History is rife with unsolved murders. For whatever reasons, some doomed souls seem destined to never rest and for the mysterious, often baffling circumstances surrounding their deaths to forever taunt us. Few such cases are as bizarre, or indeed as spooky, as one largely forgotten cold case over 40 years old that started off strange and didn’t let up, spiraling into the dark realm of witchcraft, Satanism, sinister rituals, and secrecy.
The story begins with a dog. On September 19, 1972, in Springfield, NJ, a dog returned to its owner with something far more gruesome than a stick in its mouth. To the owner’s shock, the animal was carrying around the decomposed remains of a human hand and forearm in its jaws. The authorities were contacted right away and began a search with bloodhounds of the nearby Houdaille quarry, which was in a wooded area where the dog’s owner claimed it liked to roam around. It was not long before the rest of the arm’s body was found sprawled atop a wooded bluff in the quarry that had the rather foreboding name of “The Devil’s Teeth,” since the rocks jutting up from the ground gave the impression of jagged teeth in a skull. The body was that of a young woman lying face down, was fully clothed, and so badly decomposed that the cause of death could not be readily ascertained. The body required dental records to identify, which revealed that the body was that of 16 year-old Jeanette DePalma, a local girl who had been reported missing from her home on August 7 of the same year. At the time of the disappearance, the police had conducted extensive searches for the girl but had come up with nothing. Forensic analysis of the girl’s teeth showed that she had been dead for approximately 6 weeks, or around the same amount of time that she had been missing. However, although the mystery of what had become of DePalma had been solved, the real mystery and weirdness was just getting started.
In the vicinity of DePalma’s body were found to be a collection of logs and branches that were at first glance just thought to be haphazardly strewn about and of no significance, yet it was soon noticed that the pieces of wood had been apparently intentionally arranged in ways that suggested sinister occult imagery. One source who was present at the discovery of the body claimed that the branches and logs had been arranged to look like crosses that formed a trapezoidal perimeter around the body that was described as being like “a coffin,” and another cross had been placed above the girl’s head. The whole scene reportedly had the feeling of some makeshift, occult altar of some sort, and the police began to believe that the murder had perhaps been carried out by nefarious practitioners of dark witchcraft, Satan worshippers, or members of some other evil cult.
There were other weird things as well, and the case became so mired in rumor and creepy stories that it became hard to ascertain what had really happened and what was merely hearsay. Around the crime scene it was later rumored that dead animals had been strung up to some trees with string, with some of the mutilated corpses in jars. It was also later claimed that a series of arrows had been carved into various trees pointing to where the dead girl was. The unanimous decision seemed to be that DePalma had been murdered in some bizarre and gruesome occult ritual.
The local press covered the story and soon Satanism, dark witchcraft, strange rituals, and human sacrifice were the talk of the town. Witchcraft in and of itself was no stranger to the area as Springfield, NJ has a long history of witchcraft and spooky stories. It was also claimed by some that were interviewed at the time that occult activity, devil worship, and witch covens were well-known in the area, with the nearby Watchung Reservation rumored as being the center of such activity for years. It was even reported that shortly after DePalma’s murder dead animals had been allegedly found at the reservation strung up from trees in a similar manner to those that had been at the crime scene. Local legends in the area were rife with eerie tales of witchcraft and black magic, with one popular local story being that 13 witches are buried beneath the nearby Johnston Drive, a lonely stretch of road that runs from the town of Watchung to Scotch Plains. Some eyewitnesses claimed to have seen human sacrifices in the area with their own eyes, which they accused local authorities of covering up. Additionally, there had apparently been so many thefts of occult reading material from the local library that works such as The Encyclopedia of Occultism had to actually be kept locked away. The prevailing rumor at the time among the public and even among some of the police was that Jeanette DePalma had gotten caught up with a coven of witches or a group of satanists and in the end had been murdered in cold blood for ritualistic purposes.
The strange thing about all of this speculation was that nothing in Jeanette’s background suggested in any way that she would be involved in such activities or be running with that sort of crowd. Although she was described by friends as having a bit of a wild streak, Jeanette had always been a devout evangelical Christian and had been active in her parish working with victims of alcohol and drug abuse. Jeanette herself was said to have overcome a serious drug and alcohol problem as well through her faith and belief in the power of God. It didn’t make any sense that she would have been hanging out with witches or devil worshippers, so this led to further speculation that perhaps she had been simply targeted by occultists for her religious beliefs or had provoked them through trying to convert them, and had been abducted against her will.
Unfortunately, a series of setbacks, false leads, and ever suspicious, weird events proved to be a powerful obstacle to ever finding out the truth. There was very little for police to go on and bizarrely no one in town wanted to talk about it. In fact, after a couple of weeks of the case being splattered all over the newspapers, the story suddenly just went silent. Locals who were interviewed for possible information on the case were reluctant or fearful to talk about it, and some flat out refused to discuss it, even among themselves. During this time, it seemed as if the murder of Jeanette DePalma had become a taboo subject that was not to be mentioned to anyone. Many of the leads police did get were sent through anonymous letters or phone calls that gave only the vaguest information and were unable to be verified. Police had absolutely nothing solid to go on. The only suspect ever to be brought in for questioning was a local homeless man by the name of Red Kierra, who turned out to be yet another dead end and was subsequently released without being charged with any crime. Oddly, the man reportedly left town soon after.
With no solid evidence to go on, a populace unable or unwilling to talk about the murder, and no suspects, the case of Jeanette DePalma’s murder went cold and was forgotten. 30 years later, the magazine Weird NJ would launch an investigation into the case but this would also prove to face obstacles that had still not lost any of their sheen of weirdness. For one, it seemed that in the early 1990s all of the records pertaining to the case had been destroyed by flooding when Hurricane Floyd hit New Jersey, wiping out practically all remaining documentation and evidence connected to the murder. It was certainly seen as odd that all remaining evidence and archived documents pertaining to the case would be stored in one place in the basement of a building that was supposedly known to be prone to flooding, and this fueled speculation that the records had not really lost to the flood at all, but rather had been destroyed intentionally perhaps in an effort to bury the case. Another weird rumor that came to light was the claim that police had never taken any photos of the crime scene, which cannot be confirmed in any way since any such photos would have been destroyed even if they had existed.
Attempts to interview locals about the old crime also met with similar problems police had encountered three decades earlier. Many claimed that it was best to just let it lie or that they were unwilling or even afraid to bring it up, while others simply said they didn’t remember the case. Most were unwilling or too frightened to even offer opinions or speculation on the case. Practically everyone approached about the matter displayed the same eerie uncooperativeness they had 30 years prior. Those who did have anything to say about the murder gave only the most cursory, scant details and urgently requested that their real names not be used, with even the police department reportedly not wanting to be mentioned or quoted in the articles. Additionally, once again the vast majority of information gained by Weird NJ was from anonymous letters which were sent by both people from the area as well as those who had long since moved away. Much of the information contained in these letters was cryptic, vague, nonsensical, or contradictory, and since all of it was unverifiable the letters practically served no useful purpose other than to expand the spooky imagery and air of mystery surrounding the murder as well to raise even more unanswered questions. The only thing that could really be gleaned was that most still believed it to be a murder carried out by a cult, that there had been attempts by local authorities to cover-up the case and destroy evidence, and that people were still terrified of talking about it.
What was going on here? Why was a whole town seemingly intent on covering up and burying the strange murder of Jeanette DePalma? Why were so many people still frightened to talk about this murder decades after it had happened? The bizarre facts surrounding the death of Jeanette DePalma have been the source of a great amount of speculation. It is mostly agreed upon that the murder was related to occultists of some kind, but above and beyond that there are a variety of theories. Some think that the whole town was in on it, including the police, and were attempting a cover-up of the incident, or that they knew who had carried out the murder and for some reason chose to look the other way. Others think that a cover-up was launched in order to try and preserve the town’s reputation in the face of such a ghastly crime, or that the murder had been committed by a powerful local figure who did not want the heinous crime brought to light. Still others believe that the townsfolk were so scared because the devil worshippers or witch coven believed to be responsible for the crime had enough power and influence to make sure that anyone who talked would also end up like Jeanette, and thus kept them in the grip of fear. Other theories say that her murder was not the work of a cult at all, but rather someone such as a jealous boyfriend who then made efforts to make it appear to be a satanic ritual.
Whatever the case may be, the murder of Jeanette DePalma is still unsolved and looks as if it will likely remain that way. There are no records or archives remaining and the only material to be found on the case are a scant few surviving newspaper clippings, as well as the results of the Weird NJ investigation. The facts have become incredibly distorted by time, rumors, hearsay, urban legend, and sensationalism. There are no new leads on the case, no new information, no new evidence, no suspects, nothing. This bizarre murder case, so pervaded by talk of Satanism, black magic, and sinister rituals, is about as cold as it can get. It is as if Jeanette DePalma never existed at all; almost as if she’s been erased from history. Why? Perhaps we will never know.