Stonehill professor publishes book about New Bedford murders


By Kenneth J. Souza
Anchor Staff
kensouza@anchornews.org

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EASTON, Mass. — Maureen Boyle remembers all too well when several women were found dead along the highways of greater New Bedford in 1988.

At the time, the award-winning journalist was working at The Standard-Times in New Bedford, and she would go on to cover what collectively became known as simply “the Highway Killings” extensively for the city’s daily newspaper.

Now, with the 30th anniversary of the discovery of the first victims approaching next year, the director of the journalism program at Stonehill College in Easton has published a riveting account of the crimes and her first-hand experiences with some of the key players in the tragedy.

“I had planned to do this book a number of years ago, and it just didn’t seem right,” Boyle recently told The Anchor. “Nothing seemed to align properly, and part of it was I kept hoping that someone would be arrested.

“A few years ago I realized it was coming up to the 30-year anniversary and I was thinking that people were starting to forget or misremembering what happened. The story was being told through individuals and friends who were telling other family members. But I thought it needed to be told in a retrospective of what happened then.”

Boyle’s “Shallow Graves: The Hunt for the New Bedford Highway Serial Killer” (ForeEdge/University Press of New England) reads more like a novel than a non-fiction true crime book, and the author said that approach was intentional.

“I wanted to bring people to that period of time, so they could experience what it was like back then and make it very readable for people today,” she said.

Stylistically, “Shallow Graves” is reminiscent of author Henry Scammell’s “Mortal Remains: A True Story of Ritual Murder,” that was published in 1991 about the similarly disturbing Satanic cult murders in Fall River.

“That is one of my favorite books,” Boyle said. “He did such a wonderful job on that, and I was lucky to have met him and interview him at The Standard-Times when it first came out.”

There were at least nine women attributed to the New Bedford serial killer between July 1988 and June 1989, and another two who disappeared around the same time and may have become victims as well.

“One of the issues I had with the book is because there are so many characters and individuals, I didn’t want to confuse the reader,” Boyle said. “And because there are unfortunately so many victims, I really did have to focus on just a few of the families. It doesn’t mean the other families didn’t matter; but for the sake of the reader, I had to use a very narrow focus in terms of which families I included in the book.”

As with any good true crime book, “Shallow Graves” attempts to bring the rogues’ gallery of potential suspects into sharper focus. While the identity of the alleged serial killer remains unknown to this day, Boyle does delve into some of the likely culprits, including Attorney Kenneth C. Ponte, stonemason Anthony DeGrazia, and Daniel Tavares Jr.

Although Ponte was the only person indicted for one of the murders, the charges against him were later dropped, and he remained in New Bedford, maintaining his innocence until his death in 2010.

“I think he was shopping around a book, but he never did anything with it,” Boyle said.

Even though Ponte remains one of the more plausible candidates to this day, Boyle isn’t convinced of his guilt. In fact, she doesn’t tip her hand as to the killer’s identity in the book. But she hopes it might rekindle interest in the case and lead to an eventual solution.

“Some people might say it’s unfair to point to an individual if they’re dead and not able to defend themselves,” she said. “Well, it’s equally unfair to the families not to know who did it. And with the advent of additional forensic testing and advances in forensic science, maybe there might be more evidence or someone will come forward and say: ‘This is the person who did it.’”

Describing the book as “less of a who’s who and more of a whodunit,” Boyle said one of the main reasons she wanted to write it was to offer the surviving family members some sense of closure.

“In any type of murder investigation, families are often very angry — especially if someone hasn’t been arrested,” she said. “And you want to channel the grief someplace. Whether it’s at the media, or at the investigators, or at the D.A. And you saw that with some of the families in the Highway Killings. They were angry because they wanted someone to do something and they wanted and deserved an answer … and they still deserve an answer.”

Boyle feels one of the contributing factors that hampered the investigation at the time was that emotions were high and people were frustrated that the killer remained at large.

“In the heat of the investigation — even 10 years after that — emotions were still very raw and investigators were still reluctant to talk publicly about the case, because they also harbored the hope that the murderer would be found,” she said. “But after 30 years they also want people to understand what happened during that period of time.”

The book attempts to explain how 1988 was “a very different era” in terms of technology, Boyle said.

“You can’t look at the investigative tools of today and ask why didn’t they use them in 1988 … because they didn’t exist,” she said. “Today there are surveillance cameras everywhere. Everyone has a cell phone. Everyone is taking pictures and there is video evidence of everything. You can track people with GPS. You can find someone’s background with a keystroke. Even DNA testing was still evolving (back then).”

As just the second-ever title published on the crimes that are often referred to as the worst serial killings in Massachusetts since the Boston Strangler, Boyle’s book holds the unique distinction of being told from the perspective of someone who was directly involved from day one. And she hopes her first-hand knowledge will encourage further study in the case.

“Given how serious the subject is, you don’t want to say things like, ‘I hope people enjoy it,’” she said. “But I hope they learn something from it and that they feel it is a good read and it does generate some interest in the case.”

While the solution to the Highway Killings may remain as enigmatic as that of the crimes associated with the aforementioned Boston Strangler, Jack the Ripper or Fall River’s own Lizzie Borden, Boyle thinks the notorious crimes all share something in common.

“At the end of the day, no one knows who did it,” she said. “I hope that there is an answer someday, and that the answer will be really crystal clear. You can suspect this person or that person, but what’s frightening is there have been so many people who could have been the killer. And I think that’s what’s very scary. When you look at the sheer number of possible suspects, it’s frightening.”

For more information about the book visit www.shallowgravesthebook.com or the author’s blog at www.maureenboylewriter.wordpress.com.


© 2017 The Anchor and Anchor Publishing  †  Fall River, Massachusetts