Book closed on case of a lifetime

Waterford police detectives, from left, Detective Sgt. Joe DePasquale, Detective Lt. (Ret.) Don McCarthy and Detective Sgt. (Ret.) Michael Hurley talk at the Waterford Police Department on Friday about the murder of Renee Pellegrino on June 25, 1997, and the conviction of Dickie Anderson Jr. for her slaying.
Buy Photo Tim Cook/The Day Waterford police detectives, from left, Detective Sgt. Joe DePasquale, Detective Lt. (Ret.) Don McCarthy and Detective Sgt. (Ret.) Michael Hurley talk at the Waterford Police Department on Friday about the murder of Renee Pellegrino on June 25, 1997, and the conviction of Dickie Anderson Jr. for her slaying.

Waterford - Detective Sgt. Joseph DePasquale packed away the paperwork from the Renee Pellegrino murder investigation after a jury delivered a guilty verdict this week in the case of State vs. Dickie E. Anderson Jr.

DePasquale, with retired Detective Lt. Donald McCarthy, also paid a visit to Pellegrino's mother, Jean Russell, at her home in Quaker Hill.

And they exchanged congratulatory phone calls with brother investigators who worked the case from the beginning, including the now-retired Detective Sgts. Stewart Clark and Michael Hurley and retired Detective Richard Weiss.

The arrest and conviction of Anderson, 42, for the June 25, 1997, murder gives the detectives some sense of closure, but they said this is a case they will never forget.

"I'm glad it's over," Hurley said Friday during an interview at Waterford police headquarters. "I think justice has been served."

The case went unsolved for more than a decade, haunting them long after all but DePasquale had retired.

"I've been removed from police work for 12 years," said McCarthy, who was commander of detectives when Pellegrino was killed. "Other than the Pellegrino case, I didn't think about police work for 12 years."

The crime scene was like nothing they had seen. Pellegrino, a 41-year-old local woman with a brilliant but troubled mind, had been strangled and laid out naked on a cul-de-sac at Parkway South. Her killer had posed her body in a crucifix-like position: head bent to the left, arms outstretched, legs spread wide and bent at the knees, feet placed together.

"Once you saw what was depicted at that scene on the 25th of June, it became personal," McCarthy said.

A law school graduate, Pellegrino had lost her way after the deaths of her father and sister, according to her mother. She used crack cocaine as an escape, then started turning tricks to support her drug addiction. She worked a route in downtown New London.

"We didn't care if she was a prostitute," McCarthy said. "We didn't care if she was a nun. She was somebody's daughter."

But Pellegrino's lifestyle did present the investigators with a problem.

"She was a very high-risk victim," Weiss said. "She was involved with multiple people with questionable backgrounds. Those are just tough cases to deal with."

Pellegrino had been bailed out of prison the afternoon before she was killed. Her autopsy revealed she was 17 weeks pregnant with a male baby.

The investigation

The detectives created a timeline of Pellegrino's movements in the last hours of her life and, with help from New London police, flooded the downtown area with officers and began interviewing people who lived in the streets.

Nine days after the murder, New London Detective William Discordia, now retired, told Weiss he had spoken with somebody who said a guy named Dickie Anderson had reported seeing Pellegrino getting into a blue station wagon downtown on the night before she was killed.

"It was the first time his name showed up," Weiss said. "You read about these killers who sometimes interject themselves in an investigation. Was he doing that? I don't know."

Weiss created a report. By that time the detectives already knew about the station wagon. They had tracked down its owner, a man who had admitted paying Pellegrino for sex, and had eliminated him as a suspect after collecting blood, hair and saliva samples.

Clark and Hurley interviewed Pellegrino's boyfriend, who told them he was trying to help her get off the streets. Clark said instinct told him this was not the killer. The man passed the polygraph and he, too, was eliminated.

When Michelle Comeau was killed in May 1998 and her body was discarded in a manner similar to Pellegrino's, the investigators saw the connection. But that case also remained unsolved.

Detectives scoured law enforcement teletypes for keywords like "naked" and "roadside" and traveled to other states to conduct interviews. McCarthy kept in touch with Pellegrino's mother, continuously declining her requests to see the crime-scene photos and the autopsy report. The police had their reasons for keeping the information to themselves, McCarthy said. He thought the information would be too disturbing for Russell, who was dealing with the death of her second child. She previously had lost a daughter in a car crash.

The detectives spoke with an FBI profiler to try to make sure they were on the right track. They didn't forget the case as, one by one, they began to retire. McCarthy and Clark left in 2000. Then Weiss departed, then Hurley.

A break in the case

On July 29, 2008, DePasquale, now the detective commander, received a fax from the state police crime lab saying there had been a DNA "hit" in the Pellegrino case. Anderson, convicted of an unrelated felony, had been required to give authorities a DNA sample. The DNA had been entered into the FBI's database and had matched a vaginal swab taken from Pellegrino.

"I called Mike (Hurley) and said, 'You're not going to believe this. We just got a hit on Pellegrino,'" DePasquale said.

Hurley, an inspector with the state's attorney's office in Windham County, got permission to work on the Pellegrino case. He and DePasquale delivered the news in person to McCarthy, who said he had long suspected it would "come down to DNA."

"My parting words to them were, 'This guy's not going to confess, and you have to keep him talking," McCarthy said.

Working with the Southeastern Connecticut Cold Case Unit, the detectives interviewed Anderson multiple times and caught him in a series of lies.

State police Detective David Lamoureux had been reviewing the case files and had noticed that Comeau had been staying at the apartment of Anderson's father, Dickie Anderson Sr., when she was killed. He tracked down witnesses who said Anderson Jr. was at the apartment on the day Comeau died.

Anderson had a history of violence against women and was in prison serving time in a strangulation case when the detectives confronted him with the DNA evidence. He admitted to having sex with Pellegrino and said he had met Comeau, but he denied killing them.

The state police arranged to have an informant placed in Anderson's cell, and the man later said Anderson confessed. The detectives said the informant was not told about the crimes beforehand, yet came back with specific information, including the fact that Pellegrino had been strangled and was pregnant.

Hurley and DePasquale visited Toni Wilson, the mother of two of Anderson's children. "We didn't know how she was going to react," DePasquale said. "She said, 'Man, I been waiting for you guys for a long time.'"

Wilson said Anderson had started crying one night and had admitted to killing a woman in Bates Woods Park in New London. She said she didn't believe him because he was a big liar, DePasquale recalled.

Police charged Anderson with Pellegrino's murder in June 2010. Three months later they charged him with killing Comeau.

As Anderson's trial began last month, the detectives were confident the case file they had created would leave no questions unanswered.

Hurley, DePasquale and Weiss were called to testify. Clark and McCarthy were subpoenaed by the defense but were never called to the witness stand.

On March 27, investigators who had worked the case over the years filled three rows of courtroom benches to listen to closing arguments. Then they waited tensely for the verdict.

"We learned a long time ago that, even with our strongest cases, you never know what a jury is thinking," Weiss said.

On Wednesday, after seven days of deliberation, the jury announced it had found Anderson guilty of the Pellegrino murder but could not reach a unanimous decision in the Comeau case.

Anderson, 42, will be sentenced June 1 to up to 60 years in prison. The detectives do not plan to attend that proceeding. Their job is finished, they said, and the sentencing is in the court's hands.

DePasquale, sitting with his two former supervisors during Friday's interview, said the investigation was like a torch that had been passed to him.

"To be at the end of the torch for the last relay, it's a good feeling," he said.

k.florin@theday.com

Defense attorney John Walkley, right, places a hand on the shoulder of his client Dickie Anderson Jr. as Anderson is led from the courtroom after the jury delivered a guilty verdict against him Wednesday  in New London Superior Court. Anderson was convicted for the 1997 murder of Renee Pellegrino, but the jury was unable to reach a verdict on charges related to the 1998 death of Michelle Comeau. Anderson will be sentenced June 1.
Buy Photo Sean D. Elliot, pool/The Day Defense attorney John Walkley, right, places a hand on the shoulder of his client Dickie Anderson Jr. as Anderson is led from the courtroom after the jury delivered a guilty verdict against him Wednesday in New London Superior Court. Anderson was convicted for the 1997 murder of Renee Pellegrino, but the jury was unable to reach a verdict on charges related to the 1998 death of Michelle Comeau. Anderson will be sentenced June 1.
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