Target 12

30 years later, Southern New England ‘Highway Killings' remain unsolved

NEW BEDFORD, Mass. (WPRI) - Judy DeSantos and her family were returning from a day at a public pool during the scorching hot summer of 1988. They were looking to cool off and clear their minds, because Judy's sister, Nancy Paiva, had been missing for weeks. 

As someone who struggled with addiction, Nancy had her demons. But disappearing and leaving her kids behind was unlike the mother of two. Judy's anxiety mounted every day that passed without word from her sister.

Driving down I-195 in Dartmouth, the smell of chlorine wafting throughout the car, Judy spotted a cluster of cars along the highway. One of them was a medical examiner's truck.

"I wanted my husband to pull over, I said, 'They're taking my sister out of the woods,' but everybody thought I was crazy," DeSantos recalled 30 years later. "I just knew it was her. I just knew it was her."

It would take months for authorities to confirm the identity of the body. But Judy’s instincts were right.

As the DeSantos family drove by that steamy July afternoon, Nancy Paiva's remains were put on a stretcher and hauled from the woods. Television cameras and newspaper photographers captured the moment and relayed the scene to people across Southern New England.

While Paiva's body was just the second to be discovered, police already knew at the time there were several women who had vanished from New Bedford. 

A killer had struck again.

Common Thread

The first woman disappeared in April 1988, and by September of that year the count would reach 11.

The first body recovered, 30-year-old Debra Medeiros, of Fall River, was found along Route 140 in Freetown on July 3, 1988. The last, Sandra Botelho, 24, of New Bedford, was discovered in April 1989 on I-195 in Marion. (She had gone missing the August before.) In all, the bodies of nine women were found; two are still lost. 

The crimes terrorized the region for years, and on the 30th anniversary of the case that has been dubbed "The Highway Killings," it still remains unsolved.

"It was very frustrating for law enforcement at the time," said Maureen Boyle, who covered the crimes as a reporter and is the author of "Shallow Graves," a book on the murders. "They didn’t have fresh crime scenes and the women were not reported missing all that quickly, with a couple of exceptions."

A common thread among the victims was drug addiction, and they were all from - or last seen in - New Bedford. Boyle said some of the women turned to prostitution as a way to feed their drug habit, but not all of them.

"They were mothers. Just about all the women had children, with the exception of one," she said. "[They were] extremely vulnerable. They were very easy targets."

The summer of 1988 was one of the hottest on record at the time, so the bodies decomposed very quickly, making it difficult for investigators to pinpoint how long they had been out there, and even more difficult to determine how they were killed. Medical examiners were only able to establish a cause of death on two of the victims: strangulation.

After her sister was recovered, Judy DeSantos found herself wandering through the woods abutting local highways in a desperate search for the two women who were never found. 

"Every one of them girls is a part of me now." DeSantos said. "All of them."

The Suspects

Despite the victims all having ties to New Bedford, the killer disposed of the bodies along highways outside the city limits. Boyle said some detectives wondered if that was intentional, to ensure the case officially stayed out of the jurisdiction of the New Bedford Police Department.

The list of potential suspects was exhausting. Police interviewed scores of people who had even loose ties to the women, as tips came pouring in. Could it be a truck driver who cruised through the area regularly? A fisherman? A member of the Coast Guard who was recently assigned to the station in New Bedford?

"When you sort of peel back the layers of the community and the drug world and the women’s lives, there were just so many suspects out there," Boyle said. "The police looked at just about everyone who ever picked up a woman on the street, anyone who had any interaction with drug-addicted women."

A leading suspect was a local man named Kenneth Ponte. An attorney, Ponte had a checkered past in New Bedford and, like the women, a drug addiction.

To this day, Ponte remains the only person ever charged in the case. He was indicted in 1990, accused of murdering Rochelle Clifford Dopierala, a 28-year-old Falmouth resident. (Her body was the sixth recovered, off Reed Road in Dartmouth in December 1988.) Investigators discovered that Ponte and Doprieala knew each other, and they suspected he was the last person to see her alive. But the case was thin, and circumstantial.

"There was no smoking gun," Boyle said. "There was no physical evidence to tie him to the case." 

The murder charge was eventually dropped, but the case always haunted Ponte. In 2007, a backhoe was dispatched to a house he had lived in to dig up a driveway that had been installed at the time of the murders - looking to see if one of the two women still lost in the wind had been buried there. Nothing.

Ponte was found dead in 2010. Foul play was ruled out, but both Boyle and DeSantos believe he took some secrets to the grave.

"I think he knew more than he ever told anyone," Boyle said. "I think that if he was not the killer he could have helped the investigation early on, but chose not to."

DeSantos, for her part, doesn’t think Ponte was the killer.

The names of other men examined by investigators were leaked to the media, among them Anthony DeGrazia, a construction worker. He was never charged, but he came on detectives' radar screens after being accused of assaulting prostitutes. In 1991 he was discovered dead behind his parents' Fairhaven home, an empty prescription bottle by his side.

In a 1993 interview with the Target 12 investigators, his mother, Diane Souza, blamed prosecutors for her son's death.

"It's very easy to accuse a dead man," she said. "A dead man cannot defend himself."

‘Not Forgotten’

The evidence from the Highway Killings case sits inside a nondescript but intensely monitored brick building in Bridgewater. Each item is carefully cataloged, packed in boxes and stacked on four wooden pallets reaching nearly six feet high.

A reporter wasn't allowed into the room that stored the evidence - which requires a high-level security clearance - but photos supplied by the Massachusetts State Police speak to the volume of material gathered over decades of investigation.

The serial killings predated DNA technology, but in 2008 some of the evidence was sent to the FBI for testing. The results are now stored in a federal database, waiting for a potential match that would alert authorities. 

Bristol County District Attorney Thomas Quinn – the fourth prosecutor to oversee the case – said in a statement it “has not been forgotten.” 

“During the last decade, the Bristol County District Attorney’s Office has continued to review and investigate any information that has been brought to our attention,” Quinn said. “We will continue to pursue any leads in this case, which has caused great anguish to many families.”

Some of the victims' families felt the case would have gotten more attention if the victims weren’t saddled with drug addiction. DeSantos said she witnessed that attitude from day one, when she called New Bedford police to find out if anyone had yet filed a missing person’s report on her sister.

“[The dispatcher] said to me, 'You have to understand junkies disappear all the time,’ and that’s embedded in my brain forever,” she said. “I hung up - I just hung up.”

“I know that had it been anybody else, had it been anyone higher up on the food chain, it would have been handled differently,” she added.

But Boyle, who interviewed detectives during the investigation, said it was more complicated than that.

“If 11 women from a very wealthy suburb had gone missing, people would have realized they were gone immediately because they didn’t come home from work, they didn’t come home from the store,” Boyle said. “In this case there were a couple of women who were reported missing within three days, but a number of the women weren’t reported at all.”

Unsolved

Time has a way of encouraging the truth to come out, but after decades of stagnation, it’s hard to find a reason to think the Highway Killings will ever be solved. Boyle, however, doesn’t think hope is fading.

“We are seeing this more and more throughout the country where there have been cases where people have been murdered in the ‘70s and finally the killer has been identified,” she said. One example came just this week, when authorities in California arrested a man they say is the notorious Golden State Killer, who murdered a dozen people in the 1970s and 1980s.

“Over a period of time - 30 years - people's lives change, their backgrounds change," Boyle said. "Maybe they were afraid 30 years ago to come forward, but 30 years later their lives are a little bit clearer, their circumstances have changed and I really hope, and I’m convinced, someone will come forward and say, 'Yes, this is who the killer is, he told me this,' or, 'I had seen him after the fact.'"

“Someone out there knows who did it,” she added.

DeSantos, too, hasn’t given up. 

“You always have to have hope because without hope, you have nothing,” she said. “I will never give up on her. Never.”

DeSantos's instincts were right that July day 30 years ago when she knew her sister was being taken from the woods, and she thinks her instincts are right again.

The killer, she insists, is alive: “I think they're out there.”

The Victims (from left to right):

• Sandra Botelho, 24

• Rochelle Clifford Dopierala, 28, 

• Robbin Rhodes, 28     

• Nancy Paiva, 36                    

• Christine Monteiro, 19

• Mary Rose Santos, 26

• Marilyn Roberts, 34 

• Debroh Lynn McConnell, 25 

• Debra Medeiros, 30

• Debra Greenlaw DeMello, 35

• Dawn Mendes, 25

Anyone with any information about this case can call the Bristol County District Attorney’s Office: 508-961-1901

Tim White twhite@wpri.com ) is the Target 12 investigative reporter and host of Newsmakers for WPRI 12 and Fox Providence. Follow him on Twitter and on Facebook

Diana Pinzon, Darren Soens and John Villella contributed to this report.


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