SEPTEMBER 2019, ELIZABETH, NJ - Superior Court Judge Karen Cassidy rejected a request to test DNA on the clothing of a murder victim by the name of Jeanette De Palma. She dismissed it because private investigator Ed Salzano filed the lawsuit, and the judge ruled he had no legal relationship to the dead girl. So far this is the last on a long list of attempts to find her killer that went nowhere.
Jeanette's story started long ago in 1972.
Jeanette DePalma, 16, disappeared on August 7, 1972. Over a month later, her badly decomposed body, still clothed, was found in underbrush on a hill in the rear of Houdaille Quarry on Shunpike Road.
On the day of her disappearance Jeanette left her home to visit a friend in Berkeley Heights. She told her parents she would take a train from Summit. This was the last time they saw their daughter.
She was one of eight children born to Salvatore and Florence De Palma. The Italian family lived on Clearview Road, in Springfield, New Jersey.
After six weeks of searching for Jeanette without success, it was a neighbor's dog who brought back her arm to a nearby apartment complex, that directed authorities to find the site.
Her remains were found atop a 40-foot, almost inaccessible cliff at the quarry. Searchers who found the body said pieces of wood were crossed over her head. Other branches framed the corpse appearing to imitate the shape of a coffin. Later interviews with other Springfield residents describe where it was actually a pentagram her body was laying on. Mutilated animal remains ringed around it.
Police denied this story, but later it was discovered that the cliff at the quarry was known by locals as "The Devil's Teeth." because of the jagged rock formation.
A week later, behind the scene, the police suspected that witchcraft and satanism were involved in the girl's death.
On October 3, 1972, an Associated Press article reported that police might have brought a witch to the site. Reverend James Tate of the Assemblies of God Evangel, where the De Palma family attended services, stated that “I never did hear if the witch found anything, but I know she was there in the scene.”
Union County prosecutor's office tried to determine if there was a connection to the murder of the List family in Westfield less than a year before. Five members of the family were found dead from shotgun wounds. John List shot his wife, mother and two children in the head, then picked up his other son from a soccer game. Once home he shot him multiple times in the face and chest.
It was a month before the bodies were discovered and by then John List disappeared and took on a new identity. He was arrested in 1989. One of the victims, Patricia List, 16, had several books on witchcraft.
In July 1971, Patrick Michael Newell, 20, a resident of nearby Millville was thrown into a sand pit pond with his arms and legs bound behind him with duct tape. The crime was committed by his friends. who later told police the victim "belonged to a 'Satan worshipers sect' and felt he had to die violently in order to be put in charge of '40 leagues of demons.;"
Newell "urged the two friends to bind him, which they did, performed a 'Satanic ritual' and then had them push him into the pond." According to The New York Times, based on this interview the New Jersey State Police decided "to investigate the possible existence of a voodoo cult."
Richard Williams, 18, and Wayne Sweikert, 17, graduates of the Vineland High School were charged with murder.
According to the NYT article:
Since the bizarre incident the police have disclosed that young Newell had a considerable amount of literature on Satanic cults and witchcraft, that he previously had attempted suicide, that he “sacrificed” hamsters by shaking them up in a wooden box into which sharp nails had been driven and that hard drugs were involved in a “party” prior to the killing.
The Union County police were trying to determine if there was any link to a witchcraft group thought to exist in the area.
In Watchung Reservation, authorities discovered "burning candles, a bowl of blood and feathers and pigeons with their necks snapped. A dead goat was found elsewhere in what appeared to be a rite."
They had received reports of dead animals that appeared to be sacrifices.
Only three years before the Manson Family murders had been committed.
An autopsy did not discover a cause of death. Since her body was decomposed, x-rays of her skull were taken. There were no wounds, bone fractures or traumatic injuries. There was no drug paraphernalia which might indicate an overdose. The coroner suspected strangulation and the case was treated as a homicide.
Her identity was confirmed through dental records.
Samples of her clothing were sent to the FBI, and on January 1973 they issued a report that a comparison made between these, soil from the scene and hairs collected from her dresser and on her body did not include any "apparent foreign hairs". There were traces no of drugs or poison.
However, according to the crime lab report, stains found in her underwear, bra, blouse and slacks "were too decomposed for conclusive blood and semen examinations."
In the meantime, tips came into the police department, and one of them involved a story of a homeless man simply known as "Red" living in the woods close to where Jeanette's body was found. He fled the area soon after the discovery, however later the prosecutor determined that he was not involved.
Many of the tips provided to the police received were contradictory or inconsistent, thus making them hard to verify.
The local press did not help as sensational stories of Satanism and human sacrifice were linked to the crime, aided by the rumors of an existing coven that gathered in Watchung Reservation.
A local legend told of thirteen witches buried underneath Johnston Drive, a desolate stretch of road between Scotch Plans and Watchung. According to witnesses human sacrifices were committed there and that local authorities covered up the occult connection so the town would not get a bad reputation. The library had to lock away The Encyclopedia of Occultism because it was continually stolen from their shelves
Despite the innuendo that Jeanette had fallen victim to occult practices, there was no indication of this in her background. She was a little wild, and had battled her own alcohol and drug abuse. However, she overcame them and as an evangelical Christian tried to help others afflicted with addiction.
Others wondered that perhaps because of her religious beliefs she had been targeted to become a sacrifice.
Another barrier that developed in finding a good lead to a possible suspect is that eventually the police realized that no one in town wanted to talk about it. After the initial hype by the local newspapers, the story disappeared from the front page.
Was the reluctance of the locals to speak to authorities due to fear of repercussions from a sinister group that lived among them? Her murder became a taboo subject they refused to discuss even among themselves.
What clues came to the police usually arrived in anonymous letters that were too vague to produce a solid lead for them to follow.
As viable information dried up and new murder cases came in demanding the attention of the homicide detectives, the case went cold. Thirty years later the magazine Weird NJ decided to revisit the unsolved case.
Surprisingly they found themselves facing the same obstacles as the police had so many years before.
Despite the passage of time, the eeriness surrounding the case persisted when it was found the records were destroyed in 1999 when Hurricane Floyd flooded the place where documentation and evidence were kept. Some speculated if the excuse of the flood was used to cover the intentional destruction of the case files.
The authors of Weird NJ's Death at the Devil's Teeth noted that in 1984, a detective assigned to the cold case could not find the case files fifteen years before Hurricane Floyd hit New Jersey. So how long had they been missing?
Another rumor that circulated claimed the police never took photos of the crime scene. This could never be confirmed one way or another with the story circulating that everything had been wiped out in the flood waters.
Attempts to interview residents met with resistance, with many unwilling to even give an opinion of the murder. The few that did agree to answer some questions did so only if their anonymity was assured. Even the police department refused to be interviewed.
The anonymous letters did start to arrive, but again the information could not be verified, and the common theme behind all of them was the writers believed the killing occurred at the hands of a cult.
It appears there's more than the mystery of who killed Jeanette, but why after so many years are people afraid to talk about it. Even if the residents suspected it was the work of satanists, or a police cover-up, how long could they fear retaliation?
Could the whispers of ritualistic killing just be a mistake that took on a life of its own, and that perhaps Jeanette slipped from her sobriety and died of an overdose? However there was no evidence of drugs in her system; or perhaps she was killed by someone who did not belong to any cult, and targeted her for another reason altogether.
Another mystery swirls around Jeanette's footwear which were flip-flops. This was unusual shoes to use when climbing up a steep quarry, that required a fire truck with an aerial ladder to bring down her corpse. This contradicts the theory she had gone to the Res to party with friends.
Others say that Jeanette didn't have a problem with drugs, and at the time of her disappearance it was her sister who was staying at a rehab center out west to overcome an addiction problem.
Jeanette's case has puzzled amateur sleuths through the years. A blogger listed the suspects:
Baltusrol Red: Drifter who caddied seasonally at the Baltusrol Golf Club. His camp in Houdaille Quarry was located roughly 50 yards from Jeannette's body was found. He was later tracked down and interviewed by police, who no longer consider him a suspect. Died in the late 1980s.
The De Palma family was active in their church. Her mother Florence said she was a good girl, "who tried to lead others to Jesus." According to her parents she had plans to attend Trinity Bible Institute. In the meantime she help teenage drug addicts through community work.
James Tate the church pastor commented upon hearing of Jeanette's death that it was a satanic killing. Wayne Tate, the pastor's son dated Jeanette until a week or more before she disappeared.
The hope that she'd run away ended with the discovery of her body.
After the crime, the church distanced themselves from the De Palma family.
Present day, Wayne Tate is a pastor in North Carolina. He said that, "she loved to laugh. It was a very innocent romance, as they only saw each other at church events."
Florence De Palma continued to worship at the church and Kevin Brennan who served as pastor there from 1992 to 2012 knew her. She still held hope after all the years that her daughter's murder would be solved.
Ray Sajeski, Jeanette's nephew, said he believes she was murder but not due to an overdose or a ritual sacrifice.
In June 2019, Ed Salzano, a private investigator, filed the lawsuit to compel the prosecutor's office to complete DNA testing on Jeanette's clothing. He was 10 years old when Jeanette was murdered and living in the area. He recalled that there was real fear that a satanic cult were out there murdering people.
Salzano worked on the case for six years. He moved close to Watchung Reservation and started to work with John Bancey, Jeanette's nephew. Together they started Justice for Jeanette to bring attention to the cold case. Salzano turned over documents that Bancey gave him before his death, which included an FBI laboratory report detailing their analysis of the clothing Jeanette was wearing.
Jeanette's father died in 1980, her mother in 2008 and as of today her murder remains unsolved.
Stranger Than Fiction Stories by M.P. Pellicer