In July 1971, Rita Curran, a 24-year-old schoolteacher living in Burlington, Vt., was found by a roommate in their apartment, strangled. No killer was found, and the case went cold.
But more than a half-century later, Burlington authorities said Tuesday they have finally identified Curran’s killer as William DeRoos, Curran’s upstairs neighbor, using DNA evidence obtained from a cigarette butt found next to Curran’s body.
In 2014, Burlington authorities submitted the DNA from the cigarette to the New York Office of Chief Medical Examiner, which sequenced male DNA. But it didn’t match any DNA in criminal databases.
A new team of detectives renewed the investigation in 2019 and had the DNA sent to a private genealogy database. There they found partial matches that would turn out to be DeRoos’s relatives. They then came across marriage records showing DeRoos had been living near Curran with his then-wife, who changed her story about his alibi when Burlington detectives recently re-interviewed her.
“We’re all confident that William DeRoos is responsible for the aggravated murder of Rita Curran,” Lt. Jim Trieb, a detective who led the team, told reporters at a news conference Tuesday. But because DeRoos is dead, he cannot be held accountable, Trieb said.
On the night of the murder, after a quarrel with his wife, Michelle, DeRoos left the couple’s apartment for a “cool-down walk,” Burlington’s acting police chief, Jon Murad, said at the news conference. DeRoos returned from his walk after his wife had fallen asleep, Trieb said.
The next morning, police knocked on the couple’s door and informed them of the killing, Trieb said. When asked whether the couple had seen or heard anything, DeRoos said no.
“Immediately upon closing the door, he turned to Michelle and told her that if the police ever showed up again, she was to tell them that he had been home all night” because of his criminal history, Trieb said. She complied, repeatedly telling police that her husband hadn’t left the home that night.
Only when detectives approached her for interviews after renewing their investigation did she inform them of her conversations with her ex-husband from 1971, police said.
Thomas Chenette, a police detective who interviewed her recently, said he “truly believed” that she did not know of the murder, and that she had lied to save her then-husband from a crime that she believed he had not done. “She was young, she was naive and she was newly married and she was in love.”
DeRoos’s ex-wife, who now goes by another last name according to the Associated Press, could not be reached for comment early Wednesday.
Shortly after the murder, DeRoos went to Thailand to become a Buddhist monk, Trieb said. “Michelle barely ever saw him again,” he said. The marriage soon ended, according to Trieb. DeRoos returned to the United States and married again but died in San Francisco in 1986 from a drug overdose, Trieb said.
Parabon Nanolabs, a Reston, Va., DNA technology company that helped match the DNA, congratulated the Burlington police in a statement. “#Parabon is honored to have assisted in the identification of her killer. Our hearts go out to the Curran family.”
“She was a teacher, and a singer and a giver. And she was loved,” Murad said. “The random violence of her murder left a stain on our community and it devastated her family. And for 50 years they have waited for justice. Rita’s parents died waiting for it.”
“Rita and I lived at home until we were 24 years old,” said Tom Curran, Rita’s brother, who spoke at the news conference. “The difference was that two weeks after Rita moved out, her life was cut short.”
“I don’t think so much about the guy who did this as I do about Rita, and my parents and what they went through. I pray to my parents and I pray to Rita,” he said.