How to get away with murder
Indifference to the horrors of the Highway Killings
By Jeff Blanchard, Brewster
For depraved indifference to human life, there can't be many stories that compare to the so-called Highway Killings.
Maybe we have reached some new point in human evolution where we can just sweep up 11 murders into the dustbin of history and move on as if it never happenedWhen 11 women over a three-month period of 1988 were abducted, assaulted, slaughtered and then dumped one at a time alongside the roadways around New Bedford, depraved indifference to human life was seen as a necessary trait of some unknown killer.
Now, though, after nearly 20 years, it seems only reasonable to ask: How far does this indifference go? Who among us ever cared a bit about these women? Anyone? Anyone besides their immediate families? Or maybe we have reached some new point in human evolution where we can just sweep up 11 murders into the dustbin of history and move on as if it never happened. Print another paper full of faraway wars. Broadcast another news hour full of celebrity fluff. Elect another politician full of blather about our children's welfare.
At what point is it no longer acceptable to simply gloss over the police and prosecutors as incompetentAfter nearly 20 years, we might all be asking ourselves: At what point does averting our eyes to the horrors of the Highway Killings become an abdication of our responsibilities as fellow citizens? At what point is it no longer acceptable to simply gloss over the police and prosecutors as incompetent, inferior, corrupt, no matter how much they may be stymied by the complexity of the case, or ill-equipped to handle the rigors of such a massive undertaking?
Can we at least acknowledge that by now, their failings have become our failings - and their indifference ours?
Ask the police today, and they point to the district attorney's office as the place to go for answers on any investigation that may be under way.
Ask the district attorney, and he will tell you he is working on it.
Sheila Martines Pina is the wife of New Bedford lawyer Ronald Pina, who was district attorney at the time of the killings... is currently in jail for drunk driving.He held a press conference to announce a new phone number and to introduce a new employee who has been assigned to this and some 70 other so-called cold cases that have piled up. He had police rip up a concrete patio for the cameras. He sent an assistant to prosecute the wife of a former district attorney.
(Sheila Martines Pina is the wife of New Bedford lawyer Ronald Pina, who was district attorney at the time of the killings. She is currently in jail for drunk driving, and is notable as well as one of the keys to unearthing the truths of the Highway Killings because of her own abduction in April 1988; as Matt Lauer's former co-star on PM Magazine, on Channel 10 in Providence; and as the region's top tourism official for the past 18 years, until she was fired last winter.)
"There's not much I can say at this juncture for obvious reasons," Bristol County Dist. Atty. Sam Sutter said. "We're working on it, and beyond that, for self-evident reasons, I can't say anything."
Maybe it is self-evident to him, or to you, but after 19 years with no viable suspects, the only truly self-evident facts are that nine women were found murdered, two bodies were never found, and there has yet to be a public examination of the investigation itself, which, at this point, would seem like the self-evident place to start.
Why is it that police did not include on their initial list of suspects any of the inmates of the Treatment Center for the Sexually DangerousFor example, why is it that police did not include on their initial list of suspects any of the inmates of the Treatment Center for the Sexually Dangerous at the state correctional complex in Bridgewater, just up the road from New Bedford? Several of them were known to participate in the center's so-called Authorized Absence program that allowed them to live outside the facility for six days a week, and three had their privileges revoked just as the investigation was taking shape.
In the world of criminal justice, it is said that the best way to predict a man's dangerousness is to look at his record. All three had records of depraved indifference. All were in New Bedford at the time of the killings. And all were known to police.
But here's what happened when a woman complained that she was nearly abducted by one of them in the middle of the Highway Killings.
"On July 28, 1988, the New Bedford police called the Treatment Center to inform the Administrator that Ronald Leftwich's license plate no. had been reported by a New Bedford prostitute. She stated that he was trying to pick up her friend and that the man in the car had threatened her on a previous occasion."
But Leftwich was in the clear two weeks later.
"Mr. Leftwich admitted to picking up ‘one' prostitute," the case manager wrote. "Later it was learned that he had at least gone with 2 and he had intended to pick up another prostitute the night the New Bedford police were notified"On August 10 in a telephone conversation with New Bedford police Sgt. [John F.] Dextradeur [who died in 1994] stated that apparently the information on Mr. Leftwich was a case of mistaken identity."
These verbatim quotes were plucked from a two-page memo written by Leftwich's case manager at Bridgewater, a man who remains in the state's employ.
"Mr. Leftwich admitted to picking up ‘one' prostitute," the case manager wrote. "Later it was learned that he had at least gone with 2 and he had intended to pick up another prostitute the night the New Bedford police were notified. Several similar discrepancy's [sic] occured, to [sic] numerous to mention."
However lacking the case manager may be as a speller, his indifference seems . . . well, self-evident.
The question now is, does anyone care?