Blonde, Blue-Eyed and Gone
Two girls from Connecticut vanish. Two from Southern Massachusetts are abducted and found dead. Are these high-profile cases connected?
Investigative journalist M. William Phelps is the author of over 20 books. He created, produces and stars in the hit Investigation Discovery (ID) channel series “Dark Minds,” which returns on February 27 at 10 p.m. His latest book, "Kiss of the She-Devil," is also out this month.
IT WAS 2011. One of those crisp, late September evenings we treasure here in New England. Walking around the Volunteer Firemen’s Carnival on the grounds of Brookside Park off Route 140, in Ellington, I ran into 71-year-old Judi Kelly. We knew each other from town. She’d read several of my books. I went to school with one of her daughters, who ended up becoming my daughter’s first dance instructor. But it was Judi’s missing child, 13-year-old Lisa Joy White, allegedly abducted on Nov. 1, 1974, that brought us together.
In a bouffant hairdo, teased beehive-high like the B-52’s Kate Pierson, Judi reminded me of one of those glamorous, pinup gals from the ’60s. She was always eager to talk, and one of those rare people who actually listened to what you had to say. Judi had heard I’d recently completed shooting the first season of my Investigation Discovery series, “Dark Minds,” a show that focuses on unsolved, cold cases. She congratulated me.
My daughter was dancing as part of an exhibition at the carnival. I thought that I might see Judi, who was, after some four decades, still an intrinsic player in the tri-town region dance scene.
“I’m planning on looking into Lisa’s disappearance,” I said.
Judi had this energy about her. When I mentioned how I wanted to profile Lisa’s disappearance to a national audience, she lit up. She said she’d been waiting for something like this since Lisa vanished from the Rockville section of Vernon 37 years ago.
“I may have a person (or persons) of interest in Lisa’s case,” I continued. “We think these guys could be responsible for the abduction and murder of three other girls, as well.”
Judi was stunned by this revelation.
“Judi, I can’t promise anything—but I will be bringing national attention to Lisa’s case after all this time and that alone might help bring her home.”
That “attention” was all Judi had ever wanted. Lisa is still considered missing. We didn’t say it, but standing there, we both felt that bringing Lisa home to bury would be enough. Judi never used the word “closure,” because it’s a fallacy the media has created for families of murdered children. In writing 21 books about murder, speaking to hundreds of grief-stricken family members, having been affected by an unsolved, brutal murder in my own family, the one thing I hear time and again is that there can never be closure. It doesn’t exist.
Obvious in Judi’s demeanor was that same guarded, shallow look I’ve seen on the faces of countless mothers who’ve lost children. With Judi, though, it went deeper because Lisa’s body had not been recovered. Loss was present and permanent, but clearly infused with a false sense of hope. Parents in Judi’s position face a tormenting dynamic: They walk around constantly wondering—they know their child is dead, but without a body, there’s always that chance.
“I’ve been going to the Vernon Police Department about Lisa just about every month for as long as I can remember,” Judi told me (although very recently she’d been unable to because of a recurring illness).
“I want to interview you for ‘Dark Minds,’” I said. “We’re looking at maybe spring/late summer .”
Judi looked at the ground, lost. Then: “I hope I make it.”
Heading into the summer of 2012, Judi had been gathering documents and photos for me. She’d collected hundreds. I spoke to her one day in late June. Her on-camera interview had been pushed back because of my production schedule.
“September’s right around the corner,” I said.
Judi warned me about the timing: “The cancer has gotten the best of me.”
I had no idea how sick she was. Nor that she’d written the email mere hours before checking into Hartford Hospital.
A few days later, on Tuesday, July 3, 2012, Judi Kelly died.
THERE ARE SEVERAL THINGS I recall from the late 1970s with a clear sense of nostalgia. One is that we moved from East Hartford to Vernon and my parents divorced. Second is the Bicentennial. Third would have to be that life seemed so much simpler; while death—especially the abduction and murder of a child—felt more tragic, shocking and rare. I remember seeing media reports of the Atlanta Child Murders and the arrest of Wayne Williams. I can still see Williams’ face, those gaudy, tortoise shell glasses covering a crazed look in his eyes, and his rather pronounced Afro. The horrible things Wayne Williams had been convicted of set a new standard for parents watching their children.
As I stumbled my way through Vernon Center Middle School, several names became synonymous with the idea of a ghostlike figure roaming through Tolland County, snatching up young females: Lisa White, Janice Pockett, Debra Spickler, Patricia Luce. These were the names of “the missing.” There was a predator in the area, abducting girls at will—this at a time when the Amber Alert system did not exist; there was no 24/7 reporting of missing children on television; or the fearful notion of sadistic serial killers and task forces set up to hunt them. The idea that a girl you knew personally had been here one day—walking down the street (as in Lisa White’s case), or parking her bicycle on the side of the road (Janice Pockett)—and gone the next, was sobering. In those days, we walked everywhere without any supervision. No one worried. We played kick-the-can until dark. We came and went from our homes without having to report to mom or dad, providing we were at the dinner table on time.
The basis for my television series is simple: Think Silence of the Lambs meets Catch Me If You Can. I am an investigative journalist; five of my books focus on serial killers. In 2006, I met criminal profiler John Kelly, who had been working with an incarcerated serial killer as a consultant on unsolved cases. My relationship with Kelly and his killer was the inspiration for “Dark Minds.” The serial killer we use helps me look into unsolved murders. He allows me to step into the mind of the monster I am tracking. Kelly, a psychotherapist and addiction specialist, helps me keep my mind and emotions in check, in addition to assisting in my understanding of the sociopath. As strange as this might sound, the three of us work as a team.
The names Lisa White and Janice Pockett were in the back of my mind as I began work on the first season of “Dark Minds.” I had profiled the Connecticut River Valley Killer of the 1980s, which reinvigorated my interest—both personal and professional—in Lisa and Janice’s disappearances. Not that I thought the Valley Killer cases were connected. But those memories from childhood flooded back. So as I thought about season two, Janice and Lisa were at the forefront of my mind. What I never saw coming was the potential connection to two extremely high-profile murders New Englanders have been familiar with for over a decade.
Based on the U.S. Department of Justice numbers, the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children reports nearly 800,000 children younger than the age of 18 “missing” each year, or an average of 2,185 children per day—staggering numbers.
Just over 500,000 are attributed to runaways and other non-nefarious reasons, while more than 200,000 children are abducted by family members, the DOJ claims. More than 58,000 children are abducted by nonfamily members. Yet only 115 of those children are “the victims of ‘stereotypical kidnapping,’ crimes that involve someone the child does not know or a slight acquaintance that holds the child overnight, transports the child 50 miles or more, kills the child, demands ransom, or intends to keep the child permanently.”
What we know is that Lisa White waited until her mother, Judi Kelly, then a waitress at a local restaurant, left for work at 4:30 p.m. on Nov. 1, 1974—Lisa was grounded because of some trouble she’d gotten into the night before—and then walked to Prospect Street in the Rockville section of Vernon two miles from her home to hang out with a friend. Lisa was wearing green pants and a blue denim jacket. Near 7:30 p.m., Lisa left her friend’s house, headed back home from Prospect Street so she could beat Judi.
She hasn’t been seen since.
Initially, investigators pursued Lisa’s case as a runaway. Lisa left her mother a note on that day. In part, Lisa said she was “in love” with an older boy … “and maybe you think I’m a little girl, but I’m not.” She never said she was running away. But the tone of the note would imply as much.
In the days after Lisa went missing, Judi told the Hartford Courant that she harbored an “unbearable fear” “realizing Lisa was gone, maybe dead. … I’m her mother and I’ve got to know where she is.”
For 37 years Judi never wavered from that position.
In the scope of 10 years, 1968 to 1978, ten girls (including Lisa and Janice) vanished from Tolland County. Some of the girls’ bodies have been recovered, others have not. I looked at several of these cases and I could not find links between Lisa, Janice and any of the missing others. A law enforcement source investigating the cases told me, “Lisa’s disappearance could be connected to [Janice’s] … There are some general common factors to … these cases, [but] nothing substantial was developed.”
Janice Pockett left her Rhodes Road home in Tolland on July 26, 1973—about six miles from where Lisa disappeared over a year later—to fetch a butterfly she’d placed under a rock just off the side of the road a tenth of a mile from her home. Janice’s family found her bicycle on the side of the road near the woods, but 7-year-old Janice was gone. Her body, same as Lisa’s, has never been found.
Something that struck me as I read through the enormous amount of material associated with these cases was a 1975 Hartford Courant article. The Courant reported how a 7-year-old girl had been abducted (and released an hour later) in Sturbridge, Mass., and police were trying to determine if that abduction was related to Janice’s. The description of the perpetrator and his vehicle, along with the location, were of great interest to me: White male, late 20s, in peak physical condition, brown hair, mustache, driving a “yellow Pinto.” From my years of research, I was familiar with an alleged pedophile and murderer from that area fitting this same description.
Lisa and Janice share some of the same features—fair skin, blond hair and blue eyes. They could have passed for sisters. When you’re investigating cases you believe could be connected, you need to be mindful of consistencies. Serial killers preying on children do not choose their victims at random. They make choices based on a preferred-victim “checklist,” fitting into a preferred, polished fantasy. John Wayne Gacy, for example, chose teenage boys. It’s not evidence, but helps build a profile of a possible perpetrator.
|Lisa White, 13, disappeared on Nov. 1, 1974 from Vernon.||Janice Pockett, 7, disappeared a year earlier from Tolland.|
|Molly Bish, 16, was abducted and murdered in 2000. Her body was found in Palmer, Mass.||Holly Piiarainen, 8, was also abducted and murdered in 1993.|
Studying Janice and Lisa’s cases, I could not overlook a possible connection to two murders in the Sturbridge/Warren area of southern Massachusetts: 10-year-old Holly Piirainen and 16-year-old Molly Bish. Regardless of a 27-year gap between the Pockett (1973) and Bish (2000) abductions, all four girls—Pockett, White, Bish and Piirainen—went missing under eerily similar circumstances within the same general area. All of the girls look alike and share similar features. The major difference is that Molly’s and Holly’s bodies were recovered. The person of interest (POI) I mentioned to Judi during our talk at the Vernon carnival, along with two of his brothers, fit flawlessly into a matrix of these four abductions when we placed them inside. Hard as John Kelly and I tried, we could not exclude any of these men from suspicion in any of the four cases.*
[*Because our POI and his brothers have not been convicted of these crimes, I cannot name them. For the purposes of this article, I will refer to each as the Hunter, the little and middle brother.]
One could say the way in which a young woman was abducted, the location, her looks, hair and eye color are mere coincidences. Still, when we placed the Hunter and his brothers in the middle of our investigation and worked to eliminate them, we’d have to be ignorant not to focus on them. The Hunter—who is serving 25 years for stabbing his live-in girlfriend to death in 2008, nearly decapitating her—was working with his brothers a few miles from Comins Pond in Warren, Mass., where Molly Bish was abducted (he was also born in that same town). He frequently hunted in the woods where Molly’s body was later found (12 miles away) in Palmer, Mass. One of his ex-wives told me, “He never came home with game after a hunting trip.” His daughter said, “He would come home at night covered in blood.” His daughter also claimed he repeatedly raped her. He killed their pets. He “buried things in our basement.” As vile as it is to hear (and for me to write), a friend of his told me they were once sitting in a car near a playground and the Hunter turned to him and, pointing at a young blond girl, said, “Boy, I wouldn’t mind me some of that young, tight stuff.” The Hunter’s middle brother lived two miles from where Holly Piirainen was abducted. The Hunter’s little brother had been living in Stafford, the town just north of Tolland and Vernon, when Janice and Lisa went missing. The Hunter frequently visited Stafford. (Both brothers currently live in other states.)
I interviewed Lisa White’s sister, Aprille Falletti. She owns and operates Aprille’s Danceprints in Ellington, a company Judi built from the ground up in memory of Lisa.
“I’ve always believed Lisa is buried in the woods in Stafford,” Aprille, who was 10 at the time Lisa went missing, told me. Aprille said she sees “a man in a flannel shirt, shovel in hand, standing over my sister.”
I showed Aprille a photo of the Hunter. She explained that Lisa hung out and partied with older boys, even young men (recently uncovered documents tell me Lisa knew “men” from Holland, Mass.). The photo of the Hunter had been taken near the time Lisa was abducted. He would have been in his early 20s. And, same as that description from the 1975 Courant article, the Hunter had a mustache, solid build, and drove a yellow Starfire (a vehicle very similar to a Pinto).
Staring at the photo, Aprille’s lower lip quivered. Her body shook. She backed away and did not speak, placing her hand to her mouth. Tears came. Then: “I know I have seen this guy before … Look at the cold chill coming over me.”
Had Aprille seen the Hunter with her sister?
In my business, a visceral reaction is important. For instance, I showed Aprille photographs of some items recently found in the Hunter’s home, hoping she might recognize something of Lisa’s. She took a moment. “Um … maybe that one. But I cannot be sure.”
I showed her photos of other men connected to these cases. There was no physical reaction.
Aprille went on to explain that her sister had been in Hampden, Mass., and Stafford the night before she disappeared. Lisa was arrested for underage drinking. Documents also connect Lisa to being in Holland, Mass., near this time.
We look for connections. It’s not science. It’s a process of interpretation. If a known killer—and alleged pedophile—lived in the area where a girl went missing, logic tells us he has to be a prime suspect.
The Hunter suddenly left the area soon after Molly Bish disappeared and John Kelly named him publicly as a POI in Molly’s case. Moreover, a few days after the Massachusetts State Police released a sketch of a man smoking a cigarette Molly’s mother Magi Bish saw at Comins Pond the day before Molly went missing, the Hunter put his house up for sale. The sketch is a close match to the Hunter. The Hunter’s little brother owned a yellow Starfire. A second sketch was drawn from the memory of Holly Piirainen’s brother, who had been with Holly on the day she was abducted. The sketch is a facsimile of the Hunter’s middle brother, whose niece and former sister-in-law, when I placed the sketch in front of them, unflinchingly said in unison: “It’s [the middle brother]! No doubt about it.”
|The Hunter and his accomplice? (left) Police sketch of a man smoking a cigarette that Magi Bish saw at the pond where Molly was a lifeguard the day before she disappeared; (right) a sketch based on Holly Piirainen's brother's memory, who was with her on the day she was abducted. The sketches bear a striking resemblance to The Hunter and his middle brother.|
I obtained photographs—of children’s barrettes, hair scrunchies, hair ties, etc.—from a former law enforcement source close to the Bish/Piirainen cases. The items were found inside a trailer the Hunter owned. I call them items, but I believe they’re trophies: personal effects taken from the young women and girls the Hunter raped and murdered. Serial killers often keep mementos to remind them of the rape and/or kill. I was hoping to tie the Hunter to the missing and dead with these photographs.
No one I interviewed recognized any of the trophy items—and the Hunter is not talking. The only hope lies in a cigarette butt found at the scene of Molly Bish’s abduction. I’m told the FBI is analyzing it for clues.
I don’t know that any of these cases are connected. In fact, I have reports that Lisa was seen by a half-dozen people in the weeks and months after she disappeared. But what I do know is that I cannot exclude the POIs John Kelly and I developed—and, chillingly, we could connect another four blonde, blue-eyed girls [murdered in the same vicinity] to these same three men. Indeed, the more we focus on the three brothers, the guiltier they look. We’ve handed our findings over to the Connecticut State Police (who are, I’m told, actively investigating Lisa and Janice’s cases once again) through a source in the Massachusetts State Police.
Now we wait.
My aim is not to solve cases. It is to rekindle interest, hoping that someone remembers something and the information we uncover helps law enforcement move one step closer to identifying a strong suspect.
“Can she see down from Heaven and feel all my grief?” Judi wrote in the days after Lisa disappeared. “If I only knew where she is, I could live with it.”
I was never able to give Judi the answers she deserved. She died before I could even offer our Hunter/siblings theory. But being the believer I am, I know Judi is in a place where she has all the answers she’ll ever need.
For passing along information confidentially regarding the disappearance of Lisa White and Janice Pockett, please call the Connecticut State Police Missing Persons tip line at (800) 367-5678. In the cases of Molly Bish and Holly Piirainen, please contact the Massachusetts State Police at (413) 505-5993. If you'd like to contact M. William Phelps with any information about these cases, or other cold cases, please email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
For more about M. William Phelps, please visit him at his website.