They keep finding bodies by my grandparents’ house

Police have found eight bodies in a peaceful stretch of woods. Do they lead to a serial killer?

My grandparents have lived in a split-level ranch on a quiet suburban street since 1957. Strawberries grow in their backyard, shaded by trees whose branches have supported clotheslines, bird feeders, and swinging, laughing grandchildren.

They live about two blocks from 15 state-owned wooded acres, a tree-thick marsh near a strip mall. Like all proper Connecticut forests, it is covered in poison ivy.

Very few people walk through these woods, which makes them a perfect place to hide bodies.

Police have found eight bodies there: one in 1995, three in 2007, and four more this spring. All but the first victim, say police, were killed by the same person. All waited years to be identified.

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Why has it taken so long?

* * *
At the edge of the woods —Sara Morrison / Boston.com Staff

She was found near some dumpsters in September 1995, wrapped in sleeping bags and plastic. She had been shot in the head, and her body was still warm. She didn’t have any ID.

Police initially believed she was white or Hispanic, though by 2007, the Hartford Courant would report she might also be Asian. She looked to be between 17 and 20 years old.

Police in New Britain, where the body was found, combed through missing-persons databases, but they couldn’t find a match. No one stepped forward to identify her when they circulated post-mortem and retouched photos of her face. In 2000, Gov. John Rowland authorized a $50,000 reward for information leading to her killer.

Nothing.

In 2011, police announced that there was a DNA match, but that only deepened the mystery: Tests showed that she was the daughter of another unidentified woman, who had been found in Tolland, Massachusetts, in October 1995.

“It is hard to believe that a family, who is missing two of its members for 15 years, has not stepped forward,’’ David Procopio, spokesman for the Massachusetts State Police, told reporters at the time.

* * *

When my mom was 8 years old, she got in a fight with her mother and ran away from home. She hid in the woods and left a note. My grandmother keeps it in a photo album.

Undear Mommy,

I’m running away from home, just like I said. I won’t tell you where I’m going. I’m trying to make you worry.

I should be back by 12:00.

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She was.

* * *

In 2007, a hunter found a human skull in the woods. After what was described by the Courant as a “thorough’’ search, police found 50 bones belonging to three different women.

“The bones lay in clusters, roughly in a straight line leading into the woods,’’ the newspaper reported.

The bones had been there for years. Both a forensic anthropologist and a medical examiner said they didn’t believe any of the bodies had been buried. As a result, police conducted only a “minor excavation,’’ according to New Britain police chief James Wardwell.

They returned to the area repeatedly to search, but officers didn’t find anything for eight years. The most important thing to do was to identify the owners of the bones. “We knew if we identified the victims, we could backtrace everything else,’’ Wardwell told Boston.com.

Unfortunately, the state forensic science lab was in charge of finding DNA matches for the bodies. And at the time, the lab was a mess.

It lost its accreditation in 2011 after federal audits found a years-long backlog of cases and an overworked, disorganized staff.

Perhaps that explains why the first 2007 body to be identified is the only one whose identification did not hinge on the state lab’s work.

In 2009, the FBI made facial reconstructions from two of the skulls found in the woods. They were shown on the news.

Wardwell took a call from a woman who thought one of them might belong to her sister-in-law.

She was right.

Diane Cusack was 48 when she was last seen in July 2003. She had several larceny and drug arrests. She was finally identified in early 2011.

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Her family had not reported her missing.

* * *

Joyvaline Martinez was last seen in October 2003. She was a star athlete in high school but had drug problems as an adult, and prostitution charges on her record. When she didn’t show up for her own 24th birthday party, and missed her mother’s birthday a week later, her family knew something was wrong.

Her sister, Sandra Martinez, told the New Britain Herald that she called the New Britain police but was referred to the East Hartford police, because that was where Joyvaline had last been seen alive. She said the East Hartford police didn’t seem very interested in taking the case. Joyvaline wasn’t reported missing until March 2004 — six months after she disappeared.

“I felt like everyone was brushing me off,’’ Sandra told the Herald.

Wardwell said there is no record of the Martinez family reporting Joyvaline’s disappearance to the New Britain police department. Sgt. Michael DeMaine of the East Hartford police department told Boston.com that there were no records of the Martinez family contacting the department until March 2004, and the missing persons report was filed that same day.

DeMaine said people with drug arrests sometimes disappear intentionally. They may not want to be found, especially by police, he said.

But former Connecticut state victim advocate Michelle Cruz said that when adults go missing, police often assume that their disappearances are voluntary unless proven otherwise. This is especially true for women who may have been involved with drugs or prostitution.

“A lot of times they’ll hear she was a prostitute or had a hard drug history, and even though we know that, historically, they’re often preyed upon by murderers, they don’t take it seriously,’’ Cruz said.

“Criminals know if they get rid of the body, police take the thought of ‘No body, no case,’’’ said Jan Smolinski, who became an activist for the missing after her son, Billy, disappeared in 2004. “Look how long it’s taken in New Britain.’’

A 2007 Connecticut state study found that it was largely up to departments to decide how to handle missing person reports. They had to immediately accept reports of anyone under 15, and report anyone under 18 to the state police’s missing child information clearinghouse.

But those laws didn’t cover missing adults.

Connecticut had no centralized database for them and no way to cross-reference them with unidentified bodies, Cruz said.

Cruz and Smolinski were among those who pushed for a 2011 Connecticut law requiring that police accept missing persons reports immediately, regardless of age, and submit them to statewide and national databases. (Two cases were solved immediately once entered into the national database, Cruz said.) The state police also formed a unit that focuses specifically on missing persons.

Until the law’s passage, it would have been more difficult for police to connect a woman’s body found in New Britain with a woman reported missing in East Hartford, just across the Connecticut River.

That woman was Joyvaline.

* * *

My grandma loves to quilt. When I go to my grandparents’ house, I know that, at some point, I will be asked to pick out fabrics for a new quilt.

One year she said my quilt was going to take longer to finish than she thought, because she was making quilts for other people: People who were destitute and couldn’t afford their heating bills. Hospital patients. People in wheelchairs. Children traveling to and from foster homes.

“Quilts are really a comfort,’’ Grandma said. “I make them pretty fluffy.’’

I asked her the other day why she and Grandpa do things like this.

“Your grandfather and I need to feel as if we’re doing something for people who aren’t as lucky as we are,’’ she said.

* * *

When the three bodies were found in 2007, Martinez’s family guessed she might be one of them. Her mother gave a DNA sample, which was submitted in 2008, but no matches came back.

A match should have been easy.

The samples from both women were entered into the correct databases, but the lab didn’t configure the system to automatically scan for matches, lab director Dr. Guy Vallaro told Boston.com.

“I view it as a mistake,’’ said Vallaro, who took over the lab four years later.

He was hired after a series of reforms the lab undertook to reclaim its accreditation.

Wardwell, the New Britain chief, said he was, “frankly, angry’’ about the missed match — and the five years his officers spent without a lead.

“But we have to be forward-looking now,’’ Wardwell said.

In September 2013, nearly a decade after Martinez missed her birthday party, her family finally found out what had happened to her.

* * *

Identifying the third 2007 body was already a longshot, because so few remains were found.

Worse, the bones were labeled incorrectly when they were submitted to the lab from the medical examiner’s office. This error wasn’t discovered until 2011, Vallaro said.

Once the correct remains were submitted, it took several years and tests to extract a usable DNA profile. Last September, police announced that not only did they have a DNA profile for the third body, but they also found a match.

Mary Jane Menard, 40, was a substance abuse counselor with years of sobriety. In 2002, she had back surgeries and her family believes painkillers caused her to relapse. In October 2003, they told the Herald, she went out for cigarettes and never came back.

Menard’s mother provided the DNA samples that led to her daughter’s identification, but she didn’t live long enough to see it: She died in late 2008. Her obituary said she was predeceased by her daughter.

* * *

The first body, from 1995, took the longest to be identified.

Elizabeth Honsch and her mother, Marcia Honsch, were last seen in 1995. They weren’t reported missing until 2014, but it didn’t take long to identify them after that. Elizabeth’s body was the one found in the woods. Her mother’s body was the one found in Tolland a week later.

Marcia’s husband and Elizabeth’s father, Robert, was arrested in Ohio in August 2014. Since 1995, he had changed his last name, gotten married, and had three children. He was 70 years old at the time of his arrest. Elizabeth was 16 when she died.

He pleaded not guilty to the murders and will stand trial next year. The Honsch murders are not believed to be connected to the other bodies found at the scene.

Those bodies, the police said last year, were the work of the serial killer.

* * *

When I was very young, my Grandpa and I took a walk down the street to a footpath in front of the woods. I saw something stuck in the ground. I dug it up. It was a little plastic toy.

“You found buried treasure!’’ Grandpa said.

Had I really? To the best of my knowledge (gained from cartoons), buried treasure came in giant wooden chests full of gold coins and jewelry. This hardly seemed to qualify as treasure.

My Grandpa explained that treasure is subjective. It’s whatever is valuable to you.

Even if it isn’t valuable to anyone else.

* * *

In 2014 — seven years after Cusack, Martinez, and Menard were found — the Greater New Britain Serial Murder Task Force formed to find their killer. Eleven years after the three women were last seen alive, a reward was set at $150,000.

Last month, the task force went back to the woods, accompanied by an FBI cadaver dog. The springer spaniel could smell bodies underground.

It did.

Police cleared 3 feet of earth across an acre — and found four more bodies.

They found four more bodies.

Identifying them was relatively easy, thanks in large part to the reforms at the lab. Identifications that used to take years now take months, or in this case, even less time.

As of Monday, all four victims have been identified. One may hold the answer to who killed the others.

William Devin Howell pleaded guilty to manslaughter even though 33-year-old Nilsa Arizmendi’s body was never found. Her blood in his van was enough for police to establish that something terrible had happened to her.

Arizmendi had turned to prostitution to support a drug habit. In July 2003, after she hadn’t been seen in about a week, her sister reported her missing to the Wethersfield police department. She told them that she was sure Arizmendi would never have abandoned her children.

Arizmendi’s boyfriend told police that he last saw her getting in a blue van with broken windows covered in plywood. She was supposed to get drugs from a man they knew as Devin, but the van drove away. Police figured out that Devin was William Devin Howell.

Howell shouldn’t have been on the streets at all. For most of 2003, he was wanted by police after he failed to show up for an appointment with his probation officer, the Courant reported. When Arizmendi was reported missing, Wethersfield police went to the New Britain home of Howell’s girlfriend, Dorothy Holcomb, according to court records.

She insisted that only she and her children were home, though police could see a man through her window. They asked about a van on her property, because it matched a description of the one that had taken Arizmendi away.

At that point, police said, Holcomb became “belligerent.’’

They went to the New Britain police department and found a photo of Howell — and recognized him as the man in the window.

Court records do not say why the police did not return to Holcomb’s house.

Howell was found in North Carolina two weeks later and sent back to Connecticut in January 2004. He was sentenced to six months in prison in April. The same day, the Courant reported, his van was found in North Carolina. Police found large amounts of blood inside.

In September, DNA tests came back confirming that Arizmendi’s blood was in his van. But Howell was no longer in prison: He had been granted an early release in July. Police had to search for him again. In the meantime, the lab found the blood of a second, still unknown, woman in the van. It had soaked through the van’s carpet and into the plywood underneath.

In May 2005, Howell was arrested in Virginia and charged with Arizmendi’s murder.

Howell pleaded guilty to first-degree manslaughter in 2007. At his sentencing, he maintained that he was innocent, and Arizmendi’s blood was in his van because she got in a fight with her boyfriend. He offered his condolences to her family. He was sentenced to 15 years in prison.

“The case is far from over,’’ the Herald said.

A few days later, the hunter found Joyvaline Martinez’s skull.

Story continues after timeline below:
* * *

Last month, after the four bodies were recovered but before Arizmendi was identified, police said they believed everyone found in the woods — except for Honsch — had the same killer.

Unnamed law enforcement sources told multiplemediaoutlets that Howell was a suspect in all seven murders.

Officially, police would only say they had a suspect, and they did not believe him to be a threat to the general public.

“I can’t imagine how many people didn’t get hurt because Mr. Howell was convicted of manslaughter,’’ Wethersfield police chief James Cetran said after Arizmendi’s identification. “I’m sure there are a lot of people who are better off because of it.’’

* * *

When I was in middle school, I went to a Sukkot party at my grandparents’ synagogue. They introduced me to all of their fellow temple members, including a lesbian couple.

I was surprised. I had always equated religion with intolerance towards homosexuality. I wondered how my grandfather felt.

“Our rabbi is very liberal,’’ Grandpa said. “Sometimes I wish he was more liberal.’’

* * *

The last three people whose bodies were found this spring were Melanie Ruth Camilini, Danny Lee Whistnant, and Marilyn Mendez Gonzalez.

According to the New Haven Register, Camilini was 29 when she disappeared in January 2003. She was last seen in Waterbury, but her mailing address was in the small town of Seymour. Her mother reported her missing to the Seymour police department in April 2003. Her family said she would never have left her two children for so long.

“Melanie has a substance abuse problem, and it was not uncommon for her to leave for periods of time,’’ Seymour police spokesman Lt. Paul Satkowski told the Register before her body was found.

Melanie’s mother described her as “very intelligent and artistic, a talented pianist.’’

Satowski described her as having “potentially worked as an escort, probably to support her habit or her means of living.’’

Whistnant, 44, was born male but lived as a woman, using the name Janice Roberts. He disappeared in June 2003. In a statement, his family said they spent the last 12 years hoping and praying “that he would someday simply come home to us. Tragically, that dream and hope was not to be realized.’’

“At least now we know what happened to our beloved family member.’’

Gonzalez was 26 years old when she disappeared in May 2003. She was last seen leaving her Waterbury apartment. She had two children, an 11-year-old and a 7-year-old, and would be a grandmother if she were alive today.

She was the last to be identified, and Wardwell said in a news conference on Monday that he doesn’t expect any more bodies to be found.

* * *

From Los Angeles to New York, serial killers prey on prostitutes and drug addicts. Their crimes sometimes go unnoticed for years. Victims’ families sometimes say the police didn’t take their disappearances seriously enough.

The news media’s tendency to focus hard on victims who are clean-living, well-off, and white is so well-documented it even has a name: Missing White Woman Syndrome. None of the victims who were reported missing fit that description.

“Unless you’re young and beautiful like the Natalie Holloways, you don’t get this kind of attention,’’ Smolinski said.

A few years ago, New York Daily Newsreferred to a possible victim of a serial killer in Long Island as a “dead hooker’’ in its headline.

But the police in the cases near my grandparents’ house said they didn’t undervalue victims’ lives.

“The person that did this was hoping that these folks wouldn’t be missed,’’ Wardwell said. “That’s not the case. We investigate every missing persons case aggressively.’’

Still: For 20 years, the institutions that were supposed to protect or find justice for these victims let them down. We may never know if their deaths could have been prevented if someone had done something sooner. We do know that they all deserved better, and they all waited far too long.

The woods behind the strip mall in 2015, post-excavation. —Sara Morrison

When Thanksgiving comes around, people joke about how they’ll have to see and listen to their racist or sexist or homophobic grandparents. I never do.

My grandparents are the most open-minded and accepting people I know. They don’t judge. They don’t blame people for being born into bad circumstances, and they don’t think those people are beneath their consideration. They don’t brush people off. They try to help people who fall through the cracks.

Maybe, if more people were like them, we wouldn’t keep finding bodies by their house.

Victims of the New Britain, Connecticut, murders:

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