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Three Years After Bodies Found, Serial Killings Still Mystery

August 5, 1991 GMT

NEW BEDFORD, Mass. (AP) _ It started with Debra Medeiros, her decaying, partially clad body discovered in woods off Route 140.

Then came Nancy Paiva, Debra DeMello and six more women - all found maimed along southeastern Massachusetts highways between July 1988 and April 1989.

Some believe the 3-year-old investigation fell apart last month when a special prosecutor dropped the murder charge against one suspect and another suspect died of a drug overdose.

Judy DeSantos, sister of the second woman found, fears something worse.

″I’m afraid the murderer will come back and do it again,″ she said.

Three years, nine victims, several suspects and two district attorneys after Medeiros’ body was found, authorities in the New Bedford serial murders case are no closer to catching a killer.

″Sure, we’re all frustrated by the lack of progress,″ Mayor John Bullard said. ″No one wants to face the possibility that these crimes might never be solved.″

James Fox, a professor of criminal justice at Northeastern University, said the case gets tougher with each passing day.

″The longer it takes, the colder the trail becomes,″ he said. ″And this trail is ice cold.″

District Attorney Paul Walsh acknowledges authorities have few new clues and he must assign investigators to more recent crimes.

″We’re dealing with a morbid subject, but maybe one of the best things that could happen is if we have a fresh victim,″ he said.

Walsh and police say the killer could be dead, or in jail, or part of a team that has split up.

And many people have lost interest.

Several victims were prostitutes, doing business in a seedy section of this whaling community 50 miles south of Boston. Most used drugs or drank heavily.

″Because of the girls being junkies, there hasn’t been any public outcry,″ DeSantos said. ″If it had been somebody’s mother getting off the bus, then they’d be marching in the streets.″

One year ago, with less than a month left in his re-election campaign, then-District Attorney Ronald Pina brought charges against Kenneth Ponte, a local lawyer who knew several of the victims, in the murder of one of the women.

Walsh, Pina’s opponent, called the indictment a political stunt and won the DA’s job. The indictment was dropped this week on the recommendation of an independent special prosecutor.

″This has been a long, terrible three-year nightmare ending today,″ Ponte said as he left the courthouse last month.

But for others whose lives were touched by the tragedy, the recent events have brought back painful memories.

After the death of her daughter, Debra DeMello, Madeline Perry counseled drug and alcohol addicts.

″I’m working for my Debbie,″ she said. ″I’m working for the ones out there that can be saved.

But when word leaked out that the charge against Ponte would be dropped and two days later a second suspect, Anthony DeGrazia died of an overdose, media interest was rekindled and her own memories of the grizzly case were stirred.

″It was like the day she was killed all over again,″ Perry said. ″There we were watching her pictures on TV and watching them lift bags out of the roadway. It was like it started all over again.″