1935 murder victims buried; mystery persists
EAST MIDDLEBURY — It was a brisk day last fall when Walt Ducharme stood at the side of a freshly dug grave at the Prospect Cemetery in East Middlebury. The mortal remains of three people were at last given a final resting place after reposing in nondescript boxes in an office cabinet for 80 years.
But with eternal rest does not always come closure.
Neither Ducharme — owner/director of Middlebury’s Sanderson-Ducharme Funeral Home — nor anyone else has been able to give a name to any of the three individuals whose remains were found on May 15, 1935, in a remote location off Burnham Drive in East Middlebury, on land that is now part of the Vermont Association of Snow Travelers (VAST) snowmobile trail. The deceased — a woman and two young boys believed to be her sons — had all been shot in the head, their corpses unceremoniously dumped in a ditch.
The three victims have the dubious distinction of remaining the focal point of Vermont’s most notorious and longest running cold case, one recently inherited by Middlebury Police Detective Kris Bowdish. Bowdish is no stranger to cold cases; she was in the national headlines this past March with news of a possible connection between New York City real estate scion Robert Durst and Lynne Schulze, a Middlebury College student who went missing back in 1971.
And while Bowdish still holds onto hope for a resolution and prosecution in the Schulze case, she has understandably set her sights a little lower for the 1935 East Middlebury triple murder.
“I don’t find myself looking for a suspect,” she said on Monday, noting the passage of eight decades and the accidental shredding of the original case file at the Vermont Attorney General’s Office in 1988, “but I think it is important to spend time on this case so that if a family is trying to make a connection (to the deceased), they’ll be able to do that.”
To that end, authorities have taken some new steps to learn the victims’ identities by publicizing the case with the use of 21st-century technology, Bowdish told Addison Independent. Officials, using the bones of the victims, have created three-dimensional models of how they might have looked while alive. And Bowdish this month added their profiles to the National Unidentified Persons Data System, a major information clearinghouse.
News of the triple murder reverberated well beyond Addison County when the bodies were first discovered. In addition to the Middlebury Register (the precursor publication to the Addison Independent), statewide and regional media descended upon East Middlebury to probe the murder mystery.
“Skeletons of Three Slain People Found Not Far From Middlebury,” blares one newspaper headline. “Teeth Most Important Clue in Triple-Murder Probe At Middlebury,” reads another.
Here’s most of what we know about the case:
A woman named Grace Dague and her daughter, Inez Perry Masterson, were looking for flowers in the forest when they stumbled upon the skeletal remains of the three murder victims on May 15, 1935. During a 1985 interview with the Independent, Masterson recalled spotting something in a ditch near the side of an old logging road.
“It looked like a white rock,” she reported. “So I just kicked it and it turned out to be a skull with a bullet hole right between the eyes,”
The mother and daughter rushed home to call the sheriff’s office (Vermont State Police would not be formed until 1947).
Sheriff Ralph Sweet and other authorities found three skeletons, each with a .38-caliber Colt automatic bullet hole in the skull. The bodies had been wrapped together in a blanket and a green canvas awning with pulleys still attached, according to follow-up reporting in the Independent.
Investigators believed the bodies had been there for two or three years.
The identity of the victims continues to baffle authorities to this day. Inspection of the bones concluded one of the victims to be a woman, aged 35 to 45, who stood 62 inches tall. The second victim was an adolescent boy, estimated to be 13 to 15 years old. The third victim was also a boy, suspected to be between 9 and 11 years old.
Bowdish said one of the youths had extensive dental work, leading to speculation that the family might have been affluent. That dental work would become one of the most solid clues used by investigators in an effort to crack the case.
The case stirred much intrigue, according to reports of the day. The triple murder became the talk of local fairs that year. Photos of the crime scene were snapped and sold by opportunists. The Independent in 1985 interviewed a Conrad Lecompte of Brandon who admitted to snagging some of the evidence — a swath of the blanket and piece of the green canvas in which the bodies had been wrapped.
Rumors about the victims and possible suspects abounded.
Some reports suggested the victims might have been staying at an area resort, possibly near Lake Dunmore.
Another report — through the Associated Press — suggested the awning used to wrap the victims had been taken from a Grand Union supermarket in Burlington in 1929. The report went on to say that employees recalled a store manager who suddenly left in 1930 after a year on the job. That manager, according to the report, had a wife and two sons.
But the years passed by without producing any firm suspects. No one stepped forward to claim the three victims as family members. Meanwhile, the bones were stored in boxes at the state medical examiner’s office in hopes that DNA evidence and/or an eager genealogist might lead to a solving of the mystery.
The DNA was so degraded that it would be of little use, so the cold case has remained frigid, officials noted.
That’s not to say authorities have given up.
Recently, a forensic sculpture class at the New York Academy of Art — with assistance from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children — completed facial reconstructions of the victims, using the remains as their guide. Officials hope that the new modeling might spur some more clues from people trying to fill out their family trees.
See a video on the class that created the 3-D busts of the Middlebury victims by clicking here.
Vermont Medical Examiner Dr. Steve Shapiro is very pleased that faces have now been assigned to the victims. And he hopes names will someday follow. In the meantime, he’s glad the victims have been given a final resting place.
“It’s good that they are in the ground now,” Shapiro said. “Today, if something like this happened, (the victims) wouldn’t spend 80 years in the office.”
It was Shapiro who called Ducharme last year to explain the situation and ask about burial options. Ducharme in turn contacted Mike Newton of the Prospect Cemetery Association. Shapiro provided a wooden casket into which the remains were placed. The casket was interred in the Prospect Cemetery, with the association and funeral home sharing the financial burden.
Anonymous donors will be underwriting the costs of a gravestone and engraving, according to Bowdish.
The bittersweet irony of such a donation, of course, is that no one yet knows what names to carve onto the gravestone.
Det. Bowdish and Addison County Victims’ Advocate Deb James are slated to plant some flowers at the victims’ unmarked grave at Prospect Cemetery this Friday afternoon, May 15, at 4:30 p.m. — the exact date and time the bodies were found 80 years ago. The flowers are being donated by Aubuchon Hardware. Community members are invited to attend.
“It’s sad,” James said of the violent death and anonymity of the three victims. “I’m hoping (some new information) comes in.”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].
Editor’s note: This story was changed after its original posting to correct a fact: The case file was shredded in 1988 by the Vermont Attorney General’s Office.
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