Author hopes to shed light on unsolved South Coast murders
On July 30, 1988, two motorcycle riders pulled over on Interstate 195 westbound near the Reed Road exit in search of a place to use a restroom. Instead, they found the remains of Nancy Lee Paiva.
It was the second body found in what would become known as the New Bedford Highway Killings. In all, the bodies of nine women were discovered across Bristol and Plymouth counties, and two additional women reported missing are believed to have been the victims of the serial murderer whose identity is still a mystery.
The murders are the subject of Maureen Boyle’s newest book, Shallow Graves: The Hunt for the New Bedford Highway Serial Killer. The former Standard-Times reporter extensively covered the case at the time, and aims to shed light on the case on the eve of its 30th anniversary.
“Someone got away with murdering nine, or more likely, 11 women,” Boyle said. “I really hope to renew interest in this case and I hope people come forward… I hope those who knew who the killer is will come forward and say ‘this is who it is and here’s the proof.”
Speaking at a talk at Barnes and Noble on November 17 Boyle explained that despite the discovery of the body in Freetown and the first body discovered in Dartmouth, law enforcement had not yet realized a serial killer was on the loose.
It wasn’t until John Dextradeur, a detective at the New Bedford Police Department, began investigating an unusually high number of prostitutes with similar appearances and known drug problems who had been reported missing.
On November 8, 1988, the body of Debra Greenlaw DeMello was discovered near the Reed Road exit in Dartmouth, this time by a crew of state cleanup workers.
That’s when Dextradeur took his hunch to the Bristol County District Attorney’s Office, and the Massachusetts State Police’s top cadaver dog was brought in to search the Interstate. On November 29, the dog discovered the remains of Dawn Mendes along the Reed Road exit ramp. The last body found in Dartmouth was in a gravel pit off of Reed Road, which is now a housing development.
As the bodies piled up, police mounted an extensive investigation but it did face problems. Boyle explained that because the victims were prostitutes, many of the witnesses in the case were drug addicts with difficulty remembering specific dates, leading to uncertainty in the official timeline.
“If you don’t have a structured life, it’s very difficult to pick out when you were at a specific time,” Boyle said.
Technology now taken for granted like DNA and surveillance cameras were also not as widespread.
“In 1988 security cameras were in banks, they weren’t on the street,” Boyle said. “Every case is broken or made with DNA now but in 1988 DNA was in its infancy.”
Although there were many suspects Boyle said police honed in on two in particular. One was prominent New Bedford lawyer Kenneth Ponte.
“He was the focus early on in the investigation,” Boyle said. “He knew all of the victims, but that was not unusual.”
He was also a recovered heroin addict who beat his addiction and went to law school, but in the 1980s it is believed he became addicted to cocaine. Most importantly, he left the New Bedford area in November of 1988, right as the killings stopped - the last person reported missing was in September of that year.
The District Attorney charged him on one count of murder in connection to the case, but charges were dropped by a special prosecutor due to a lack of evidence, Boyle explained. It’s the only time in the case criminal charges have ever been filed.
Anthony DeGrazia was also briefly investigated. The Lakeville resident had attacked prostitutes before, and was being charged with raping several prostitutes but the charges were dismissed. He was never charged with a crime in connection to the murders.
DeGrazia died in 1991, and Ponte died in 2010.
Detectives pursued a wide array of additional leads and suspects. Rumors circulated that the murders were being recorded for a "snuff film," a supposed trend of filming murders and suicides and distributing the films outside the United States. No evidence of such a film could be found, Boyle noted. Other motivations explored included the theory that the killer was driven to kill by either losing a family member to AIDS or the killer being diagnosed with the disease.
At the time, patients at Bridgewater State Hospital's sexually dangerous ward were on furlough, and several inmates were known to have access to cars during that time, but no evidence could be found linking any patient to the murders.
The case remains open, and unsolved.
Boyle’s book pieces together the mystery through interviews with retired police detectives who worked the case, court transcripts, police records, and grand jury testimony. It is available in bookstores and on Amazon.