I was in 6th grade for this case and I still remember it well. It scared me because I had been driven on these roads my whole life and had always thought of them as safe, and not the stomping ground of a serial killer. In 1988 there were believed to be 11 victims of the New Bedford Serial Killer, at least that we know of. The killer was never caught, there is also the possibility that he moved on to another area and continued his killing spree.
There were many suspects in this case. If you are interested in reading more about the case and the suspects, you should find the book, “Shallow Graves” by Maureen Boyle. Serial Killers – New Bedford Highway Serial Killer | Shallow Graves: The Hunt For The New Bedford Highway Serial Killer (shallowgravesthebook.com)
For this post, I want to talk about the victims and what is known on this case.
Victim – Debra Medeiros, 30 years old, of Fall River lived with her mother. Debra was known to police and family to have had long standing substance abuse issues but no record for prostitution. Last seen by her boyfriend in New Bedford after a fight, and reported missing on 5/27/88. She was the first of the bodies found and she was identified in December of 1988. Her body was found 7/3/88 by a woman who went to relieve herself just in the woods on the side of the road on 140 in Freetown. Her remains were severely decomposed with her body positioned on her back with her feet pointed towards the highway. Her cause of death is strangulation, she had a bra around her neck, and she was found only partially clad. Her boyfriend was not considered a suspect. After her death, her mother counseled drug and alcohol addicts in honor of her daughter’s loss.
Victim – Nancy Lee Paiva, 36 years old, of New Bedford. Nancy had gone to secretarial school, but dropped out. She was married at 19, divorced and had 2 teenage daughters. Nancy was known as a very supportive mother and grandmother. At the time of her death, she had a steady boyfriend, who was a drug dealer known to police. She was last seen walking home from a bar called “Whisper’s Pub” on July 7, 1988 after a reported fight with her boyfriend in the South End in the early hours of morning. Nancy reportedly had substance abuse issues but was not known to be into prostitution. Her relationship with her boyfriend had been rocky with domestic violence issues. Her nude body was discovered beside Interstate 195 Westbound in Dartmouth July 30, 1988 by two men who were riding motorcycles. Her body was found in the same position as Medeiro’s – On her back with her feet pointing towards the highway. Nancy’s cause of death is also believed to be strangulation. Her boyfriend is not a suspect in her death.
Victim – Debra Greenlaw Demello a 35-year-old mother of 3 ; a 15 year old daughter, Chandra and 2 boys who were 8 and 3 at the time of her death. She had a brother, Wayne who said that Debra had struggled with substance abuse issues since her teenage years. She had walked away from a prison work-release program to which she had been sentenced due to a prostitution charge on June 18 and was last seen in New Bedford, July 11, 1988. Her body was found off the eastbound Reed Road ramp of Interstate 195 by a state highway crew on November 8, 1988. Debra’s nude body was in area with trees, clothing strewn in the branches. She was found with some belongings of another victim, Nancy Paiva.
Victim – Dawn Mendes. 25, last seen in New Bedford, September 4, 1988 walking from her apartment to a family christening party. Mendes was one of 10 children and was the mother of a 5 year old boy. She had a history of prostitution and drug use. Her body was found on November 29, 1988 on the westbound Reed Road ramp off Interstate 195 by a search dog, mostly skeletal remains but her hand was able to yield a fingerprint which lead to her being identified. Her mother raised her son after her death.
Victim – Rochelle Dopierla, 28, of Falmouth missing since late April, 1988. Her body was found December 10, 1988 in a gravel pit along Reed Road beneath a tree grove, about two miles from Interstate 195, by people riding ATVs. She was partially clothed and beaten to death. She had dated, and stayed at the home for suspect, Kenneth Ponte who was arrested for her murder but the charges were dismissed due to lack of evidence. This was the only time charges were brought in this case. Many contend he is one of the main suspects in this case, but I don’t believe he is the strongest suspect. That honor belongs to Anthony Degrazia. Both of the men are now deceased. Rochelle had testified against another (third) man who had raped her, but he is not suspected in this case. She was last seen with Nancy Paiva’s boyfriend, an ex-convict. He was cleared in both deaths and is not a suspect.
Victim – Robin L. Rhodes, also referred to as “Bobbie Lyn” was found March 28, 1989 along Route 140 southbound in Freetown by a search dog. She was believed to have gone missing sometime in March or April of 1988. Rhodes had dated suspect Kenneth Ponte. She had a young child and was addicted to heroin and cocaine. While she was never involved in prostitution, she knew many of the other victims and was friends with Mary Rose Santos.
Victim – Mary Rose Santos – a 26-year- of New Bedford. She was a mother of two, who was dropped off on July 16,1988 by her husband, with whom she had recently reconciled, near the downtown bus station and last seen dancing at “The Old Quarterdeck Lounge” five hours later . Friends said her husband had no idea she was working the streets to help pay bills, and she was known to have a substance abuse issue . Mary Rose Santos’ nude body was found March 31, 1989 along Route 88 in Westport by two boys, a beer bottle was found with her. Suspect Kenneth Ponte had represented Mary Santos in a civil case and helped her husband make flyers after her disappearance.
Victim – Sandra Botelho, 24, a mother of two young sons who were 4 and 6 years old. Botelho was known to have a significant substance abuse issue and engaged in prostitution. Botelho reportedly left her apartment on August 11, 1988 at 11pm and never returned. She was the final body found, located in the woods along Interstate 195 in Marion on April 24, 1989. Her body was nude and reportedly was folded into a fetal position.
Victim – Deborah Lynn McConnell, 25, of Newport, RI. Also spelled Deborah Lynn McConnell, mother to one daughter. Deborah was last seen May 1988 by her dad after she buried her mother at the cemetery. She is believed to have been the 3rd victim. Her body was found December 1,1988 off Route 140 northbound in Freetown, through a cadaver dog search. She was found nude with a bra around her neck. The family knew something was truly wrong when she did not see or call her 10 year old daughter on her birthday.
Suspected Victim – Never Found – Christina Monteiro, 1. Last Seen May, 1988. Christina had child and had a known substance abuse history. Her description was African-American female. Brown hair, brown eyes with scars on both wrists and a scar near her left eye. She is between 5’3 and 5’5 and 110 lbs. She has initials and words tattooed on her arms but I could not find what the words were. She was wearing a shirt, blue jeans and sneakers when she was last seen.
Suspected Victim – Never Found – Marilyn Cardoza-Roberts, 34. Last Seen April of 1988. She had a loving family who believed she moved to the West Coast to live with a relative. She was last seen in June 1988. They reported her missing in Dec 1988. She was neighbors with Monteiro, who is also still missing, which makes this even stranger to me – what are the odds? But then, many of the victims knew each other and ran in the same circles, and even the suspects.
I have always thought this case was fairly similar to the Long Island serial killer case, although there are certainly some differences. All of the victims in that case had a similar profile with drug and prostitution activity. The activity is alleged to have started in the early 90’s, just after the killings in New Bedford stopped. New Bedford Police have always operated on the idea that the person was local, and prostitutes and substance abusers can be out of touch with family, and transient which makes them ideal targets for serial killers. Netflix has a movie about the Long Island case called, “The Lost Girls” that readers might find interesting. There is also a documentary that was discussed about the New Bedford Case, but I could not find it at this time. I will update the post if I do locate it.
Hopefully, the DNA work that is being done will bring answers to the families that to this day look for them. There were 15 children who deserve answers about what happened to their mothers. Anyone with information can contact the New Bedford Police Department at (508) 991-6300, the Unsolved Homicide Tip Line at 1-866-SOLVE-07.