Under the Radar

Date Published 03.09.11
Maybe the only thing creepier than an unidentified serial killer who's captured the public's attention is one who hasn't.  Without a catchy nickname, often targeting fringe victims who lack the telegenic appeal to make it on Nancy Grace, these killers keep active knowing one of their greatest assets is that their path of violence remains, for the most part, unrecognized.

New Britain, CT

The shopping plaza on Hartford Road is busy and bleak looking, a clutch of unremarkable stores centered around the interstate.  Up the road is the nicer Westfarms mall, but here the businesses, while not exactly downscale, aren't fancy either --- the Hair Cuttery, Daddy's Junky Music Store.

It's what lies behind the shopping plaza that likely appealed to the killer: thick, dense woods, the next-to-the-highway kind that no one visits.  He did visit, however, many times in fact.

Area where 1995 Jane Doe was found

But the first body found, in September 1995, wasn't left in the woods, and maybe therein lays a clue.  A police officer making his rounds at the plaza discovered a mess of sleeping bags outside the backdoor of a business.  Inside the sleeping bags was a young woman.

She was probably a teenager, judging from the adolescent flourishes like a silver belly ring and white overalls.  Except for the bullet wound to her head, she didn't seem like a likely murder victim: she was clean, well dressed, hadn't been sexually assaulted, and had no drugs or alcohol in her system.

The medical examiner would determine she'd been dead only a few hours.

Days later, and 35 miles north across the border in Massachusetts, a camper in the Tolland State Forest was disposing of garbage when he stumbled upon a woman's body.

The crime scene told a different story than the one at the shopping plaza.  Bullet holes in a nearby guardrail suggested that, unlike the teenage victim, the woman was killed on site.  No one took the time to zip her into a sleeping bag.  She was pushed roughly down an embankment.

The second victim was between 30 and 45 year old, possibly Hispanic, and was wearing a unique yellow and red Native American-patterned sweatshirt.

She was shot once in the head with a .45 caliber gun.

Investigators quickly came to believe the murders were linked.  The sleeping bags at the first crime scene suggested a connection to the second scene at the campground.  Both victims had been shot in the head.  It was determined the second victim had been dead about eight days, around the same time the first victim was discovered.

Most intriguingly, the women looked like they could be related.

New Britain and Tolland State Forest Jane Does

14 years later, officials revealed that DNA testing had confirmed that the Jane Does were mother and daughter.  But they still didn't know their identities.  Scattered clues suggested a life story just out of reach.  A tax stamp on a carton of cigarettes near the second victim was traced back to Albany.  Oxygen isotope analysis of hair and teeth confirmed the woman had spent time in upstate New York.

It seemed impossible that someone somewhere wasn't missing a mother and daughter.  To find the killer officials needed to know the victims' names.  And finding the killer was becoming urgent, especially when, in 2007, a man walking in the woods behind the shopping plaza discovered a human skull.

A search yielded more bones.  There would be three more Jane Does in all.

It could be a coincidence that three unidentified women were dumped just yards from where the body of an unidentified young woman was found in 1995.  But I doubt it.

This isn't a notorious dumping ground, like the desert outside Las Vegas; this is the shopping district of a mid-sized town, less than a mile from a Pottery Barn Kids and Nordstrom.

A more likely scenario is that someone is preying on vulnerable, marginalized women.  In 1995 the victim was left under a floodlight behind a store.  As the years went on, the killer pushed farther into the woods, seeking cover.

It worked for a long time.  Authorities believe the victims have been dead anywhere from 4 and 20 years.  If they know how the women were killed, they're not saying.  The victims range in age and type.  One was 20 to 30 years old, of African American or Caribbean ancestry.  Another was white, and older.  The third victim was athletic, and under 30, but because a skull wasn't recovered determining race is a problem.

Jane Doe found in 2007

The patch of woods is right off the intersection of routes 71 and 9, and a short distance from busy Interstate 84.  That the killer might be someone who travels the roads frequently, like a trucker, is an obvious guess.

But certain clues suggest a more local suspect.  He returned to the same small area at least four times.  One of the victims in the woods was recently identified as Diane Cusack, 55, who records show had a history of petty drug and shoplifting busts.  Cusack was last heard from in 2003.  She lived just a few miles from where her bones were found.

The good news is that even though the story isn't a national one, fueled by news magazine coverage and pundit input, the police, including New Britain and Massachusetts State, appear to be doing everything they can to solve the case.

The suspect sought victims who wouldn't be missed; he dumped them in woods no one walked through.  If it is the same killer, for 12 years he operated unchecked.   No more bodies, or bones, have been found recently.  Hopefully that means he's given up murder, and not just that he's moved on.

Anyone with information about this case should call New Britain Police at (860) 826-3000.

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RT @emilynussbaum: The artful @hodgman's straightforward case for Hillary: https://t.co/ijA8xHJ8Tm
@Twaikuer @pattonoswalt @daveanthony Know what he does believe in? PAC $. Took 10K from HRC pac 2006. That means he's in her pocket.#BSLogic
@Twaikuer @pattonoswalt @daveanthony Good one. Unfortunately Bernie on record as not believing in charity.
@johnlevenstein Thanks for asking, btw. That's the kind of elevated discourse missing lately. A lot of mud slinging. #I'mNotAboveItEither
@johnlevenstein Can't convey it all thru Twitter but yes, she has flaws. Too poll-driven, burned needed bridges, trouble owning mistakes.