Skip to content
June 20, 2019

Hunt for 1980s Massachusetts ‘Highway Serial Killer’ led to dead end

June 24, 2018
Former attorney — and suspected killer — Kenneth Ponte avoids the media while leaving a New Bedford, Mass., courthouse in 1989. (AP)

On July 3, 1988, a woman stopped to relieve herself along the side of a Massachusetts highway and opened the first page of a mystery. In the brush along the road, she spotted what looked like human skeletal remains with a bra wrapped around the neck.

An autopsy of the badly decomposed female corpse showed the cause of death was strangulation.

About three weeks later, a couple of bikers stopped along a road, also to relieve themselves, and found another corpse just a few miles from the first one.

Both bodies were along highways circling New Bedford, a city best known as the departure point for the doomed whaling ship in Herman Melville’s classic “Moby-Dick.” The bodies were in a similar position, on their backs, their feet pointed toward the highway. There were also similarities between the victims, both brown-haired and just over 5 feet tall.

Beyond that, police had nothing to go on, not a single clue as to who they were.

Some of the victims (top row, from left): Nancy Paiva, Sandra Botelho, Mary Rose Santos, (middle row) Dawn Mendes, Rochelle Clifford Dopierala, Robbin Rhodes, (bottom row) Debra Medeiros, Debra Greenlaw DeMello and Debroh Lynn McConnell.
Some of the victims (top row, from left): Nancy Paiva, Sandra Botelho, Mary Rose Santos, (middle row) Dawn Mendes, Rochelle Clifford Dopierala, Robbin Rhodes, (bottom row) Debra Medeiros, Debra Greenlaw DeMello and Debroh Lynn McConnell. (Obtained by Daily News)

A couple of months later, a detective poring over missing-persons files made an alarming discovery. Reports had been filed for four women, all around the same height as the two found along the road. All had drug problems, worked as prostitutes and were known to hang around the Weld Square section, a gathering spot for sex workers and junkies.

On Nov. 8, a maintenance crew stumbled across another body near the same road where the second had turned up. Police dogs specially trained to sniff out cadavers found two more corpses in November and December.

By then, there was no denying that a monster was on the loose in the area.

Eleven women, alike in appearance, age and lifestyle, had vanished between April and September 1988, Maureen Boyle, author of a 2017 book on the case “Shallow Graves: The Hunt for the New Bedford Highway Serial Killer,” told the Justice Story. “It was a very narrow window of when these women went missing.”

Nine bodies were recovered from roadsides around New Bedford, the last one in April 1989. Pinning down the identities was slow, painstaking work. After months of exposure, most were just skeletons with hair and a few bits of flesh clinging to the bones.

One of those bits of flesh gave police their first break. A corpse was found submerged in muck along the side of the road. Most of the tissue on the body was decomposed by the time the sniffer dog found it.

But one hand had remained above ground and, miraculously, yielded a fingerprint. Police sent the print off to a new database — the Automated Fingerprint Identification System.

The fingerprint revealed that the skeleton had once been Dawn Mendes, 25, a troubled woman with a history of drug and prostitution arrests.

Dental records and painstaking gumshoe probing eventually yielded the identities of the nine victims, all in their 20s and 30s and involved in drugs and prostitution. In addition to Mendes, they were Robbin Rhodes, 28; Rochelle Clifford Dopierala, 28; Debroh Lynn McConnell, 25; Debra Medeiros, 30; Nancy Paiva, 36; Debra DeMello, 35; Mary Rose Santos, 26, and Sandra Botelho, 24.

Investigators focused on the women of Weld Square, listening to their rumors, experiences and opinions. There were a lot of wild theories, but one name kept popping up when talk turned to creepy customers — Kenneth Ponte, 40.

Ponte was charged with one murdered, but the charge was dropped and he died in 2010.
Ponte was charged with one murdered, but the charge was dropped and he died in 2010. (New Bedford Police)

Ponte came from a respectable New Bedford family, but his life derailed when he discovered drugs in high school. After a short stint in jail on drug charges, he buckled down and earned a law degree and managed to pass the bar in 1980.

But he couldn’t resist the cocaine and heroin, and his shambling form was soon a joke around courthouses and a common sight in the seedier parts of town. Prostitutes knew him as a strange guy who would take them to his place where they’d do coke and watch dirty movies. Stories from prostitutes about cocaine-fueled encounters with Ponte and gossip about his freaky behavior crammed file boxes and fueled screaming headlines about his possible role in the deaths.

More damning, though, were Ponte’s connections to five of the victims, as girlfriends, drug buddies or clients for his law service. Dopierala used his home as a crash pad, and the two spent a lot of time together in the months before she vanished.

Other New Bedford characters fell under suspicion — a boyfriend, a mechanic, a fish-cutter and a stonemason. They were toughs with criminal pasts, which included, for some, raping prostitutes. But investigators could not dig up the evidence to prosecute.

Ponte became the sole target of the DA, charged in August 1990 with one murder. A year later, the charge was dropped. He died in 2010.

The case soon went cold, and the killer was never found.

As a young police reporter for the Standard-Times of New Bedford, Boyle covered the first highway-killing stories and has followed it ever since. She has never lost hope that the case may one day be solved. Perhaps technology not widely available in 1988, such as DNA testing, will bring a break in the investigation, which is still open.

Boyle said the mystery still haunts many citizens of New Bedford. “Thirty years later,” she said, “everyone still wonders where is he now.”

It’s particularly painful for the families of the lost woman who never got a final answer, Boyle said. “It has always been this open wound for them.”

Facebook Comments
Premium WordPress Themes Download
Download Premium WordPress Themes Free
Free Download WordPress Themes
Free Download WordPress Themes
free download udemy course