Mothers and cops in court for arguments in cold case murders

Fifteen years after her daughter was strangled and laid out naked on a Waterford cul-de-sac, Jean Russell sat with the retired detective who supervised the homicide investigation to hear Tuesday's closing arguments in the case of accused murderer Dickie E. Anderson Jr.

The jury that will decide whether Anderson killed Renee Pellegrino on June 25, 1997, and Michelle Comeau on May 1, 1998, began deliberating after the attorneys for both sides summarized their cases and the judge instructed them on the applicable laws.

Russell, mother of Renee Pellegrino, listened to most of Anderson's trial, finding some testimony "gruesome" and some of it tedious. She has said she needed to hear about the investigation of her daughter's death.

Also following the case, from outside of the courtroom, was retired Waterford Police Lt. Donald J. McCarthy, who supervised the investigation of Pellegrino's death and kept in touch with Russell for years. McCarthy and other cops who worked the case over the years showed up for the closing arguments, filling three rows of benches. When McCarthy saw Russell enter the courtroom, he changed seats to be next to her.

Sitting on the other side of the courtroom, holding two tiny balloons and a birthday card, was Anderson's mother, Eileen Fletcher, who has proclaimed her son's innocence. Tuesday was Anderson's 42nd birthday.

Comeau's survivors have not attended the proceedings. Both victims were troubled women who were working as prostitutes when they were fatally strangled and left on remote stretches of local roadways.

In his closing argument, prosecutor David J. Smith emphasized the strengths of the state's case — the DNA match that proved Anderson had sex with Pellegrino before she died, the string of lies that Anderson told after he was confronted by police, and the similarities of the two crimes. Both women were found naked on wooded stretches of roadways and both had been strangled manually and with a ligature. Police testified that both bodies were posed in a similar manner.

Smith mentioned the two people who had testified that Anderson had confessed to them — his former girlfriend Toni Wilson and his former cell mate, Arthur Moore — noting that Wilson only gave up the information when confronted by police a decade later, and that Moore's statement contained information that he could have obtained only from Anderson.

Defense attorney John T. Walkley conceded that Anderson was part of an underworld that exists while most people are sleeping, but argued that the evidence showed that Anderson is innocent. He suggested Pellegrino could have been killed by a man in a blue station wagon with whom she was seen earlier in the night.

"Perhaps he likes to choke women while having sex," Walkley suggested. "Perhaps he's a type of serial killer that preys on drug addicted prostitutes."

He theorized that Comeau's killer was the man who owned the black sport utility vehicle that was seized by police during their investigation, noting that police had found a noose, or a length of rope, in the vehicle. He said the rope was not tested for DNA, nor were the necks of the two victims.

Walkley said that Moore and Anderson both had motive to implicate Anderson, including a reward that was offered to help solve the crimes.

During his rebuttal argument, Smith reminded the jury that police had tracked down the owner of the blue station wagon and eliminated him as a suspect in the Pellegrino case. The driver of the black SUV also was investigated and never charged.

Though the two cases were tried together, the jury is deliberating on separate murder charges for each victim. As the 12-member panel began its work, they requested a flip chart, magic markers, tape, tacks, Post-it notes and a list of the exhibits that were entered into evidence. The panel will resume deliberations this morning.

k.florin@theday.com

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