Discovery of ex-fugitive Donald Webb’s remains subject of new book
Nearly 600 miles separate Dartmouth from Saxonburg, Penn. — towns small and distant enough that residents of one community may not have heard of the other.
But the two locations share a common bond both unexpected and eerily tragic: Both towns serve as home to ghosts.
On Dec. 4, 1980, in Saxonburg, the town’s much-loved police chief Gregory Adams was killed in the line of duty after a tough struggle with jewel thief and career criminal Donald Webb, a seemingly routine traffic stop that ended in murder.
For 37 years, local state and federal investigators searched the country for Webb. That search ended in 2017, in a location and amid circumstances no one could have predicted: The backyard of Maplecrest Drive in Dartmouth.
The story of the chief’s murder, the search for Webb and the ultimate discovery of his body is explored in “The Ghost,’’ the newest true crime book by Maureen Boyle, a veteran journalist and director of the journalism program at Stonehill College.
The book follows her previous effort, “Shallow Graves,’’ which looked at a series of murders in young women along New Bedford area highways in the 1980s. Those killings were never solved, a very different ending than “The Ghost’’ investigation.
“It’s weird that this case ends in Dartmouth, of all places, and in a neighborhood that is fairly quiet,’’ she said.
Ghosts haunt this case, Boyle noted, which prompted the title.
There was Chief Adams, the murder victim who left a wife, two sons and a town that the author said still grapples with grief and shock.
“His memory just haunts the town of Saxonburg,’’ she said.
Then there was the chief’s killer, Webb, who became known as “the ghost’’ because law enforcement could never find him, no matter how hard investigators tried.
They followed tips.
He was in Florida, they thought. Or Rhode Island. Or Massachusetts.
But he could never be found.
“Every time they thought they had him in their sights, he wasn’t there,’’ Boyle said.
Webb was finally located July 13, 2017. But by then, he, too, had become a ghost.
His remains were unearthed in the backyard of 28 Maplecrest Drive, where he had apparently been living for years with his wife, Lillian Webb.
Through the years, his health, affected by injuries he sustained when the chief fought valiantly for his life, worsened. He ultimately suffered a fatal stroke in 1999.
His wife buried him, as he had instructed her to do, in a hole in the backyard of the home where he had hidden from law enforcement.
Prior to his death, Boyle said Lillian Webb had spent three weeks under the cover of darkness digging a four foot by four foot hole that would serve as the burial site for one of the country’s most wanted killers.
Now all that was left of Webb returned to the light of day.
He was clad in a T-shirt and boxer shorts and covered with an empty bag of lime.
For decades, Webb lived in the Dartmouth home, where he could roam freely — ducking into a well-hidden closet when a stranger approached.
He stayed there with his wife, who “was very, very careful in making sure he stayed hidden,’’ Boyle said.
She kept him out of the public eye in life and for 18 years after his death.
But Lillian Webb was also the one who gave up the ghost.
She told law enforcement where her dead husband could be found, in exchange for immunity against any criminal charges and the dismissal of a civil suit filed by the late chief’s family.
On a rainy July day, she walked into the yard with law enforcement. When she reached a certain section, she tapped her foot.
Cadaver dogs and searchers went to work, searching slowly and painstakingly — an effort Boyle compared to an archeological dig.
During the search, amid the throng of law enforcement personnel and vehicles on scene, an out-of-state vehicle stood silent vigil.
The current Saxonburg police chief and mayor drove the chief’s cruiser to the scene. The vehicle was parked not far from where all that remained of Webb was about to be recovered, standing silent vigil.
As Lillian Webb knew they would be, the remains were positively identified as those of Donald Webb.
Law enforcement had their man. But not what they really had hoped for, Boyle said.
“That was not the way they wanted this to end,’’ she said. “They wanted it to go to court.”
Instead, in a case that haunted so many people for so many years, justice became yet another ghost.
“The Ghost’’ is available at Barnes & Noble in Dartmouth, Partners Village Store in Westport and on amazon.com. More information is available at Maureenboylewriter.com.