THORNTON, N.H. (AP) _ Just before dawn on the brutally cold morning of Dec. 10, 1982, Roland Gooch awoke to see flames leaping from a ditch, devouring his neighbor’s car.
``It was an inferno,″ he recalls. ``You couldn’t even distinguish whether anybody was in there or not.″
Two people, a mother and son, were. Both perished. A tragic accident, authorities ruled then.
Fourteen years later, however, officials believe the original investigation was gravely flawed and that Janet Dow, 40, and 18-year-old Steven were dead before the car left the road, the crash and fire staged to cover two homicides.
The husband and adoptive father of the victims was Richard Dow, a part-time police officer and former state trooper. The accident was investigated by ex-colleagues, two of whom later rose to top State Police jobs, and their conclusions were founded almost entirely on information Dow provided.
The case was reopened in 1993 after Karen Saffian, Dow’s girlfriend for eight years after the deaths, went to police. Based on things Dow told her and her own deepening concerns she was in danger, Ms. Saffian told officers she believed Dow might have killed his postal worker wife and adopted son, perhaps for insurance money or to escape his marriage.
Now, with no indication an arrest is near and yet another anniversary of the deaths just past, Ms. Saffian has gone public. She asserts the failings of the first investigation may go beyond honest error or poor police work.
``It is my contention,″ she says, ``that the true nature of Janet and Steven’s death was covered up by the officials who were involved,″ to protect rising careers that might have derailed if Dow wasn’t protected.
The Associated Press, in dozens of interviews over two years, reviewed the original investigation and the allegations of a cover-up.
Attempts by the AP to locate Dow, now 51, were unsuccessful. He ended the relationship with Ms. Saffian in 1993 and left New Hampshire. Authorities refuse to call him a suspect and won’t say where he lives.
They also say the new investigation is taking so long because of painstaking efforts to build a meticulous case that will stand up in court, especially 14 years after the event.
Assistant Attorney General Mark Zuckerman says the original investigation was flawed by today’s standards but was standard for the time.
``Nobody, I submit to you, looking at a report that old today, would see anything out of line given how similar incidents were investigated then,″ Zuckerman says.
Not so, says an accident reconstruction expert assisting the new investigation.
``It’s the type of thing you might give as an exam question: How many things can you find wrong with this?″ said Thomas Bohan of Medical & Technical Consultants of Portland, Maine.
In the accident report, then-Trooper Brian Van Deinse quotes Dow as saying his wife and son left in a huff after arguing whether Steven could stay home from school to repair his car’s carburetor.
According to Dow, they decided to leave the carburetor at a gas station where Steven worked and so put it in a bucket of gasoline inside Mrs. Dow’s new Saab hatchback. The police concluded Mrs. Dow drove off the road a few hundred feet from her home, possibly distracted by splashing gas and her son climbing into the back to steady the bucket.
Van Deinse suggested the victims might have been knocked unconscious or killed by patio bricks hurtling forward from the rear, where Dow said Steven had stacked them to weight the car for better traction.
Bohan called the theory ``inherently suspicious″ and said ``red flags″ should have prompted basic questions.
``Here we have an accident report which pictures this car as careening down the road, the driver leaning back to see what is going on in the back and flying off the road,″ Bohan says. ``So, let’s see how far that car will go. It will be airborne, not just slump down in the ditch.″
Investigators ran an identical car off the road last year and damaged it more seriously than the Dow car. They concluded the Saab had been tipped into the ditch.
On that basis, they said it was improbable the bricks could have hit with enough force to harm the Dows or that the jolt would have produced sparks to ignite the gasoline.
In a second re-enactment, they spilled gasoline in a Saab, tipped it into the ditch and created electric sparks. There was no fire. Flames erupted then died down when a lighted flare was thrown into the car.
``Gasoline doesn’t ignite as easily as one thinks,″ Bohan said at the time, ``spoiling the plans of many a would-be arsonist.″
He said there were too many assumptions and odd circumstances _ ``the son being in the back; very little damage yet neither adult was able to get out; something, somehow, having to spark to start the gasoline. It wasn’t just one thing that was a little bit unlikely. It was a whole series.″
The 1982 investigation was conducted by State Police Troop F at Twin Mountain, where Dow had worked for nine years, resigning in 1981. Most of the troopers working the case knew Dow. The troop’s commander and assistant commander, Richard Tuck and Thomas Kennedy, were at the scene.
Ms. Saffian alleges Tuck was vulnerable to Dow’s coercion because, Dow told her, the commander was involved in unethical activities, including fixing traffic tickets and playing favorites with garages called to accidents.
She believes such allegations would have destroyed Tuck’s career _ he rose to executive major, the No. 2 position in the State Police, before retiring in 1990 _ and possibly that of Kennedy, who succeeded Tuck and retired last July.
In a recent interview, Tuck said the attorney general’s office directed him not to comment for fear it would hamper the investigation. Kennedy scoffs at suggestions of a cover-up, but acknowledges that mistakes were made in the original investigation.
Fourteen years ago, says Thornton Police Chief Walter Joyce, local officers asked few questions because the State Police were in charge.
But he remembers that not everyone swallowed Dow’s story.
And, after the re-enactments, Joyce said, ``There was always a doubt in a lot of our minds.″