Eleven years after Renee Pellegrino's body was discovered in a Waterford cul-de-sac, investigators got a break in a murder investigation that had long grown cold.
The state Forensic Science Laboratory notified police on July 29, 2008, that DNA taken from Pellegrino's body matched a sample provided by Dickie E. Anderson Jr., a New London man who had given a DNA sample to authorities when he was convicted of an unrelated crime. Both DNA samples had been entered into the FBI's Combined DNA Index System database.
"We decided we wanted to talk to him fairly quickly," said retired Waterford Detective Sgt. Michael Hurley, who was the case officer in the original investigation.
Thirteen years after Pellegrino's death, the Southeastern Connecticut Cold Case Unit charged Anderson with murder. A year later, the unit also charged Anderson with the strangling death of Michelle Comeau on May 1, 1998. The state contends that the two victims, who worked as prostitutes, died in a similar manner.
Hurley testified at Anderson's murder trial in New London Superior Court Thursday, pointing to him at the defense table and describing him as the man with "a bald head, goatee, suit and nice tie."
Armed with the DNA results, Hurley and two others met with Anderson at the Osborn Correctional Institution in August 2008. Hurley was retired by that time but was still authorized to conduct investigations as an inspector for the Division of Criminal Justice. He was accompanied in the interview by Detective Sgt. Joseph DePasquale from the Waterford Police Department and state police Detective David Lamoureux. Anderson agreed to talk and waived his rights. The investigators recorded the interview without Anderson's knowledge.
"We showed him a picture of Renee Pellegrino and asked him if he knew the girl in the picture," Hurley testified.
In the courtroom Thursday, Prosecutor David J. Smith displayed the photograph - a mug shot of Pellegrino after she had been arrested by Waterford police - on the projector for the jury. During the jailhouse interview, Anderson initially said he didn't know the woman and signed a statement saying so.
"We knew he was lying because of the DNA hit," Hurley testified. "We said, 'We know you're lying.' His story changed."
Anderson told the investigators he worked a split shift at his job in The Day's mailroom on the night of June 24, 1997. He said he worked 5 to 9 p.m. and returned for a midnight to 3 a.m. shift.
After the first shift, he said, he had a beer with a co-worker at Ernie's Café, met up with another friend and began walking toward his sister's home on Fern Street. On Washington Street, he said, they saw Pellegrino, who appeared to be arguing with a man in a blue station wagon. Anderson said Pellegrino walked back with them and then left.
"He left a huge part out," Hurley said. "He didn't mention how his DNA was with Renee."
Anderson changed his story again, according to Hurley. He said he had sex with Pellegrino and gave her $20 before she left and he went back to work. He said initially that he had used a condom but changed his story when pressed again about the DNA, Hurley said.
During his interview with the investigators, Anderson told them he had seen Pellegrino's picture in the paper on the day she was killed and had told a New London police officer in Captain's Pizza a few days later about her encounter with the man in the blue station wagon. The police would track down the man in the blue car, who would tell them that he had picked up Pellegrino at about the time that Anderson said she was getting out of the car.
Anderson told the investigators that he returned to work, and was back at his sister's house by 3:45 a.m., when Pellegrino and their friend, Darrell, came to the door. He said Pellegrino agreed to have sex with him, so they went into his sister's basement, where they once again had unprotected sex. Anderson told the investigators that Pellegrino and Darrell - a person police have never been able to identify - left together and Anderson stayed in for the night.
Anderson said Darrell was a co-worker at The Day, but company records showed that nobody by that name was employed there during that time. The police also checked with another of Anderson's former employers, the Blackburn Janitorial Company, which employed a man named Darrell but not the one Anderson had described.
In his cross-examination of Hurley, defense attorney John T. Walkley asked Hurley, "Isn't it a fact Mr. Anderson said he never killed Renee Pellegrino?" Hurley answered affirmatively.
During the interview at Osborne, DePasquale swabbed Anderson's cheek so that the state crime lab could run a confirmatory test based on the CODIS DNA hit. The laboratory confirmed the match, noting that the sperm sample from Pellegrino also contained DNA from an unknown man.
Thomas Viens III, a Waterford patrolman who was assigned to the Cold Case Unit, was on the witness stand when the trial broke for the day. Anderson provided yet another version of the events of June 24 and 25, 1997, when Viens and two other investigators interviewed him in March 2010. Anderson said Pellegrino left his sister's home alone after the two of them had sex in the basement. He said he gave her cigarettes and $2 to get something to eat.
Based on a timeline of Pellegrino's activity and the condition of her body, police estimate her body was dumped on Parkway South between 4 and 6 a.m.