May 1988. Fall River, Massachusetts: Debra Medeiros tells her mother Olivia that she’s going to visit her boyfriend in New Bedford, Massachusetts. A lifelong drug user who had never moved out of her mother’s house, Olivia was no stranger to Debra leaving for long stretches of time.
Several days later, Olivia received a call from Debra’s boyfriend. They had gotten into a fight on the night of May 27th, and he hadn’t seen her since. He thought she was back at home with her mother.
July 3rd, 1988 Freetown, Massachusetts: Debra’s body is found off the side of Highway 140. A total of nine confirmed victims will be found on highways near or in New Bedford, Massachusetts. Some, like Debra, are found in groups. In her case, she was one of 5 bodies found within 6 miles of each other.
There was a killer in New Bedford. The search for this serial killer will span years. It will take detectives to different countries, and their own backyards. This is the story of the New Bedford Killer.
Debra Medeiros. Nancy Paiva, Debra Greenlow Demello, Dawn Mendes. Debroh Lynn McConnell.
These first five women were all found along Rt. 140 or I-195. Highways around New Bedford, Freetown, and Dartmouth, Massachusetts. They had been strangled. Ligature marks and bruises on their necks were found. These were not kind deaths. Witnesses had placed them all in New Bedford before their disappearances. Police were shocked. 5 bodies in such a relatively short time frame is unthinkable. Police began focusing their efforts on New Bedford, particularly the Weld Square area, known to locals as a gathering point for the city’s sex workers and those struggling with addiction. Someone had to know something.
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The connections were found immediately. Nearly all these women knew each other or had professional relationships. They all tied back to Weld Square. All 5 women were either struggling with addiction, sex workers, or both. Some said the police were kicking the can down the road, putting less energy into the cases since it involved addicts and sex workers.
Serial killers prey on the helpless, the invisible people. They do this because they know the police won’t investigate. The police don’t often attribute humanity to these victims. Disappearances are shrugged off because, hey, they were in the wrong line of work. How many of these women would still be alive today if police had checked sooner?
December 10th, 1988 Dartmouth, Massachusetts: A six body is found in a gravel pit just off the highway. This is Rochelle Clifford Dopierala. She has been beaten to death.
March 28th, 1989 Freetown, Massachusetts: A seventh body is found dumped off along Route 140. This is Robbin Rhodes. She has been strangled
March 31st, 1989 Westport, Massachusetts: An eighth body is found alongside Route 88. This is Mary Rose Santos. She has been strangled
April 24th, 1989 Marion, Massachusetts: The final definitive victim of a monster now known as The New Bedford Highway Killer is found alongside I-195. This is Sandra Botelho. She has been strangled.
May 1989 Weld Square: A picture is making the rounds at the square. Detective Loraine Forrester is asking questions. The photo she has is of Anthony DeGrazia. He is a 26-year-old construction worker and frequent visitor to Weld Square. Someone here knows DeGrazia. Margret Medeiros is shown the photo. She states that the man in the photo looks similar to a man who had previously attacked and tried to strangle her. This is the information Forrester was looking for.
Medeiros is brought to a secret grand jury. She testifies that DeGrazia looks like the man who attacked her. Degrazia is arrested and questioned, but never indicted by the secret grand jury. Later, District Attorney Ronald Pina asked that a warrant be placed for DeGrazia, accusing him of 17 alleged attempted rapes and assaults on sex workers in the Weld Square area.
Degrazia is notified and surrenders himself. He will spend the next 13 months in jail before being released due to a lack of evidence. We will be seeing Degrazia again though.
August 1990 New Bedford, Massachusetts: Attorney Kenneth Ponte is indicted by a grand jury in the murder of Rochelle Clifford Dopierala. Ponte, then practicing as a lawyer, had a sordid past. District Attorney Ronald Pina suggested that Ponte had beaten Dopierala to death over a blackmail plot. Ponte had previously represented Dopierala in April 1988, shortly before her disappearance. In September of 1988, Ponte moved to Florida, just 3 months before Dopierala’s body would be found.
Ponte was arraigned on murder charges in September 1988. He entered a plea of “absolutely not guilty” and posted a $50,000 bond.
July 17th, 1990: One month after his release, Anthony Degrazia is found dead in his ex-girlfriend’s parent’s backyard. He is laying face down under their picnic table. No evidence has ever been found that could tie Degrazia to any of the crimes he was accused of.
July 29th, 1991: all charges are dropped against Ponte due to lack of evidence.
The case had gone cold.
Meanwhile, in Lisbon, Portugal, a strange pattern was emerging. Someone was killing sex workers. 5 alone had been killed between 1992 and 1993. The killer had been dubbed The Lisbon Ripper, due to his M.O. Matching that of Jack the Ripper. He was disemboweling prostitutes. The Portuguese Polilcia Judiciaria sent two detectives to New Bedford. New Bedford has a large Portuguese population, and they believed the highway killer and the Lisbon Ripper were one and the same.
The FBI also sent two of its agents to Lisbon in an information-sharing capacity. The killings in Lisbon were also linked to killings in Belgium, the Netherlands, Denmark, and the Czech Republic between 1993 and 1997. The prevailing theory was that the Lisbon Ripper/ New Bedford Highway Killer was a long-haul trucker. Nothing came of the investigation at the time.
The case remains cold, with a few developments.
2007: Daniel Tavares Jr. is currently in prison for the murder of his mother. He sent a threatening letter to prison staff claiming to be the New Bedford Highway Killer. Upon investigation, the body of Gayle Botelho, who disappeared in 1988 from New Bedford, was found buried under a tree in his former backyard. He has not admitted to any further killings.
May 2009: Kenneth Ponte’s front driveway is dug up by police. Nothing is found.
January 27th, 2010: Kenneth Ponte is found dead in his New Bedford home. Foul play was not suspected.
2011: A 21-year-old man named Joel applied to participate in a Portuguese reality show called Secret Story. In the show, contestants try to guess each other’s secrets while concealing their own. Joel’s secret was that his father, Jose Pedro Guedes was the Lisbon Ripper. Guedes was arrested and confessed to 3 of the Lisbon Ripper murders. He could not be prosecuted due to Portuguese statute of limitations. Guedes also resided in Germany in the early 90’s, around the same time as the other murders attributed to the Lison Ripper.
It is unknown if Guedes ever lived in the United States.
So what do you think? We have a range of suspects, but nothing concrete. Two of the suspects are long dead, one is in Portugal, and the other is in prison. Is it one of them? Is it someone no one ever considered? Let me know on Instagram and Twitter @TheUnsolved. I’m also on Facebook at Dread The Unsolved. You can send tips and theories to TheUnsolved@DreadCentral.com
Thanks for watching.