1980s Massachusetts slayings case reopened

Highway Slayings
Kenneth C. Ponte avoids the media while leaving the Bristol County courthouse on March 2, 1989, in New Bedford, Mass., where he had been questioned in the murders of nine women. His former home has been searched as part of a reopened investigation.AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

A newly elected prosecutor has reopened the investigation into the unsolved slayings of nine women in the 1980s, and investigators dug up the driveway and patio at the former home of a onetime suspect.

Authorities used a backhoe, shovels and dogs Thursday to begin digging outside the home where former suspect Kenneth Ponte once lived, neighbors said. Neighbor Carol Lyons said investigators took away seven or eight bags of dirt.

Bristol District Attorney Samuel Sutter had promised to reopen the case during his successful election campaign last fall. His office confirmed the case had been reopened, but did not say whether the excavation Thursday was linked to that investigation.

"It would be inappropriate for us to say that," Sutter spokesman Gregg Miliotte said. But he added Friday that Sutter "promised to open all unsolved homicides from the mid-1980s on and that is exactly what we are doing."

The remains of nine women were found along highways in southeastern Massachusetts between July 1988 and April 1989. Two other women reported missing at the time were never found.

All 11 had a history of drug use and frequented a neighborhood of New Bedford known for prostitution.

Bernadine Cardoza, whose daughter Marilyn Cardoza Roberts was one of the missing women, told the Standard-Times of New Bedford that state police said the excavation was related to the cases.

"I'm glad they're doing something about it," Cardoza said. "Let's face it, I have no grave to go to."

Ponte had been indicted in 1990 in the death of Rochelle Clifford Dopierala, but the charge was dropped the following year. A special prosecutor said a grand jury did not have enough evidence to indict.

At the time, Ponte strongly denied involvement in any of the killings, but did say he had a relationship with Dopierala and served as an attorney for three other victims. A working phone number for Ponte could not immediately be located Friday.

There have been other suspects, but no one has ever been brought to trial.

Sutter had ousted incumbent District Attorney Paul Walsh Jr. in the Democratic primary last September. He had promised to have state police re-examine evidence in the killings using modern DNA and fiber analysis technology.

Walsh had said that the evidence was re-examined as recently as 2002.