Haunted Dartmouth: Unsolved murders and spooky stories from a local ghost hunter
‘Tis the season for scares, and South Coast residents have no shortage of spooky stories.
In fact, Dartmouth native Craig Tjersland has spent the better part of two decades collecting evidence of the paranormal and unsolved mysteries from all over Southeastern Massachusetts and posting them to his website.
It all started when Tjersland became a police dispatcher in Freetown in 1999.
“I worked the midnight shift. There’s a little bit of boredom there,” he laughed. “I started doing some reading — there wasn’t so much internet then.”
After digging into local ghost stories and myths, he decided to investigate to find out if any of it was true.
“It turns out most of it is not,” he said wryly.
Now Tjersland works as a dispatcher at UMass Dartmouth, and he continues to look into unsolved cases, grisly crimes, and ghosts in his spare time, even visiting haunted buildings with like-minded friends.
In the beginning, he said, he didn’t believe in ghosts. “Today, because I’ve seen some things and I’ve heard some things...I’m gonna say yes [I believe].”
Some of those things include one night at a church in Dartmouth — he would not disclose which one — where he and friends were investigating reports of eerie occurrences.
In a building without plumbing and electricity, odd lights and noises are less easily explained away, he noted.
“We actually had a bench move,” he said. “When you drag a bench over the floor, it makes that horrific noise — it actually moved.”
Another local spot is a paranormal hotspot, according to Tjersland. “Town Hall has got some issues,” he said. “They built on top of a cemetery. They allegedly moved the bodies.”
“The third floor is the creepiest...I have had many people in Town Hall call me and say, ‘Hey, I’ve heard footsteps, and I’ve heard doors slamming.’”
“Is it ghost-related? I don’t know,” he added.
Over the years, word got out about his hobby.
“I had several people coming forward, including police officers,” he said. “One actually gave me a case file for his aunt.”
It was a murder case from 1940, a 22-year-old woman — Irene Perry — who disappeared from Dartmouth Street one June afternoon, only for her remains to be discovered a month later in the brush off Woodcock Road near Russells Mills village. No one ever caught her killer.
Many of the stories Tjersland investigates and writes up are unsolved murders, disappearances, and other creepy crimes.
“Unsolved crimes are fascinating,” he said, adding with a laugh. “Let’s be honest, we like a little creepiness now and then.”
“I am actually less afraid of the paranormal,” he admitted. “I’m more afraid of the unsolved crimes, because...nobody was ever brought to justice, or brought forward. So that person or persons is still out there. That’s what’s creepy to me.”
Two Dartmouth cases really drive him crazy, Tjersland said: the 1977 murder of Debra Coelho, whose skeleton was found over a year later by children playing in the woods off Old Fall River Road, and the 1961 stabbing of Sterling Parkinson at Chippy’s Restaurant near Clark’s Cove.
He said those two really get under his skin “because I think if those crimes happened today, those crimes would have been solved.”
“That’s some of why I feel compelled to write about those people,” he added. “Because those cases are long gone, nobody pays attention to them. And that’s not right.”
Here are summaries for just a few of the town’s eeriest hauntings, disappearances, legends, and unsolved murders, according to Tjersland.
A recreation area that became an amusement park in the early 20th century, then was abandoned in 1987 after a series of accidents in the 1960s and 1980s, two of which caused the death of two people.
In 1982, the park was also the scene of a murder when Charles Chaples killed night watchman Raymond Santos.
Tjersland notes that as the park fell into disrepair, stories of hauntings emerged.
It was said the spirit of a worker who was killed after falling while working on the coaster could be seen walking on the tracks before disappearing from the top. Other reports claim carousel music and the odor of clam cakes can still be made out on the grounds.
The former amusement park was razed in 2012 to make way for a new housing development, which has been partially completed.
One of the FBI’s top fugitives was discovered to have been living in a secret compartment in a Dartmouth home for decades after he shot and killed a police officer in Pennsylvania.
Donald Webb’s body was found in the backyard of his Maplecrest Drive home in July 2017. He had been living in hiding for years. After he died of a stroke, his wife Lillian buried him in the backyard.
A former schoolhouse, Town Hall was built on land that used to contain the Dartmouth Almshouse, which provided charitable housing to those in need. According to Tjersland, a 1900s photo of the Almshouse hanging in the town clerk’s office shows a cemetery in front of the building.
Tjersland notes that the seven bodies buried on the property were removed to the South Dartmouth cemetery in Padanaram in 1917.
But he states that there have been reports of noises — footsteps and doors slamming — in the building at night, particularly on the third floor.
The Highway Murders
From April to September of 1988, 11 young women went missing. Nine bodies were found dumped near highways, with four victims found on or near the Reed Road I-195 exit in Dartmouth. The others were found in Freetown, Marion, and Westport. Two missing women were never found.
Five different men were suspects in the case at different times, but none were prosecuted.
Tjersland cites investigators as saying the right person wasn’t arrested, and they doubt the case will ever be solved.
Charles M. Allen Jr.
UMass Dartmouth student Charles Allen went missing in October 2007 after leaving a series of strange voicemails on his parents’ phone. According to Tjersland, after a few sightings around town, including one instance where he broke into a College Lane home barefoot and shirtless, he was never seen again.
Tjersland notes that the South Dartmouth housing complex used to contain a children's hospital, then later a convent for a reclusive order of nuns, and a cemetery.
He describes how in 1966, the Discalced Carmelite Order of Nuns cut themselves off from society, taking vows that did not allow them to be seen by outsiders except for family. According to Tjersland, the nuns communicated with handwritten notes or through a metal screen.
In March 1985, one of the nuns was charged with setting five fires at the convent, one of which had caused an explosion.
After the convent closed in 1987, four nuns who had been buried on the property were removed and reburied in New Bedford. There is now a housing development on the land.
For more on these and other unsettling tales, visit Tjersland’s website at southcoastmurdersmysteries.weebly.com.