DA’s office hopes to crack 34-year-old cold case in Warwick

The New England Trail crosses Route 78 in Warwick near where a woman’s dismembered body was found in 1989.

The New England Trail crosses Route 78 in Warwick near where a woman’s dismembered body was found in 1989. staff phot / Paul Franz

First Assistant District Attorney Steven Gagne stands in a small pull-off on Route 78 in Warwick, where a woman’s dismembered body was found in 1989.

First Assistant District Attorney Steven Gagne stands in a small pull-off on Route 78 in Warwick, where a woman’s dismembered body was found in 1989. staff photo / Paul Franz

First Assistant District Attorney Steven Gagne points to the wooded area off of Route 78 in Warwick where a woman’s dismembered body was found in 1989. The woman has never been identified but Gagne hopes new technology can reveal a relative and some leads to solve the case.

First Assistant District Attorney Steven Gagne points to the wooded area off of Route 78 in Warwick where a woman’s dismembered body was found in 1989. The woman has never been identified but Gagne hopes new technology can reveal a relative and some leads to solve the case. staff photo / Paul Franz

By DOMENIC POLI

Staff Writer

Published: 10-15-2023 6:00 PM

WARWICK — About 1½ miles north of a parking lot for Mount Grace State Forest is a pull-off on the same side of the road, for motorists to more safely stop or turn their vehicles around on Route 78.

This seemingly unremarkable spot was the scene of a gruesome, brutal crime where a woman’s body was found 34 years ago. Her identity and that of her killer remain unknown to this day.

First Assistant District Attorney Steven Gagne has familiarized himself with the site, having examined old photographs of it and visited multiple times, including on Wednesday afternoon.

“Kind of down here, where this valley of ferns is, is my understanding of where the remains were found,” said Gagne, gesturing downward after rustling through some fallen leaves near the roadway. “Female remains, limbs separated from the torso.”

It is a cold case Gagne, the Northwestern District Attorney’s Office and the State Police hope to solve with the help of Othram, a Texas corporation specializing in forensic genetic genealogy to resolve unsolved murders, disappearances, and identification of unidentified decedents or homicide victims.

“There was, obviously, [an] investigation done, but no real leads,” Gagne said. “At this point we’re just hoping that the forensic genetic genealogy might be able to lead us to a family member, or at least identify her. Any investigation into [a] homicide always starts with who the victim is and then you work out from there who knew them, who were they related to.”

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He explained that the body was discovered on June 24, 1989, after a driver pulled over to the side of the road, possibly to urinate. Gagne said that driver was cleared of any wrongdoing. The body was estimated to have been in that spot, yards away from the New England Trail, between two weeks and three months.

“It’s just strange. On the one hand, whoever did this took the time to dismember her, which would not have been a quick thing, yet to just dispose of her remains here, off the side of the road, almost as if in haste,” he said. “[It’s] kind of a random spot, it seems. It’s not the most secluded of areas.”

Gagne said the decision was made to reach out to Othram due to the company’s recent success in identifying the so-called “Granby Girl” as Patricia Ann Tucker, a 28-year-old woman found shot to death in 1978 but who went unidentified until this spring. Gerald Coleman, Tucker’s husband when she died, has been identified as a person of interest in the murder. He died in state prison in 1996, and prosecutors say he never reported his wife as missing.

“I think all these cases are a long shot because, you know, these databases that exist are all pretty much voluntary – 23andMe, Ancestry.com – these are people who have voluntarily put their DNA into these databases,” Gagne said. “So we really hit gold on that case and ‘Granby Girl’ became Patricia Tucker, and that breathed some new life into the investigation. Once you know who the person was, who they were married to, where they lived, that opens up a lot of leads.”

David Mittelman, founder and CEO of Othram, explained his company tests DNA based on hundreds of thousands of markers, whereas the FBI’s Combined DNA Index System (CODIS) uses 20. He also said victims are often not in CODIS because it was designed about 30 years ago to track the repeat offenses of known criminals. But Othram, which employs 60 people, can work from evidence generally considered unusable because it is too old or too degraded.

“It’s really efficient,” Mittelman said of his system. “It is very hard to seek justice ... in a crime if you don’t even know who the victim is. We want to make sure nobody remains unnamed.”

Othram also helped identify the “Lady of the Dunes” – a 37-year-old woman found murdered in Provincetown on July 26, 1974 – as Ruth Marie Terry. Her now-deceased husband, Guy Muldavin, was officially named as the killer in August.

Gagne, who was between his first and second years of high school in Fitchburg when the Warwick body was found, said he hopes for some promising news in the next couple of months so the investigation can move forward for two main reasons.

“First, is bringing some type of closure to the victim’s family. You know, this was likely somebody’s mother, somebody’s daughter. So there may be somebody out there wondering whatever happened to their loved one, like we had in Granby. We found her son, who never really knew what happened. He didn’t know if his mother had abandoned him or had died, so that’s one thing,” he said. “The other, obviously, is it’s very possible the person who did this may still be out there, and to the extent they may either pose an ongoing threat to the public safety or just to hold them accountable for what they did back in 1989. Either way, we’ve got to give it the old college try and do what we can do.”

Reach Domenic Poli at: dpoli@recorder.com or 413-930-4120.