.
"We're not going to let go until we believe we know who the killer or the killers are," he said. "Our mission is to solve the murders, not solely to charge someone."
"He was our best suspect"
Mr. Sutter's predecessor, Paul F. Walsh Jr., and two of the original investigators in the killings, believe Anthony R. DeGrazia, a 29-year-old East Freetown stonemason who killed himself July 27, 1991, was the killer.
They said his suicide from an overdose of anti-depressants prevents the 20-year-old investigation from ever being solved.
"I thought it was DeGrazia," Mr. Walsh said.
Mr. Walsh, who was district attorney when Mr. DeGrazia took his own life, said he thinks Mr. DeGrazia killed himself because the investigation was closing in on him.
While the arrest of Mr. DeGrazia was not imminent back in 1991, Mr. Walsh said more police, more money and more attention were being devoted to the investigation, and pressure was mounting on the killer.
"The heat was definitely turning up on whoever the perpetrator would have been," Mr. Walsh said.
Mr. DeGrazia's death came two days before Paul V. Buckley, a special prosecutor hired by Mr. Walsh to investigate the killings, dropped a murder charge for lack of evidence against Kenneth C. Ponte, the only person to ever be charged with murder in the highway killings.
News of the plans to drop the murder indictment against Mr. Ponte had been leaked and reported in the media before Mr. DeGrazia took his life.
Also at the time of his death, Mr. DeGrazia faced a string of charges, including rape and assault, stemming from attacks on prostitutes between 1988 and 1990, including several cases where the women said they had been choked by him. Three of the highway killing victims were strangled, two found with ligatures on the body. The cause of death of the rest is unknown.
Mr. Buckley, at the time, called Mr. DeGrazia a key suspect in the murders.
In a recent interview, Mr. Buckley, now commissioner of the state Department of Industrial Accidents, said there was strong evidence against Mr. DeGrazia and the circumstances of his death were "bizarre," but he stopped short of calling him the murderer.
"If an individual was suspected of a committing a crime and that individual takes his own life, then people could surmise he could have responsibility," he said.
Mr. DeGrazia's attorney at the time was Robert A. George of Boston. Today, he denies any suggestion that his former client was the highway killer.
He said there was no DNA match between the highway killing victims and Mr. DeGrazia.
"The handling of the investigation and the case ... killed Mr. DeGrazia. Maybe that's the investigation we should be looking at," he said.
"Any claim from yesterday, today or in the future that Anthony DeGrazia was the killer in these cases is a figment of an overly fertile imagination," he said. "It's easy to blame the dead because they can't fight back."
Nelson N. Ostiguy, who briefly headed the state police investigative unit assigned to Mr. Walsh's office, and retired New Bedford Detective Richard Ferreira, now a private detective, both believe Mr. DeGrazia was the highway killer.
"I think right now we should be putting people's fears to rest. I would stake my pension on it that DeGrazia did it," Mr. Ostiguy said.
"To me, he was our best suspect," Mr. Ferreira said.
Kevin Butler, one of the state police detectives who investigated Mr. DeGrazia at the time, would not say whether he thinks Mr. DeGrazia was responsible for the deaths.
Mr. Butler is now a detective captain in the state police and is assigned to the Division of Investigative Services at State Police Headquarters in Framingham.
Hopes on DNA
District Attorney Sutter, however, is not convinced that Mr. DeGrazia was the killer. "The evidence is not at a point where that is the person."
Like investigators in other parts of the country trying to solve cold murder cases, Mr. Sutter is hopeful modern science, and specifically DNA techniques, will identify the killer.
He said his office sent evidence from the highway killings to the FBI's Crime Laboratory to be examined late last year.
Gregg Miliote, a spokesman for the district attorney's office, said an inventory of the evidence was taken this year and it is being processed.
"That is taking place as we speak," Mr. Sutter said. He made no mention of a timetable for getting results from the FBI.
The district attorney said the total amount of evidence from the highway killings is large enough "to fill up a college dorm room."
However, he said, they referred the evidence they felt was "pertinent" and would benefit from a "re-evaluation and a re-examination."
Mr. Sutter clearly sees DNA as possibly providing an answer to the identity of the killer or killers.
"You need a smaller and smaller amount of DNA to make a case," he said.
While in the past, "a swab" was needed. Now, only "a pin prick" is sufficient.
"That would be powerful proof if you get DNA evidence and you are able to link it to someone," he said.
He added that the databank of DNA samples keeps growing, increasing the chances of a match.
Joseph Costa, one of the original state police investigators and now an assistant chief with the Dallas County Sheriffs' Department, said technology keeps improving all the time.
"Maybe what we have will be enough for some future test or examination," he said.
Detective Capt. Butler also said "the state of the science" is far superior to what it was in 1988.
But former investigators, who wish they had access to today's DNA technology when they probed the highway killings 20 years ago, said there are problems with the evidence and the crime scenes from the highway killings.
Mr. Walsh said the bodies were outdoors for months before they were found, and the crime scenes had been contaminated by animals and the elements, which possibly washed away valuable evidence.
In some of the cases, the clothing was on the bodies, while in others it was found at or near the remains, he said.
"The problem was that the length of time the victims were out there complicated the investigation," he said.
"The likelihood of finding suspects' DNA would be very, very small."
Lack of closure
Many of the original investigators who worked tirelessly on the case, said the failure to find the killer or killers and locate the remains of the two missing women troubles them.
"These people worked very hard," said Jim Martin, the former communications director for former District Attorney Ronald A. Pina. "Unfortunately, we don't have a conclusion for everyone."
Mr. Martin is now the managing editor for WJAR-TV News in Providence.
Mr. Ferreira said he thinks about the nine dead women and two missing women when he drives past some of the locations where the bodies were found.
He regrets that so much time had to be spent trying to confirm information from witnesses and sometimes that information was accurate and other times it was not.
"You ask yourself, 'Did you miss something that was right in front of you because you were chasing a false lead?' " he said.
He said the two missing women — Christina Monteiro and Marilyn J. Roberts, missing since 1988 — are related to former New Bedford and Dartmouth police officers.
"We found everyone else. Why didn't we find them?" Mr. Ferreira said. "It makes you ask why. Were they buried? I wonder if the killer or killers said, 'You're not going find these,'"
Kenneth Arsenault, the father of Robbin "Bobbie Lynn" Rhodes, the 29-year-old New Bedford woman killed in the murders, said his wife, Jean, died four years ago of cancer.
Mr. Arsenault, now 77 and living alone in the city's North End, goes each day to Pine Grove Cemetery to visit the graves of his wife, his daughter and his son, Kenneth Jr., who was killed 29 years ago at the bottom of Sawyer Street in an unsolved homicide.
He does not think the highway killings will ever be solved.
"I feel crazy because I loved that girl. She was like an angel to me," he said.
Posted: Jul 7 2008, 05:28 AM
Member No.: 2
Joined: 3-July 06
Posted: Jan 31 2010, 06:06 PM
Member No.: 1
Joined: 3-July 06
Christina Monteiro was 20-years-old when she went missing in July of 1988 in New Bedford. Her body was never found.
Posted: Jan 31 2010, 06:07 PM
Member No.: 1
Joined: 3-July 06
Former suspect in New Bedford-area highway killings case found dead
Kenneth Ponte was indicted in New Bedford area murders, but charges later dropped
By Maureen Boyle
GateHouse News Service
Posted Jan 28, 2010 @ 12:17 PM
For years, Chandra Gregory wondered if the lawyer living in New Bedford was the person who killed her mother and at least eight other women in the late 1980s.
Now, more than 20 years later, that man, Kenneth Ponte, has been found dead. And Gregory believes he wasn’t involved.
“When I was younger, I was convinced he was the person. But now, after all these years, I don’t think so,” said Gregory, who was 16 when the skeletal remains of her mother, Debra Greenlaw DeMello of Brockton, were found along Interstate 195 in Dartmouth.
Ponte, 61, the only person ever charged in connection with the highway killings case in the New Bedford area, was found dead Tuesday in his New Bedford home after a friend was unable to reach him and called police.
Lisa Rowell, a spokesman for the Bristol County District Attorney’s office, said foul play was not suspected. An autopsy and toxicology tests will be performed to determine the cause of death, she said.
One of Ponte’s friends had gone to the house a few days ago to check on Ponte, but no one answered the door. Police were called Tuesday about 2:30 p.m. after the friend returned and still no one answered the door.
Ponte had been one of the key suspects in the slayings of nine drug-addicted women who disappeared in 1988 and whose bodies were later found along or near local highways in Freetown, Dartmouth, Westport and Marion.
Two other women who went missing have not been found.
A special grand jury in 1989 indicted Ponte in one of the nine killings, but the charge was dropped 11 months later for insufficient evidence.
Although Ponte, who knew some of the dead women, denied any involvement in the deaths, the case continued to haunt him for years.
“It just hung over him like a pall and it never went way,” said Kevin Reddington, who was Ponte’s attorney in the case.
State police in recent years had excavated a section of his former home, looking for signs of two other drug-addicted women who went missing in 1988, but no remains were found.
Ponte, who had battled drug and other problems, was eventually disbarred as an attorney after problems arose involving a settlement one of his clients received.
Ponte remained in New Bedford over the years, occasionally making headlines for minor arrests such as shoplifting.
“He was a tortured soul,” Reddington said.
Gregory said she was convinced in recent years that Ponte had no involvement in the death of her mother.
“I don’t think he even knew who did it,” she said. “I don’t know if they will ever solve it.”