9 Dead, 2 Missing, No Suspect: Who Is the “New Bedford Highway Killer”?

Main photos: From top left — Sandra Botelho, Marilyn Roberts Cardoza, Rochelle Clifford, Deborah DeMello, Deborah McConnell, Debra Medeiros, Dawn Mendes, Christina Monteiro, Nancy Paiva, Robbin Rhodes, Mary Rose Santos [Bristol County District Attorney's Office]

NEW BEDFORD, MA — In the 11 months between July 1988 and June 1989, death came cruelly and without justice to New Bedford, Massachusetts.

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Nine bodies turned up alongside major traffic thoroughfares running through the waterfront city. All were female, all had been strangled, and each had been struggling with drug addiction and/or working as prostitutes.

In addition to those confirmed murders, two other missing women remain unaccounted for — teenager Christina Monteiro and Marilyn Cardoza Roberts, whose father was a police officer.

Among all the women who fell prey to the still unknown assailant referred to as the New Bedford Highway Killer, 15 children lost their mothers.

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New Bedford is a former whaling outpost that boasts a tight-knit Portuguese-American community. The murders struck at the heart of the city as many residents knew the victims and their families, and viewed these particular women with sympathy as they contended with devastating personal issues.

Victims of the New Bedford Highway Killer, from top left — Sandra Botelho, Marilyn Roberts Cardoza, Rochelle Clifford, Deborah DeMello, Deborah McConnell, Debra Medeiros, Dawn Mendes, Christina Monteiro, Nancy Paiva, Robbin Rhodes, Mary Rose Santos [Bristol County District Attorney’s Office]

Deborah Medeiros, 30, was discovered first by a motorist who pulled over for a moment on July 3, 1988. Several weeks later, a pair of bikers came across the remains of Nancy Paiva, 36.

New Bedford Police Detective John Dextradeur considered the nature of the slayings and the body dumps, and also noticed the curious amount of women who had very suddenly vanished from New Bedford in recent months.

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Dextrauder also made special note of the fact that Franklin Pina, the boyfriend of Nancy Paiva, voluntarily walked into the New Bedford Police station to ask for help. Pina had a long criminal record and no fondness for law enforcement. As a result, Dextrauder suspected more than just a few random murders might be afoot.

The detective then assembled a task force and hunted down answers regarding the disappearances.

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In short order, almost every missing-person case on Dextradeur’s list ended with a strangled, discarded corpse.

Forensics technology being what it was back in 1988, identifying the women took weeks or even months, which added to the frustration and heartbreak for loved ones. Compounding the tragedy even further is the fact that the murderer has never been captured.

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Although, through the years, several suspects have emerged.

Mark Simmons, a bartender who reportedly supplied local working girls with cocaine, took the initial brunt of the investigation.

Tony DeGrazia, a brutish stonemason known as “Flat Nose,” proved more compelling. Word among the girls on the street was to avoid a regular cruiser who “looked like a boxer,” as he liked to rough up and force himself on the women he hired. Eventually, the cops picked up DeGrazia for raping and choking prostitutes. He killed himself in 1991.

Another theory even proposes that the “Lisbon Ripper” worked the highway before murdering and mutilating streetwalkers several years later in the Portuguese city of Lisbon.

Kenneth C. Ponte, 1970 mug shot [New Bedford Police Department]

One name, however, repeatedly came up during the investigation: Kenneth C. Ponte, a former hard-core heroin junkie who reportedly switched to cocaine upon becoming an attorney and setting up a New Bedford legal practice.

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Local sex workers are said to have been intimately familiar with Ponte. Time and again, they described him to investigators as “weird.” Stories arose of Ponte picking up prostitutes, taking them home, and bolting the doors. He reportedly furnished the girls with copious amounts of cocaine and “didn’t seem interested in sex.”

In addition, Ponte’s name allegedly swirled around in street talk about someone in the area making snuff films.

Such rumors intensified after one woman he hired to hang out and snort coke claimed he showed her a porn video in which a woman appeared to get strangled to death.

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Desperate to nail someone — anyone — for the Highway Killings, in August 1990, New Bedford authorities charged Ponte, then 40, with the murder of Rochelle Dopierala, 28.

Two years earlier, Ponte had legally represented Dopierala when she accused another man of raping her. Shortly after Ponte took her case, Dopierala disappeared. Medical examiners identified her body in December 1988.

Ponte, who had since moved to Florida, returned to Massachusetts to plead “absolutely not guilty.”

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The case against Ponte hinged on the idea that he killed Dopierala after she threatened to expose his drug use. Without any “smoking gun” proof, though, the notion seemed flimsy. Even the detectives who had to bring Ponte in had doubts about it. On July 29, 1991, the district attorney dropped the charges against Ponte, citing lack of evidence.

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Nonetheless, Ponte long remained on investigators’ radar. In 2009, authorities dug up the driveway and patio of Ponte’s former New Bedford residence, acting on what they said was new information. The search produced nothing.

A year later, Ponte turned up dead and rotting on a bare mattress in his rancid drug pit of a home. Police did not suspect foul play.

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Alas, the New Bedford Highway Murders remains an open and unsolved case.

Shallow Graves: The Hunt for the New Bedford Highway Serial Killer, a true-crime book on the topic by journalist Maureen Boyle, came out to acclaim in 2017. The Highway Murders, a documentary about the tragedy that incorporates numerous interviews with investigators and survivors, is expected to be released in 2018. Perhaps this surge of publicity will bring about some final answers. The victims of this sick slayer, as well as their families and friends, have for too long deserved it.

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Main photos: From top left — Sandra Botelho, Marilyn Roberts Cardoza, Rochelle Clifford, Deborah DeMello, Deborah McConnell, Debra Medeiros, Dawn Mendes, Christina Monteiro, Nancy Paiva, Robbin Rhodes, Mary Rose Santos [Bristol County District Attorney’s Office]