|Connecticut River Valley Killer|
Sketch of possible suspect
|Also known as:||Connecticut River Valley Serial Killer, Valley Killer, New Hampshire Serial Killer|
|Number of victims:||7+|
|Span of killings:||1978–1987 (speculated).|
|State(s):||New Hampshire, Vermont|
The "Connecticut River Valley Killer" refers to an unidentified serial killer believed responsible for a series of similar knife murders mostly in and around Claremont, New Hampshire, and the Connecticut River Valley, primarily in the 1980s.
In the mid 1980s, three young women disappeared from the Claremont, New Hampshire area. In 1985 and 1986, the skeletal remains of two of the vanished women were recovered within about a thousand feet of each other in a wooded area in Kelleyville, New Hampshire. The condition of the remains made the cause of death difficult to determine, but certain factors pointed to multiple stab wounds. Between the recovery of the first and second bodies, a 36-year old woman was stabbed to death in a frenzied attack inside her Saxtons River home. Ten days later, the remains of the third missing woman were found; postmortem examination revealed evidence of multiple stab wounds.
At this point, investigators began examining prior homicides in the area and found two previous cases, in 1978 and 1981, that further reinforced the presence of a burgeoning serial killer. At the peak of the investigation, and after additional homicides and one non-fatal attack, investigators noted similarities in M.O., oft-used dump sites, and specific wound patterns that linked many of the murders, suggesting a common perpetrator.
Seven homicides are commonly cited as being conclusively linked to the Connecticut River Valley killer.
On October 24, 1978, 26-year old Cathy Millican was photographing birds at the Chandler Brook Wetland Preserve in New London, New Hampshire. The next day, her body, with at least 29 stab wounds, was found yards away from where she was last seen.
On July 25, 1981, 25-year old Mary Elizabeth Critchley disappeared while hitchhiking. She was last spotted near Interstate 91 at the Massachusetts/Vermont border. Fifteen days later, her body was found on Stage Coach Road in Claremont. Her manner of death has not been disclosed.
16-year old nurse's aide Bernice Courtemanche was last seen by her boyfriend's mother in Claremont on May 30, 1984. She was thought to have set out to see her boyfriend in Newport by hitchhiking along Route 12. She did not reach her destination and was subsequently reported missing.
Two months later, on July 20, 1984, 27-year old Ellen Fried—supervising nurse at Valley Regional Hospital—made a late-night stop to use a payphone outside Leo's Market in Claremont. Fried spoke with her sister for approximately an hour when she suddenly remarked on a strange car she'd observed driving back and forth in the vicinity. She stepped away from the phone briefly to make sure her car's engine would start and then returned. After speaking for a few minutes longer, Fried concluded the call.
The next day, Fried failed to report to work and her car was found abandoned on Jarvis Road, a few miles away from Leo's Market.
On July 10, 1985, 28-year old single mother Eva Morse was seen hitchhiking near the border of Claremont and Charlestown, New Hampshire, on Route 12. This is the last time anyone would see Morse alive, and she too was reported missing.
On September 19, 1985, the remains of Ellen Fried were found in a wooded area near the banks of the Sugar River in Kelleyville, New Hampshire. Postmortem examination revealed evidence of multiple stab wounds.
During the afternoon of April 15, 1986, 36-year old Lynda Moore was doing yard work outside her home in Saxtons River, Vermont, a short distance from I-91. That evening, her husband returned home to find his wife's dead body, bearing multiple stab wounds. The crime scene suggested a fierce struggle had taken place.
Numerous witnesses reported having seen a slightly stocky, dark-haired man with a blue knapsack lingering near Moore's home the day of the murder. The man was thought to be between 20 and 25 years old, clean shaven, with a somewhat round face, and wearing dark-rimmed glasses. The following year, a composite sketch was released.
Four days after Moore's murder, a fisherman happened upon the remains of Bernice Courtemanche about one thousand yards from where Ellen Fried's remains had been recovered. Forensic examination uncovered evidence of knife wounds to the neck and an injury to the head.
Six days later, the remains of Eva Morse were found by loggers about 500 feet from where Mary Elizabeth Critchley's body had been discovered in 1981. Postmortem examination found evidence of knife wounds to Morse's neck.
On January 10, 1987, 38-year old nurse Barbara Agnew was returning from a skiing outing with friends in Stratton, Vermont. That evening, a snowplow driver encountered her green BMW at a northbound I-91 rest stop in Hartford, Vermont. The door was cracked and there was blood on the steering wheel. On March 28, 1987, Agnew's body was found near an apple tree in Hartland. She had been stabbed to death.
There was a heavy snowstorm in the area during the night of Agnew's disappearance, and she was a mere 10 miles from her home. Her reasons for pulling into the rest stop have been puzzling to investigators.
The killings remained unsolved and had apparently stopped when, late in the evening on August 6, 1988, 22-year old Jane Boroski, seven months pregnant, was returning from a county fair in Keene, New Hampshire when she stopped at a closed convenience store in West Swanzey to purchase cola from a vending machine. Boroski returned to her car and began drinking the beverage when she took notice of a Jeep Wagoneer parked next to her. Via her rear-view mirror, Boroski then saw the driver of the vehicle walking around the back of her vehicle. He then approached her open window and asked her if the pay phone was working, at which time he immediately grabbed her and pulled her from the vehicle. Boroski struggled, and the man accused her of beating up his girlfriend and asked if she had Massachusetts plates on her car. Boroski responded that she had New Hampshire plates, but this did not deter her attacker, who proceeded to stab her 27 times before driving away and leaving her to die.
Boroski managed to return to her car and drive on Route 32 toward a friend's house for help. As she neared the house, she noticed a vehicle driving in front of her and realized that it was her attacker. Boroski finally reached her friend's home at which the occupants immediately came to her aid. Her attacker apparently performed a u-turn and slowly passed by the house as Boroski was tended to before speeding away into the night.
Boroski was treated at the hospital, where it was determined that the attack had resulted in a severed jugular vein, two collapsed lungs, a kidney laceration, and severed tendons in her knees and thumb. Fortunately, Boroski's baby survived, although not without complications; Boroski's daughter would later be diagnosed with mild cerebral palsy.
Boroski was able to provide authorities with a composite sketch and the first three characters of the attacker's license plate.
Despite two composite sketches, the formation of a task force, assistance from criminal profiler John Philpin, a handful of local suspects, and an Unsolved Mysteries segment concerning the murders (aired April 10, 1991), no arrests were made in the Connecticut River Valley killings and the case grew cold, as the killings ceased after the attack on Boroski.
In 1993, Scribner published a book, The Shadow of Death: The Hunt for a Serial Killer, by true crime author Philip E. Ginsburg. Both the Unsolved Mysteries segment and Ginsberg book featured substantial input by Philpin.
On May 20, 1984, 16-year old Heidi Martin went for a jog in Hartland, Vermont, on Martinsville Road. The next day, her body was found in a swampy area behind Hartland Elementary School. She had been raped and stabbed to death. 21-year old Delbert C. Tallman confessed to the crime and was tried; however, he later recanted his confession and was acquitted. Nearly three years later, Barbara Agnew's body would be found approximately a mile from where Martin was discovered.
Tallman has resided in Bellows Falls, Springfield, and Windsor, Vermont as well as Claremont, New Hampshire, the locus of most of the Connecticut River Valley killings. He was convicted in 1996 on two counts of lewd and lascivious conduct with a child and is currently serving time in a Lake County, Florida prison for failure to comply with sex offender registration requirements.
Given the circumstances of Martin's murder, and the dearth of information related to the arrest and trial of a suspect, some websites cite Martin's death as unsolved and part of the Connecticut River Valley killings. There is, however, no evidence presently available to the public that Tallman was involved in any other cases.
In 2001, private investigator Lynn-Marie Carty was contacted by the mother of Michelle Marie Ashley, a Vermont woman who had been missing since December 1988, along with her two children. The woman hired Carty to gather information pertaining to the possible whereabouts of her daughter, as well as her two grandchildren, whom she believed to be in the company of Ashley's common-law husband, Michael Andrew Nicholaou.
Michael Nicholaou was a Vietnam veteran who'd served as a helicopter pilot in the Army. Nicholaou had earned two Purple Hearts, two Silver Stars and two Bronze Stars before being charged in 1970, along with seven comrades, with strafing civilians while on a reconnaissance mission in the Mekong Delta. (Years later, military acquaintances would describe Nicholaou as having, on at least one occasion, abandoned his camp to seek hand-to-hand individual combat with the enemy, armed only with a knife, stating that he was going "hunting" for humans.) Murder and attempted murder charges were ultimately dropped, and Nicholaou returned home disgraced and bitter, subsequently filing suit against the US Army. During this time and throughout the remainder of his life, Nicholaou received treatment from the Veterans Administration for Posttraumatic stress disorder.
While living in Virginia, Nicholaou opened and operated a sex shop called The Pleasure Chest. The store was raided twice and he and his business partner were charged with selling obscene materials; in one instance, they were convicted, and in the other, there was a mistrial. At the time, Nicholaou remarked to the The Progress, "Evidently the police don't have enough serious robberies, murders and rapes to occupy their time."
It was in Virginia that Nicholaou met Michelle Ashley and soon after moved to Holyoke, Massachusetts, where the couple had two children, Nick and Joy.
Michelle's family, who lived in New England, regarded Michael Nicholaou as strange and quiet. As his marriage to Michelle became more troubled, Michelle attempted to leave him, taking her two children with her. This prompted Nicholaou to pursue Michelle's whereabouts, making contact with her family during this period. Michelle, who told family members that she feared for her life, eventually returned to Nicholaou, but expressed intentions to family to leave him for good. In December 1988, Michelle's mother dropped by the home of Michael and Michelle to check on her daughter after weeks of no contact; she found spoiled food in the refrigerator, an abandoned baby book, and the apartment vacant. There was no trace of Michelle, Nicholaou, or the two children.
Shortly after being hired by Michelle's mother in 2001, Carty was easily able to obtain Nicholaou's contact information with some cursory Internet research. She called Nicholaou, who was living in Georgia, and he answered. Nicholaou initially asked how she had found him and denied knowing anything about the family's whereabouts. Eventually, he stated that Michelle was a "slut" who had been doing drugs and ran off, abandoning the children. He stated that the children were fine, and Carty confirmed this by reaching Nick the following day, who tearfully described life with his combat-traumatized father, who had since remarried.
By 2005, Nicholaou's second wife, Aileen, had also sought to escape him after he'd attacked her. On December 31 of that year, Nicholaou tracked down Aileen to her sister's home in Tampa, Florida. Wearing a black suit and tie and carrying a guitar case filled with guns, Nicholaou led his wife and stepdaughter, 22-year old Taryn Bowman, into a bedroom while his sister-in-law fled to summon police. While awaiting for the arrival of the SWAT team, Nicholaou shot Aileen, Taryn, and himself. Aileen and Michael Nicholaou died at the scene; Taryn died at the hospital a short time later.
Carty read about the tragedy in the newspaper and was compelled to investigate Nicholaou's past, as well as explore other New England crimes around the time of Michelle's disappearance. It was then that Carty began reading about the Connecticut River Valley killings and suspected that Nicholaou could have been the perpetrator. Among many points of interest to Carty was that Michelle Ashley was a nurse, a profession shared with three of the Connecticut River Valley victims.
While Nicholaou's residence in Holyoke was about 90 miles (140 km) from Claremont, Carty was able to determine that Michelle had relatives in the area, and a note in the abandoned baby book placed her in 1986 at the same Hanover, New Hampshire, hospital from which Barbara Agnew would disappear a year later. It was also determined that Michael Nicholaou owned a Jeep Wagoneer in the 1980s, which is consistent with the vehicle described by Jane Boroski.
Carty began communicating with Boroski shortly after Nicholaou's murder-suicide (both were interviewed in a 2008 episode of THS Investigates: Serial Killers on the Loose that focused on the Connecticut River Valley killer). Carty shared her findings about Nicholaou with Boroski. Boroski was shown pictures of Michael Nicholaou and expressed that there was "some resemblance" between him and the man that attacked her. The culmination of Carty's interactions with Boroski was that Boroski is now convinced that Michael Nicholaou was her attacker and, by extension, the Connecticut River Valley killer.
New Hampshire cold case detectives, in 2007, stated that they were in the process of examining surviving physical evidence, as well as Michael Nicholaou's possible connection to the case. To date, no conclusions have been publicly announced, and Nicholaou has not been conclusively linked to the crimes of the Connecticut River Valley killer.
It's worth noting that Nicholaou's candidacy as a suspect is hampered by the fact that he appears to have been living in Virginia at the time of the Courtemanche, Fried, and Morse murders (reinforced by the date of his obscenity trial), and likely both up to and beyond that time. Furthermore, online sleuths have variously posited Nicholaou as being the Colonial Parkway Killer, the Route 29 Stalker, the Blue Ridge Parkway Rapist, and the murderer of Julianne Williams and Lollie Winans at Shenandoah National Park . There is no physical or compelling circumstantial evidence presently available to the public which factually connects Nicholaou to any of the "Connecticut River Valley" cases or other case in VT or NH beyond his slight resemblance to some sketches.
In October, 1997, a 46-year old Grafton, New Hampshire paraplegic named Gary Westover related to his uncle, retired Grafton sheriff's deputy Howard Minnon, that he had a confession. Westover told Minnon that, in 1987, three buddies picked him up for what was described as a night of partying. Allegedly, they loaded Westover and his wheelchair into their van and set out to Vermont, where they abducted, murdered, and dumped 38-year old Barbara Agnew, who had long been considered a victim of the Connecticut River Valley killer.
Westover provided the names of the three friends and Minnon recorded them on a piece of scrap paper. Thereafter, Minnon shared Westover's information with his wife, daughter, and law enforcement. Minnon felt, however, that authorities were not interested in his information. Westover died in March 1998, and Minnon died in 2006.
In August 2006, one of Westover's aunts wrote Anne Agnew, sister of the victim, with the information originally given by Westover to Minnon. Agnew forwarded the letter to Carty, who ran the name of Michael Nicholaou by Westover's aunt, who stated that the named "sounded familiar." Carty believes that authorities are in possession of the names Westover provided to Minnon, and further speculated that Westover may have become acquainted with Nicholaou at an area Veterans Affairs hospital, although none of this has been confirmed and the Connecticut River Valley killings have not been solved.
Joanne Dunham, 14, was sexually assaulted and strangled on June 11, 1968, in Charlestown, New Hampshire. Ginsberg cites Dunham as a Connecticut River Valley victim in Shadow of Death, although this inclusion is primarily his own and is made on the basis of geographic proximity to the later crimes.
On October 5, 1982, 76-year old Sylvia Gray was found bludgeoned and stabbed to death in a wooded area, a few hundred yards from her Plainfield, New Hampshire home, a day after having been reported missing.
Sarah Hunter, 36, was employed as a golf pro in Manchester Center, Vermont. On September 19, 1986, her car was discovered parked at a gas station off Route 7A and she was subsequently reported missing. Two months later, her remains were stumbled upon in a brush at the edge of a cornfield in Pawlet, Vermont. She had been strangled. At the time, Hunter's death was being reviewed by Vermont and New Hampshire authorities as being possibly connected to other unsolved homicides in the area.
38-year old Steven Hill was last seen on June 20, 1986 retrieving his paycheck from his Lebanon, New Hampshire employer. On July 15, Hill's body was found with multiple stab wounds in Hartland, Vermont, across the Connecticut River from where Sylvia Gray's body had been found four years prior.
On July 25, 1989, 14-year old Carrie Moss of New Boston, New Hampshire, left her parents' home to visit friends in Goffstown and disappeared. Exactly two years later, on July 24, 1991, Moss's skeletal remains were found in a wooded area in New Boston. While her cause of death could not be determined, she was thought to be the victim of a homicide.