This month’s unsolved murder is a case that has fascinated me for a long, long time. It brings us back to the seeds of the Satanic Panic in the Northeast United States, and is a perfect case study for how fast local rumors and superstition can cloud and derail a death investigation. This post will attempt to sift out the fact from the longstanding legends surrounding the tragic death of young Jeannette DePalma. Let’s explore.
Who Was Jeannette?
Jeannette DePalma was born on August 3, 1956. She lived in a fairly large house on Clearview road, in an upper-middle class neighborhood. The town of Springfield, New Jersey was said to be idyllic. A perfect place to raise a family, which is perhaps why the DePalmas settled there. After all, they stuck fast to their morals, being a strongly Christian family. Most people include this fact when they describe Jeannette – she was a good Christian girl, though she did have her wild side. She’d just turned 16 on August 3, 1972 – of course she had a bit of a wild side. She was figuring out who she was.
On the night of August 7, 1972, Jeannette told her mother she was off to take a train to visit a friend (note: travel via train is much more common in the northeast than in other areas of the country). Jeannette never made it to her friend’s place and she would not be seen alive again. Her mother grew worried as Jeannette was late to return home that night. More worried still as she received no call from her daughter. And then, finally reaching her breaking point, she reported her daughter as a missing person. You have to imagine that the DePalmas were praying Jeannette would slink in, abashed that she’d broken curfew without calling, but somehow, on some deep level l, they felt that wouldn’t be the case. They had no idea what a terrible journey they had set upon that night, nor what evils had been inflicted on their daughter.
It took six weeks for any sign of Jeannette to turn up. On September 19th, the unthinkable happened. A woman was walking her dog near the Houdaille Quarry when the pup ran off, having caught an enticing scent. The woman was shocked and likely a little terrified when the dog returned carrying a decaying right forearm in its mouth. She obviously called the police, who began to scour the area for further remains. On a cliff in the Quarry, ominously called Devil’s Teeth, a skeletonized body was discovered.
The body was lying face down, with the left arm tucked under the head. The right arm was missing, confirming that this was the body the dog had stumbled upon earlier. The stranger part was what surrounded the body. Reports vary wildly based on rumor, but the most agreed-upon set of facts are that the body was surrounded by logs laid out in a coffin shape, and there were several makeshift crosses nearby. The body was identified and Jeannette DePalma quickly.
The officers at the scene could not immediately determine a cause of death, so an autopsy of the remains was ordered. The autopsy shone no light onto the COD, however. Jeannette’s bones did not show any nick marks from stab wounds, bullet wounds, or any other fractures or breaks. A toxicology screen showed no illicit drugs in Jeannette’s system, but did detect a strangely high level of lead. For some reason lost to time, the cause of death was eventually posited to be strangulation, though I have not been able to uncover any evidence that would corroborate this – most notably, I have not seen any mention of whether Jeannette’s hyoid bone being crushed or broken.
The only suspect I have seen named as a result of the police investigation was a transient man who was often seen residing near the quarry. He was only referred to as “Red.” Many locals had noticed he disappeared around the time Jeannette was murdered. The police thought this lead was worth following…until they found Red, and he was ruled out as a suspect. No other promising leads surfaced, and the case grew colder and colder.
Obviously, when a murder like this occurs in such a small, seemingly safe town, rumors are going to fly. Especially when the murder included so many grisly details and mysterious, unexplained aspects. Why was her body positioned face down? Witches were buried face down because it was believed they could not rise from the grave that way. Why was her arm severed? Why was she spread out so near a formation known as Devil’s Teeth? It reeked of something to do with Satanism, which was surprisingly not far from the minds of Springfielders at the time. People had been talking, since prior to Jeannette’s death, that there was some sort of mischievous, murderous cult operating out of the nearby Watchung Reservation. Rumors began to fly that someone, or someones, from the Reservation were responsible. I have to say that this reeks of xenophobia and racism though – claiming those with a different skin color and belief system cultists seems like a massive leap of logic, considering I have come across no evidence to suggest any cult activity on the Reservation. Apart from the rumors, of course. And those didn’t stop there. As time stretched on and no one was brought to justice for Jeannette’s grisly murder, WeirdNJ author Mark Moran stepped in and began researching. After the story ran in 1990, Moran received many letters from people that either knew Jeannette or lived in Springfield. They claimed there was a coven of teenage witches that were proclaiming they would kill a child around the time Jeannette was murdered. Strange, but doesn’t seem to line up. Now that we’ve gotten most of the “occult” aspects out of the way, let’s discuss what may have happened to Jeannette.
The list of theories nears endless on this one, so we’re going to look at a few of the more popular and publicized ones. Let’s get the big one out of the way. The most widely circulated theory in this case is that Witches or Satanists sacrificed Jeannette. As stated above, these twin theories are really the same, the perpetrators just change depending on the source. The thing is, none of the symbols found at the scene link back heavily to Satanism or any other mystical symbology, really. The date also has no significance. If these people were truly attempting a sacrifice, there is no discernible reason for it to have happened then and there. Which could mean this theory is wrong – or it might mean that a group of edgy teenagers who desperately wanted to be Satanists or Wizards or whatever decided to sacrifice someone to validate their view of themselves, totally separate from the historical belief systems of Satanism, Wicca, and other magics.
Rumors over the years have suggested that Jeannette actually overdosed that night, and her friends dumped her body on Devil’s Teeth in a panic. This is a theory we hear again and again when a teenager is found dead under unknown circumstances. Except in this case, the only thing on Jeannette’s toxicology screen was an abnormally high level of lead. If she had overdosed on something, it would have to be so unusual that a normal tox screen wouldn’t catch it, which seems implausible.
Another theory is that this was a crime of opportunity. Meaning Jeannette left her house that night to head to the train station, but ran into someone who was looking for a young woman to hurt. It was a random encounter, and Jeannette did not know this person. This person may have planned to take someone far in advance, or they may have acted on impulse when they saw Jeannette alone. With the evidence we have, it’s impossible to say whether this is likely or not, but it may be a puzzle piece here.
The final theory we’ll look at is this murder being the result of a targeted attack. Meaning Jeannette was being followed that night by someone she knew. A friend, a classmate, someone from church. It could even be someone she ran into at the grocery store from time to time. But this person would have fixated on her and followed her that night, and acted once she was alone. It is impossible to know whether their plan would have been murder right off the bat – they could have asked her out and been rejected, or even simply been ignored when trying to speak to her. Not to say that Jeannette did anything wrong, of course, but something lit this killer’s fuse, and they lashed out as a result.
Personally, none of these theories really fit with the facts as we know them. If I had to pick one, I’d go with this being a targeted attack on Jeannette. The wounds inflicted on her were too intimate for me to believe this was someone who did not know her or, at least, believe they did. The weird crosses and logs are, in my opinion, likely either a red herring or being interpreted wrong. One person on reddit suggested that they may actually be attempts at Christian symbology – haphazardly constructed crosses around a makeshift coffin, consisting of the outline of the logs. I didn’t see this theory put forth anywhere else, but I wholeheartedly believe it is a theory that deserves more looking into. The DePalmas were heavily involved with their church, and I absolutely believe that she could have crossed paths with someone there who wished to do her harm – though we may never know the reason, we all know that historically, men kill women for incredibly small (and sometimes perceived) infractions. Again, it does bear restating that this is all speculation, but I don’t think it can be debunked right off the bat and it seems more plausible than anything else on the table right now.