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Authorities re-open investigation into unsolved highway killings

NEW BEDFORD, Mass. --For the first time in almost two decades, authorities have reopened an investigation into a series of unsolved murders of women whose bodies were found along highways, giving hope to victims' families and a city that was terrorized by the killings.

In 1988 and 1989, the remains of nine women -- drug addicts and suspected prostitutes -- were discovered, while two other women reported missing at the same time were never found.

"My daughter is still out there. She's not just another drug addict. We have good memories of her, too," said Bob Cardoza, the father of Marilyn (Cardoza) Roberts, one of the women who was reported missing.

The "Highway Killer," or perhaps killers, was never caught. Tips dried up. Murder charges against one suspect, attorney Kenneth Ponte, were dropped for lack of evidence. Another suspect committed suicide.

But on Thursday investigators for Bristol District Attorney Samuel Sutter dug up the yard of a home once owned by Ponte, the first real action in the long dormant case.

Family members of the women watched the dig from a sidewalk. Retired investigators excitedly phoned each other to share the news and compare notes.

"It's hope, anyway," said Cardoza, whose daughter fit the profile of many of the women linked to the case -- a drug addict who frequented the Weld Square neighborhood, a tightly packed neighborhood then a hub for prostitution.

"We would like to have some closure and know what happened," he said.

It's unclear what prompted police to launch their single-day dig. State police officials told Cardoza the dig was part of the highway killings probe, he said. A spokesman for the district attorney wouldn't talk in detail about the effort.

Ponte declined to comment when reached Friday.

In the late 1980s, the killings seemed a harbinger of other ills encroaching on a once wealthy city made famous by Herman Melville's "Moby-Dick." Manufacturing jobs were disappearing. Cocaine and heroin were flowing into town faster than police could staunch the trade. Intravenous drug use was spreading a little understood illness called AIDS.

The combination of drugs, sex and murder put New Bedford in a lurid spotlight and terrified local women.

Vickie Murray, 53, recalled she was working the night shift at a Weld Square coin-operated laundry when the first bodies were discovered. One night around that time a glassy eyed man walked into the store, stared at her hard and blocked the door shut with his foot.

She charged past the intruder and fled next door for help, fearing she was looking at the Highway Killer. The man sauntered off harmlessly, but Murray said Friday her fear seemed reasonable at the time. She wonders if a killer is still out there.

"He might start off with drug addicts and prostitutes," she said. "Then you start thinking, maybe he'll just target anybody."

A street-savy New Bedford police detective was the first to notice that several prostitutes were missing, said Robert St. Jean, the chief investigator for former District Attorney Ron Pina. The magnitude became apparent when a stream of bodies were discovered along Interstate 195 and two local highways.

"They were mostly skeletal remains," said St. Jean, whose investigators puzzled over the crime scenes years before DNA and other forensic testing became widely available. "Even identification was a real chore."

Investigators got a court warrant to search Ponte's old home during the original investigation, St. Jean said. Dogs trained to detect cadavers didn't uncover anything suspicious. Nothing at the house tied Ponte to the killings, he said.

Ponte has said he had a relationship with one dead woman and served as an attorney for three other victims. He still lives in a rundown house in New Bedford strewn with trash. During an argument over money last month, he allegedly threatened to kill his mother and sister then himself, his sister wrote in a court affidavit.

In a 1990 interview with The Associated Press, Ponte said having his name linked to the killings had ruined his career as a lawyer and his life.

"When I walk up or down or any street little kids call me murderer," he said.

At one time, more than 30 investigators worked the highway killer case full time. One team created computer databases to sift for leads and connections. Police pressed witnesses to cooperate. They tried contacting an FBI profiler.

Facing re-election and a public safety crisis, Pina got a special grand jury to indict Ponte for the murder of one missing woman, Rochelle Clifford Dopierala, whose body was discovered in December 1988.

Pina, however, lost the election and a special prosecutor appointed by his successor dropped the charges against Ponte for lack of evidence in 1991. In the years since, investigators have occasionally sorted through tips or sent evidence out for DNA testing.

St. Jean said he believes his investigators were getting close, although he suspects more than one killer was at work.

"There's a lot of frustration," said St. Jean, who still fields phone calls from tipsters about the case. "I wish we could have had some extra time to pursue it. I think we were on the right track."

For Cardoza, one success would be simply finding the remains of his missing daughter Marilyn. His son Robert died of cancer in 1996.

"I go visit my son's grave," he said. "I tell him, 'Bobby, pass the message onto Marilyn, that I love her, too, but we don't have a place for her.'"


AP reporter Denise Lavoie in Boston contributed to this report.