Murder of Hartland woman’s sister finally solved after 50 years

By Mike Donoghue, Standard Correspondent

Mary Curran Campbell, Rita Curran’s sister, talks with former U.S. Senator and former Chittenden County State’s Attorney Patrick J. Leahy about the solving of the homicide. Campbell is a Hartland resident. Mike Donoghue Photo

For more than 51 years, Mary Curran Campbell of Hartland had often wondered if the killer of her sister would ever be identified in one of Vermont’s most puzzling and troubling homicides.

Campbell finally got her wish Tuesday when Burlington Police publicly announced that William R. DeRoos had beaten, sexually assaulted and strangled his downstairs neighbor in her bedroom on Brookes Avenue the night of July 19, 1971.

Rita Curran, 24, the oldest of three children in a well-known Milton family, had been living for the summer at an apartment in Burlington when she was attacked and killed.

DeRoos was 31 years old and had been married for two weeks when he had a fight with his new wife the night of July 19, 1971 and left their third-floor apartment at 15 Brookes Avenue for a “cooldown walk,” according to Burlington Police.

Instead, DeRoos killed Curran, a second-grade teacher at Milton Elementary, in her first-floor bedroom at 17 Brookes Avenue, which was part of the same three-story converted Victorian house, police said. Minutes later DeRoos returned to his third-floor apartment with no known scrapes or wounds and went to bed with his wife, police said.

DeRoos lied — and he got his wife to lie — that they had been home all night and that they had heard nothing unusual, police said. But new advanced DNA test results don’t lie and Tuesday, DeRoos was identified during a Burlington Police news conference as Curran’s long-sought killer. 

DeRoos can’t be held accountable for what has been considered one of the highest profile unsolved — until this week — homicides in Vermont history. He eventually died from a drug overdose — acute morphine poisoning — in a San Francisco hotel on Aug. 7, 1986 — 15 years after the homicide.

Acting Burlington Police Chief Jon Murad said the case is being closed thanks to the new DNA test results. The new DNA testing on a Lark brand cigarette butt left next to Curran’s right arm in her bedroom led investigators on a scientific trail to DeRoos. The Lark with a charcoal filter had not been crushed, but rather burned out with the ash also found on the floor. Police determined Curran and her roommate never smoked.

And during a new interview last September with the ex-wife of DeRoos, she admitted she and her husband had lied repeatedly to police after the killing, Burlington Detective Lt. James Trieb said.

Michelle Roach DeRoos, whose father had been the plant manager at IBM in Essex in the mid-1960s, had maintained initially to city and state police that they knew nothing, and they were home all night of the killing, Lt. Trieb said. Those were lies, he said.

Her husband, William DeRoos, told her she needed to stick with the story because he had a criminal record and if police knew he had left the apartment, they would focus on him for the killing, Lt. Trieb said. 

DeRoos had shown other signs of violence later in life, including stabbing a woman friend without provocation in front of his third wife, Lt. Trieb said. His third wife also mentioned another unprovoked attack in which he strangled her with both hands until she nearly passed out.

For Campbell, who was accompanied by relatives and friends to the news conference, the family can now have closure in her sister’s death, even if it didn’t come in a court of law.

“We are very happy that even though it is a different kind of justice we are happy we don’t have a trial ahead of us. We don’t have to face crime scene photos and really bring up a lot of pain,” Campbell told The Vermont Standard.

“And we are happy that we didn’t see the person vindicated for a lack of evidence. We didn’t see the person go to jail and get released. So, in a way it is a nice closing for us,” she said. There is finality.

Campbell and she and her husband, Thomas, always made sure their two children growing up in Windsor County — when old enough to understand — were told the life story of Rita Curran and that she was such a bright light that was extinguished way too early. The story continued later with their four grandchildren.

“They all know the story. They were told when they were old enough to absorb it,” she said.

“Rita has always been part of our family,” said Campbell, who helped her husband with his accounting and real estate businesses in Windsor County through the years.

Campbell admitted it was very frustrating for her family that DeRoos’ second wife lied multiple times through the years to the police to protect her troubled husband.  

“He did not have a good life. He did not have our life. He did not have our family. He did not take us. He only took our sister,” said Campbell, who came from a tight-knit Irish Catholic family. 

Burlington Police first told the Curran family about the expected resolution last November — but asked them to remain silent until all the final steps were taken to close the case.

“We were asked not to share anything until they had it all locked in,” Campbell said.

“I think we were just numb. We were just so shocked and it came across as being so simple. It was the guy upstairs,” Campbell said. 

“She was killed because she simply was in the wrong place at the wrong time,” she said.

Closing the case

The Kevin P. Scully Community Room at the police station was filled for the press conference with current and retired officers, including three retired police chiefs. Among the politicians was retired U.S. Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt., who was the Chittenden County state’s attorney, and his wife, Marcelle. Leahy shared private comments with the family. Also offering comments was Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger, a graduate of Woodstock Union High School.

The case was solved through Familial DNA by Parabon Labs and one of its genealogists, CeCe Moore, who spoke at the news conference. Familial DNA is when family members share their DNA publicly in the hopes to trace their ancestors. For DeRoos, it was a cousin that made his DNA available. A half-brother also provided DNA and those two donations proved valuable. For DeRoos the latest test results showed genetic matches through both sets of grandparents on his family tree, police said.

DeRoos had fled Vermont in the fall of 1971 — just a few months after the killing. He eventually went to Thailand and became a Buddhist Monk for a short time before his wife rejoined him. He stopped being a monk and they traveled, but he became a monk again and she was made a nun, she told police.

The couple had been married on July 5, 1971, in Burlington, Trieb said. They had met at a Zen Center in San Francisco about 1970. Michelle Roach said she moved back into her parents home in Burlington in early 1971 and DeRoos eventually showed up unexpectedly. Her parents were “not thrilled” about her dating him, but when her parents moved to Knowlton, British Columbia, Roach and DeRoos moved to the Brookes Avenue apartment.  

DeRoos, who was working as a farm laborer at the Palmer Farm in Hinesburg, had a plan to set up a barber shop in Burlington, police said. After the homicide plans for work and life changed drastically, Trieb said.

Police later learned he had a few criminal convictions, including serving prison sentences in California. One armed robbery conviction netted him a 2-to-3 year prison term, his wife said she was told.

Roach, who is believed to have been the second of three wives for DeRoos, now goes by the name Kylas Nagaarjuna in Eugene, Ore. and works as a nurse, police said. He married his third wife in November 1974 in San Francisco, police said.

Murad said Trieb decided a new investigative approach was needed on the Curran case. Instead of just one detective being assigned to work the cold case when free, a decision was made to have the entire detective bureau involved and to treat the homicide like it was a fresh case. Detective Cpl. Thomas Chenette was the lead investigator

Murad noted the detective bureau also solved the six most recent homicides in the city while working on the Curran case.  

“Curran Strong” 

Curran had been sharing the apartment at 17 Brookes Avenue for only a few weeks that summer. She was enrolled in summer school classes nearby at the University of Vermont and she had continued her part-time work at the Colonial Motor Inn on Shelburne Road and Hadley Road in South Burlington.

Curran graduated from the former Mount Saint Mary Academy in 1965 and Trinity College in 1969. Curran had taught second grade for two years in her hometown of Milton. School officials said her work focused in part on handicapped and disadvantaged children. Curran was well-known for her interest in singing throughout school and in the community.

The Burlington Police hosted a luncheon for the Currans last Wednesday to give them the complete story about how investigators had used scientific evidence to link DeRoos to the brutal killing. The family was allowed to ask all the questions that had gone unanswered for so many decades.

Tom Curran Jr. of Milton, said on Tuesday there was much more to his oldest sister than the two photographs — her driver’s license and Trinity College yearbook — that most media accounts have used since 1971. He said the extended family helped support each other. He said his wife was assuring.  “We will get through this. We are Curran Strong.”

He said he continued to pray for his parents and for his sister, Rita.

Mary Curran Campbell agreed that family support was critical in getting through the past 50-plus years.

She gave a special acknowledgment to Lt. Trieb and the detectives that have worked on the case in recent years to help bring closure. 

“His team did not disappoint him,” Campbell said.

The homicide sent shockwaves across the city and state and left many wondering who could have done such a vicious crime in what had been considered a tranquil city. It has remained unsolved for more than 51 years despite the efforts of dozens of local and state police investigators chasing countless leads both in Vermont and many other states.

Police during the press conference, during follow-up interviews and by sharing a 34-page summary report outlined the following:

DeRoos entered the apartment with both the front and back door unlocked late on the night of July 19, 1971 and killed Curran, who was last seen alive about 11:20 p.m. Some blood stains appeared to indicate the killer went out through the kitchen and back door of the converted old Victorian-styled residence. 

Curran had declined an invitation to join her two roommates and a boyfriend at the Harbor Hide-A-Way restaurant on U.S. 7 in Shelburne for drinks late that Monday night. She was believed to be asleep when her roommate, Beverly Lamphere, 24, left the apartment to join the third roommate, Kerry Duane, 19, and her boyfriend Paul Robinson, 23, who were already at the oddly decorated restaurant that had a casket with a skeleton in the bar.

The three returned to the apartment about 12:30 a.m. July 20, 1971 unaware the badly beaten and strangled Curran was dead in her bedroom. Lamphere, who shared one of the two ground-floor bedrooms with Curran, found her dead on the floor about 1:20 a.m. 

She alerted the other roommate, Duane and her boyfriend, Robinson, who were in the other bedroom. Burlington Rescue squad members Steve Olio and Dave Bean responded and determined Curran was dead. So did Burlington Patrolman Richard Garrow, who was the first police officer on the scene. 

It brought in a swarm of detectives from Burlington and state police. Leahy, his state police-assigned investigator, Leo Blais, and Dr. Lawrence “Stan” Harris, Vermont’s chief medical examiner also responded.

Murad noted it was the delicate handling of evidence by the initial investigators that allowed the DNA tests to be run many decades later. The primary investigators were Detective Lt. Richard Beaulieu and Sgt. Wayne Liberty, while the Identification Officer handling much of the evidence was Harold Baker.

In the end, it was the advances in DNA testing that solved the case. There were at least 14 possible male suspects or persons of interest that were eliminated through the new DNA testing, police said.

Even serial killer and rapist Ted Bundy was briefly considered. Bundy was born in Burlington at the Elizabeth Lund Home for Unwed Mothers in November 1946, but his mother returned to Pennsylvania after his birth. He had no other known connections to Vermont and it appears he was on the west coast at the time of the Curran killing.

The early years

Curran came from a well-known Irish Catholic family in Milton. Her father Thomas E. Curran Sr. worked at IBM for many years and served as the Zoning Administrator for the town of Milton. He and his wife, Mary, were active at St. Ann Catholic Church and often worked on election day at the polls.

The family owned a diner and some rental cabins on Arrowhead Mountain Lake on U.S. 7 near the power dam for many years. Rita Curran was described at the time by friends and police as a shy, petite brunette.

The day of the homicide, a Monday, Curran had worked the day shift as a chambermaid at the Colonial. Curran attended a barbershop quartet practice in Burlington that evening before returning to her apartment.

Curran’s parents died never knowing who killed their daughter: Thomas F. Curran Sr., 68, died in 1991 and her mother, Mary Donahue Curran, 83, died in 2002.

On the 50th anniversary of the homicide, the family provided a statement to Burlington Free Press staff writer Liz Murray.

“Fifty years is a long time to grieve, a long time to hope. The fifty-year mark confirms that a resolution in our lifetime to Rita’s murder is not going to happen. As a family, in our prayers, we will never give up our deepest private hope. Rita’s story has a home in our family legacy forever. We recognize that over time, memories fade, evidence ages, the perpetrator may be dead, interest in this story wanes. For fifty years, the Burlington Police Department has worked every lead they have ever received and have been very compassionate to our family. We know Rita’s death did not happen in a vacuum. Somebody somewhere knows what happened that night on July 19, 1971 and they will take that information to their grave. May God have mercy on their soul,” the statement said.

As years passed, the BPD investigative file got thicker with more interviews and reports, but detectives often confided it would likely take DNA evidence if the case ever were to be closed. They noted witnesses die and memories fade. Few Burlington Police officers from 1971 are alive today. But DNA lives forever.