The general exams at Harvard finished just after noon on January 7, 1969. As the students packed their bags, a few speculated on where Jane Britton might be. She was a 23-year-old archaeology student known for her morbid humor and for her disappearing spells. Like the time when, after an unexplained absence, she appeared in the Peabody Museum smoking room and announced to those present: “The rumors of my death have been greatly exaggerated.” People knew she was fundamentally a good student, one of the few who had gone directly from Radcliffe, Harvard’s sister school, into Harvard’s PhD program. Missing generals would have been out of the question.
Jane’s boyfriend, Jim Humphries, had called her twice that morning. He was taking the exam at the Peabody that day, too. Jane and Jim, 27, had met in the spring of 1968, during a seminar to prepare for a summer archaeological expedition in Iran. The site was called Tepe Yahya, and the dig was led by a young Harvard professor named Clifford Charles Lamberg-Karlovsky. Graduate students called him Karl or CCLK, or, more covertly, Count Dracula, due to his rumored Eastern European aristocratic background and air of mystery. The success of the ’68 season only enhanced this reputation. Not long after the expedition crew returned to the States, The Boston Globe hailed Lamberg-Karlovsky as the discoverer of what appeared to be Alexander the Great’s lost city of Carmania.
It was on this dig in southeastern Iran that Jane and Jim’s relationship blossomed. Recently, Jane had talked to her friends about the possibility of marriage. She liked to joke that it would be held at the Church of the Unwarranted Assumption.
Jane hadn’t answered either call, which Jim thought was odd. He had seen her the night before and, other than being nervous about the test, she had seemed fine. But when she wasn’t in the exam, either, he knew something had gone wrong — she was sick or had slept in. He didn’t let himself consider worse.
Jim started the 15-minute walk from the museum to Jane’s apartment, a four-story walk-up on a side street that connected Mount Auburn Street to the Charles River. Her address — 6 University Road — was one of five entrances to a red brick and limestone building known as The Craigie.
Over the years, the building had fallen into disrepair. The surrounding area had also deteriorated. It became a kind of no-man’s-land of Harvard Square, home to parking lots, a trolley yard, and an alley that led to the river. Before developers turned those lots into the upscale Charles Hotel in the ’80s, the only reason to walk to that part of town was the Mount Auburn post office across the street and Cronin’s, a watering hole with a small TV screen and cheap beers.
But the rents were low — Jane’s was $75 a month — and the building was centrally located, so it was still real estate coveted by graduate students, particularly in the anthropology department, where units were passed down from one generation to the next. Jane had secured her apartment thanks to her now next-door neighbors, Don and Jill Mitchell, who were students specializing in Pacific Island anthropology.
Besides, Jane wasn’t bothered by the building’s shabbiness. While the Mitchells always used their dead bolt, Jane almost never locked her door. She seemed to live with a sense of invulnerability.
Jim reached University Road around 12:30 p.m. Jane’s, the smallest of the three apartments on the fourth floor, was at the end of an alcove. He knocked on her door.
Don and Jill Mitchell heard the noise and thought it might be Jane. Don walked into the hallway.
“Is Jane home?” Jim asked.
“I guess so.”
“Well, she didn’t take her quiz.”
Don’s face changed. He encouraged Jim to go in and check, so Jim knocked again. No answer. This time Jim reached for the handle and gave it a shove, and it opened.
“Can I come in?” Jim called out. Don waited by the door. Again no answer. Jim felt a cold gust of air coming from the kitchen and saw that the window was wide open. He was certain it hadn’t been open the night before.
Jane’s room was its usual homey mess. Books. Ashtrays. Manuscripts. Cups and cigarette butts. A turtle tank, soupy with algae, rested on her dresser. Shards of light glittered through the wine and brandy bottles she had arranged in her windows to catch the sun — a Dionysian pane of stained glass. Ceramic owls and artifacts from Jane’s travels lined the shelves. Paintings, some of which Jane had done herself, hung in their frames.
It was not until he fully walked into the apartment that he could see her. Jane’s right leg hung over the side of her bed. Her blue flannel nightgown was pulled up to her waist. He didn’t try to shake her awake. He walked out of the room and asked Don to get Jill because he didn’t think anything was seriously wrong, and Jane’s state of undress made it seem more like “a woman’s job.” Jill left her apartment, walked into Jane’s, and came back out almost immediately. She felt sick.
Don walked in this time. He approached the bed and noticed, with a bolt of guilt, that Jane wasn’t wearing underwear. Above her waist was a pile of long-haired sheepskin rugs and her fur coat. She was buried facedown underneath. He walked closer and pulled back the coat until he could see the back of her head. There was blood on the sheets. And the pillows. And on the rugs. And around her neck. He didn’t turn her over. There was no question: She was dead.
Detectives arrived not long after Don Mitchell’s call to the Cambridge police, and when they entered Jane’s room, her cat skittered out from his hiding place. They took stock of the scene. Valuables — money, jewelry — lay untouched, in plain sight. Two of Jane’s windows were open, despite the freezing Cambridge winter: one in the bedroom, which looked out on the Bennett Street parking lot; and the other in the kitchen, which led out to a fire escape.
Detective Lieutenant Leo Davenport, the head of the department’s 18-man Bureau of Criminal Investigations and acting chief of the homicide division, would later publicly dismiss the significance of these open windows. The heat in the building was “oppressive,” and it wasn’t unusual for residents to have their windows open all winter, he told the press.
Davenport was already familiar with Jane’s building because of its history of violent crime. In 1961, Jean Kessler, who had moved to the area for a job in Harvard’s music department, survived a hammer attack in her home. One report said it was her curlers that saved her. And Davenport himself had been assigned to the 1963 stabbing case of Beverly Samans, which happened just a few units over from Jane’s. Albert DeSalvo, the apparent Boston Strangler, confessed to the crime, but some doubted his story. The case remains open.
Police invited Jane’s parents, who had arrived shortly after the detectives and were sitting in the Mitchells' apartment, to enter Jane’s room. Jane’s father, J. Boyd Britton, was still in the suit and tie he had worn to work as vice president of administration at Radcliffe College. He surveyed the room at the police’s request to note if anything was missing. Nothing obvious, he concluded. Jane’s mother, Ruth, approached her daughter, who was still lying on her bed.
Ruth burst into tears at the sight. “She was a good girl. I can’t understand why something like this should happen to her.”
Detective Michael Giacoppo dusted the apartment for fingerprints and pulled a number for analysis. He took a few items from Jane’s room as evidence and collected some samples for chemical analysis, but he planned to do the bulk of the processing and crime scene photographing the next day. He did not find a weapon.
The building superintendent’s 7-year-old daughter reported having heard strange noises on the fire escape that led to Jane’s apartment from the courtyard around 9 p.m. But detectives dismissed this observation because Don said that he had entered Jane’s apartment after that time to get a beer from Jane’s fridge and found nothing amiss.
Neither of the Cambridge police patrol officers reported seeing anything unusual in the University Road area between 1 a.m. and 7 a.m. the previous night. A transit worker said he saw a man — 170 pounds, about 6 feet — running from the building around 1:30 in the morning, but given the heavy downpour, it didn’t strike him as unusual.
Shortly before midnight, Davenport gave the day’s final update to reporters. There was no evidence of any connection to the Samans stabbing that had taken place in the same apartment complex a few years prior. There was no visible blood except on the mattress and pillows.
“Time of death was estimated at between 10 and 12 hours prior to the finding of the body,” Davenport said, placing the window of murder between 12:30 a.m. and 2:30 a.m. Citing the preliminary autopsy report that the coroner had just completed, Davenport announced that Jane had died of contusions and lacerations of the brain. The fatal hit, the coroner determined, was a massive blow on the left side of the head behind her ear. It had been forceful enough to crack her skull.
“We have no firm suspects at this time,” Davenport said, emphasizing that Jim Humphries had come voluntarily to the police station. He had been very cooperative, and he wasn’t a suspect. There was only one thing Davenport felt sure of, it seemed: “It was someone she knew.”
By the morning of January 8, 1969, it was nearly impossible to pick up a newspaper in the United States that didn’t feature a story about Jane’s murder. It made the cover of all the Boston papers, and the New York tabloids exploded with coverage. Jane’s story towered over coverage of Sirhan Sirhan’s trial for the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy. Coverage ran in small papers across the country, too. They reprinted Associated Press and United Press International wire stories and gussied them up with headlines, one more sensational than the next, such as COLLEGE GIRL AXED TO DEATH IN BLOOD-COVERED APARTMENT and POLICE SEEKING MASSACHUSETTS AXE MURDERER.
Early suspicion among some of the graduate students was that it was a random attacker. “There was a considerable amount of crime in those years in Cambridge as well as in New York. There was the possibility that somebody had just broken in and killed her,” Francesco Pellizzi, a graduate student a few years older than Jane, would later remember. Anthropology student Mel Konner had a similar memory: “I think everyone had a heightened sense of the dangers of the Cambridge streets and Harvard Square.” Speaking at the time, Ingrid Kirsch, who knew Jane from Radcliffe and described her as “my closest and very best friend,” told reporters, “I don’t believe anyone who knew her could have done this.”
But then, late on January 8, Detective Sergeant John Galligan, a veteran of the Cambridge Bureau of Criminal Investigations, gathered the press for an informal conference. He assured reporters that “we are leaving no stone unturned in our investigation.” Twenty-three people had already been questioned in connection with the case, he said. Police had scheduled lie detector tests for the following day for Jim Humphries, Don and Jill Mitchell, and a fourth person whom he refused to name.
And then a chilling detail.
Powder had been found at the scene of the crime, he said. Red powder. What some know as iron oxide, and others call jewelers' rouge, but what archaeologists know, unmistakably, as red ochre. It’s what colors the rusty mountains of the Southwest, and what tints the bloody bison in the cave paintings of Lascaux. It appeared to have been thrown on the bed where Jane’s body lay.
“It was described to me as an ancient symbolic method of purifying the body to get it into paradise,” Galligan said.
The theory was that the perpetrator killed Jane, then stood over her body to toss the red powder as part of a recreation of a burial ritual. It limited the field of suspects to those who knew about the rite, likely someone with an intimate knowledge of anthropology.
“We are dealing with a sick man,” Galligan said.
The grand jury convened for Jane’s case almost exactly one month after her murder. Stars of Harvard’s anthropology department were paraded into the proceedings, vacuumed of their power and privilege. More than six months after the first hearing, though, the grand jury members had to admit that despite their investment, all avenues of investigation had fizzled. The grand jury never came to a vote about anyone.
The newspapers, which had been so obsessed with Jane, didn’t even bother to report on the fact that the grand jury dissolved without an indictment.
Just like that, the Jane Britton murder investigation faded from public view, and would stay a cold case for decades. But it continued being whispered about on campus. When I first heard the story, the body was nameless. It was 2009, the spring semester of my junior year. I had just turned 21.
My friend Lily and I had just sat down in the lush grass of John F. Kennedy Park when her boyfriend, Morgan, a recent graduate with a reputation for being a great storyteller, entered the park. Lily shrugged apologetically — it was supposed to be just the two of us — and we scooted over on our blankets. If he was going to interrupt our lunch, I thought, he could at least share a classic Morgan tale in exchange. I tried to bait him with a ghost story, some half-remembered lore involving an old firetruck that stood guard in Harvard Yard near the turn of the century.
“You want to hear a really crazy Harvard story?” he asked, and launched into his version of a macabre legend like a well-worn fairy tale. In the late 1960s, a beautiful young graduate student in archaeology was found murdered, bludgeoned to death . . .
From the moment I heard the story about the murder, so much about it barbed me. According to Morgan’s version, the murder was less a mystery than an open secret in the academic community, and I couldn’t shake my belief that a case that had eluded authorities for more than four decades could be solved by someone who cared enough to pay attention. I shaped the next 10 years of my life around Jane Britton. I followed the rumors and rabbit holes from the northern expanses of Canada to Guatemala, from Iran to Hawaii, and onto an archaeological dig in Bulgaria. I discovered secret files passed between generations of graduate students in the small, venal world of academic archaeology, and I uncovered a story of institutional silencing and injustice that stretched far beyond the tragedy in 1969. My connection with Jane and her case was a bond more alchemical than rational.
My phone lit up while I was at work. I grabbed my notebook and braced myself.
“Hi, this is Becky Cooper,” I said, as softly as I could because I was still at my desk.
“Hi, this is Boyd Britton, returning your recent call,” he said. He was Jane’s brother.
I called Boyd because I needed to know if anyone had been actively assigned to Jane’s case in recent years.
It was 2016, and I was at the beginning of a two-year public records battle with the Middlesex County district attorney’s office. In Massachusetts, homicides are technically under the jurisdiction of the district attorney where the crime occurred. When I learned this fact, I immediately wrote a public records request to the Middlesex DA; I hoped that even though the Cambridge police no longer had Jane’s records, Middlesex might.
It did, in fact. But the office refused to release anything: “Unfortunately, at this time, this Office is unable to provide you with copies of records as the records you are seeking directly relate to an active and open criminal investigation.” Something called exemption (f) was cited as the grounds for the refusal.
That was it; a one-page rejection. I had 90 days to appeal the decision, the letter informed me.
If I could prove that Jane’s investigation was not active, then maybe my appeal stood a shot. Surely the nearly 50 years between Jane’s murder and my appeal should be a factor, even if there was no statute of limitations on murder.
Boyd looked through his e-mail correspondence to see if there was anything of interest, narrating as he scrolled through his inbox. He eventually came across what he’d been looking for: “Sergeant Peter Sennott,” he said.
“He’s Massachusetts State Police, and they now have the case. It’s no longer in Cambridge’s hands.” According to Boyd, Sennott had said that “physical evidence was retained and could be examined, but the presence of DNA is unlikely. They have it as a cold case, but they have not dropped the ball on it.”
If physical evidence existed, it was a game changer. The case no longer relied on confession. It was no longer victim to the vagaries of memory, and of silencing and erasure and fear. This case might truly be solvable.
I wondered what the physical evidence was, and how well preserved it might be. Saliva on a cigarette butt? Fingerprints on an ashtray? I also doubted there was DNA. DNA testing in criminal cases didn’t start until the late ’80s, and widespread use didn’t occur until later, so even if by some miracle the authorities had saved something with DNA on it, the chances it would have been stored well enough to successfully test half a century later were next to zero. But still, it was something.
From what Boyd could glean, the Cambridge police had been ordered to hand over the files to State Police. Not much detail on it, but there was a suggestion that the DA was involved. Two Cambridge cops — Brian Branley and John Fulkerson — had been enthusiastic about reopening the case in the ’90s.
I tracked down all three of the cops. Sennott gave me nothing, and I left a voicemail for John Fulkerson. I had a bit more luck with Brian Branley, who confirmed what I needed for my public records appeal: nobody was directly assigned to the case. I was in the middle of including this detail in my appeal letter when John Fulkerson called me back.
He and Branley were assigned to the homicide unit in the mid-'90s. They were cleaning and reorganizing old boxes of material in the homicide room of the old Cambridge police precinct house when he saw Jane’s case. It stuck out because there weren’t a lot of unsolved murders in Cambridge. Going through the file, Fulkerson and Branley realized there were a few people — "some people that were close to her" — that they wanted to track down and interview. “You know, 80 percent of the people really want to confess to what they did. And sometimes when time goes by they want to talk about it,” Fulkerson said.
Around the same period, he said, the district attorney’s office had been making a big push to look at old cases that might be solved by reexamining DNA evidence. In Jane’s case, “There was some DNA evidence that they tried to reexamine but it wasn’t successful.”
The physical evidence was DNA! I wanted to shout. But I resisted. I didn’t want to call attention to the enormity of his revelation.
On April 4, 2017, nearly nine months into my battle with the Middlesex DA’s office for the files, I got an e-mail from Todd Wallack, a reporter on The Globe’s Spotlight team. He was writing an article about Jane. Wallack quickly put my surge of jealousy to rest — possessiveness initially blinded my excitement that people were finally paying attention to Jane’s story — with reassurances that he wasn’t interested in poaching the case. He just wanted to help people like me who were trying to solve it.
Wallack had made his career on exposing Massachusetts' frequent failures to comply with public records laws. The state, which likes to think of itself as the cradle of liberty, ranks near the bottom in terms of government transparency. It takes longer to reply to requests; it holds more records exempt from disclosure; it doesn’t fine agencies for noncompliance; and, in the cases where it does release files, it charges fees for reproduction so exorbitant that they are their own form of discouragement. Massachusetts is the only state that maintains its governor’s office, state Legislature, and judicial branch are all exempt from public records law.
Wallack told me that I wasn’t the only one trying to get access to Jane’s records. A colleague of his, as well as Mike Widmer, a nearly 80-year-old man who had spent most of his life in and around Massachusetts politics, had also had their public records requests refused by the state. In Jane’s case, Wallack saw an opportunity to ask the question: Is a murder case ever so old that the records holder can no longer justify the withholding of material?
This dusty old story that had lived privately with me for years and years was about to be blown back open on the national stage.
As promised, Wallack’s article — the lead story of the June 18, 2017, Sunday Globe, with a big picture of Jane above the fold — placed the Middlesex DA’s refusal to release Jane’s records within the larger context of Massachusetts' history of restricting public access to documents. Wallack’s article also publicly confirmed that the last round of DNA testing in the Jane Britton case was in 2006, and that there was still some DNA that remained that authorities could test.
Afterward, the e-mails started coming in. Jane’s principal adviser, Professor Lamberg-Karlovsky, wrote to say that he disagreed with the authorities' decision not to release records. Don Mitchell was rattled by readers' comments, but that was outweighed by his gratefulness for the attention to Jane’s case. A lawyer reached out to offer pro bono legal counsel to me and Mike Widmer.
Mike, it turned out, had been the first reporter on the scene back in 1969. It had only been his second day on the job at UPI when the Boston bureau chief called him into his office — “We’ve got a classy murder for you.” It was from his UPI article, syndicated in Stars and Stripes, that Boyd first learned his sister had been murdered.
Shortly before Wallack’s story came out, Mike and I met for the first time at Flour Bakery in Harvard Square, around the corner from Jane’s University Road building. This used to be Cronin’s bar, where Mike had called in the original story from. I realized he had been almost exactly my age when he first covered Jane’s story, and the number of years that separated us were almost exactly the number of years between Jane’s death and our quest or the files.
We left Flour Bakery and sneaked into Jane’s building. A postal worker was exiting, and we slid in and ran onto the elevator. As soon as the door closed, we giggled, and I saw the years dissolve off him. Suddenly, we’re the same age, pursuing this story.
When we left the building, we still weren’t ready to say goodbye, so we made our way to a nearby park. As he tried to recall what time Jane’s body had been taken out of the building, I remembered I had an old newspaper photo of the stretcher being carried out. Mike took my phone, and zoomed in. He turned it back to me and pointed to a young man with a mustache and a light-colored trench. “That’s me,” he said, seeing himself in a picture that he hadn’t known existed.
I realized we were sitting in the same park where I had heard about Jane for the first time. I felt the echo and wondered if this story was particularly laced with coincidence, or if I desired them so much I made them.
On July 31, 2018, Don calls me. His voice sounds full, like he’s barely containing a smile. “I have some news, and I thought I would call you. I’ll just tell you what it is, and then you can react. Boyd called last night.”
“He knows what we want to know, and here it is.”
It takes me a second to comprehend the enormity of what I’m about to find out.
“It was a rape-murder — by a stalker.” He said it flat and paused to let it sink in. Her murderer was “just some random killer.” There was semen at the scene. That’s how they matched it. And, according to Boyd, the assailant died in prison in 2001.
The word random feels heavy and dangerous, like a pinball. I wanted there to be more of a story so that it wasn’t so awful. Besides, hadn’t the cops been sure Jane wasn’t raped? “It seems just even more senseless than I — ” I trail off, lost in the eddy of, It was random? It was senseless? It could have been anyone?
He had been following her. He waited until Jim left. He let himself in. He beat her. He raped her. I never wanted to imagine her scared or tortured or in pain. The randomness forces me to confront the awful fact that she might have suffered.
Look, it says.
I can’t. I don’t want to. I feel awful in the absence of mystery, of narrative echo, of symmetry or rhyme or sense.
Don fills the silence. He tells me he doesn’t know the culprit’s name. The press conference, Don tells me, is supposed to happen in two weeks. And then two weeks gets pushed to three. And then, finally, Sennott gives Don a date: Monday, August 20, 2018.
Four days before the conference, I notice a missed call from Boyd. He lays it all out. The random intruder. The rape. The DNA results.
And then he says that he and Peter Sennott had spoken to each other again a few days ago. After nearly 50 years, Boyd finally learned the name of the man who killed his sister: Michael Sumpter.
The name means absolutely nothing to me. I’ve never come across it before.
“How are you feeling about all of it?” I ask.
“Well, fine. They’ve got the answer they wanted. I had the answer I wanted a long time ago.”
“Which is, she got killed.”
There were other victims. On January 6, 1972 — one day shy of the three-year anniversary of Jane’s murder — a woman named Ellen Rutchick failed to show up at work at the Colonnade Hotel in Boston. Police entered her 10th-floor apartment and found her lying on her back on the living room floor — beaten, raped, and strangled with the hi-fi cord from her stereo set.
In 2005, Rutchick’s siblings asked Boston police to reopen her case. They knew that there were some forensics from the crime scene. Investigators with Boston Police Department’s Unsolved Homicides Squad agreed to take on the case. The department sent the slides to an independent lab specializing in DNA analysis to see if it could work some magic. It took four years, but in September 2009, the lab told investigators that it had successfully extracted a genetic profile from the slides. There had been a hit in the CODIS criminal database, and his name was Michael Sumpter.
Sumpter had been dead for almost nine years. When he passed away in 2001 from a heart attack and prostate cancer, he was 53 years old, which, I quickly calculated, meant that he was only 21 when he killed Jane.
In 2010, the Boston Police Department’s cold case squad turned to another victim linked to Sumpter, Mary McClain. This time, the CODIS hit took less than two years. “It’s been 40 years, and it’s just haunted me my whole life, wondering who did this to her,” Kathy McClain, Mary’s only surviving relative, told the Boston Herald.
The press conference doesn’t happen on Monday. Or that week. Or that month. October pushes into November. I head home to New York the week before Thanksgiving. And, just as it’s always been with this story, the second I step away, everything shifts. I don’t even bother feigning surprise when the DA’s communications director and I speak. She says there will be a press conference about the case on Tuesday afternoon.
“I’ll be there,” I say.
On November 20, 2018, Mike Widmer texts to let me know that, as always, he’s early. He’s in a maroon Honda, parked in front of Harvard Hillel. He pops his trunk so I can throw in my suitcase — my plan is to head straight back to my family in New York, whenever it’s over.
Mike doesn’t know what’s about to happen. I hadn’t been able to bring myself to tell him.
“Don’t you think they’re going to tell us they cracked the case?” he asks as he turns left to follow the Charles River, on our way to Woburn.
I turn toward him. I can’t lie to him. I know what they’re going to say, I tell him. I ask if he would rather find out from me or from the press conference.
“I would like to know,” he says.
“From me?” I clarify.
“We’re in this together,” he says.
I tell him everything.
“Oh my God,” Mike says, refusing to take his eyes off the road. Everything is gray — the sky, the leafless trees, even the mist that the cars kick up behind them. He knows from experience that one of life’s hard lessons is its arbitrariness. So many people die randomly. And none of this matters to Jane because she’s dead. But somehow it still matters. It matters how she died. And why she did. He, like all of us, wanted there to be an explanation.
At the Middlesex DA’s office, Mike and I take two seats in the front row. Over the course of the next hour, an armada of news cameras sets up behind us. The radio people plug into the sound system and try not to trip over their own wires. My heart is pounding.
District Attorney Marian Ryan walks in and lays a manila folder on the lectern. People file in after her: her chief of homicide, Peter Sennott, and three other State Police officers. Ryan speaks slowly, prioritizing clarity over affect:
For the past 50 years, the murder of Jane Britton has intrigued members of the public and has posed a number of investigatory challenges for law enforcement. Multiple teams of investigators have looked into tips from the public, followed up on all available leads, and ruled out multiple suspects.
As a direct result of their perseverance and the utilization of the latest advances in forensic technology by the Massachusetts State Police crime laboratory, I am today confident that we are able to say that the mystery of who killed Jane Britton has finally been solved.
This is the oldest case that the Middlesex district attorney’s office has been able to bring to a resolution. This year, as a result of numerous forensic tests on DNA samples collected, both those collected at the time of Jane’s murder and those collected more recently, we were able to positively identify Michael Sumpter as the person responsible for Jane’s murder.
Ryan explains that Sumpter had ties to Cambridge. He lived there as a child and attended first grade in the area. He had run-ins with the Cambridge cops as a juvenile, and his girlfriend in the late ’60s lived in the neighborhood. In 1967, Sumpter worked at an establishment on Arrow Street in Harvard Square, less than a mile from Jane’s apartment. And several years later, he was arrested and convicted of assaulting a woman in her Boston home, whom he had met earlier that evening at the Harvard Square T stop.
Ryan mentions the transit worker who, on the night of Jane’s murder, saw a man fleeing her building around 1:30 a.m. — 170 pounds, 6 feet. When Sumpter was arrested in 1970, he was 170 pounds, 6 foot 1. She also says that authorities think that Sumpter entered Jane’s apartment via the fire escape, and that police learned of a resident who heard noise on the escape. She does not mention that the witness was 7 years old, and that Don Mitchell had entered Jane’s apartment after the apparent noise and saw nothing amiss.
The district attorney speaks for 10 minutes. She concludes: “It is my hope today, especially as we enter into Thanksgiving week and to the holiday season, that finally knowing who is responsible for Jane’s brutal murder will provide some consolation to Jane’s surviving family and friends.” Then she takes questions.
But what about the ochre, one journalist asks. Ryan says it may have just been a “red herring” all along.
Later, the only solid new piece of information I’m able to draw from the DA is that it was my and Widmer and Wallack’s public records push that helped drive the investigation to this conclusion. Forensic tests on the crime scene sample had stalled in 2004, when there wasn’t enough DNA to yield a result. Authorities' hope was that technology would advance even further so that the minute amount of DNA that remained might one day be sufficient to yield a robust profile.
And then, 12 years later, our public records requests came through. If Middlesex County wanted to withhold the files because they held out hope for solving the case and prosecuting someone, they had to make good on their claim that the investigation was active, which meant testing the remaining genetic material.
Waiting for some hypothetical date when the technology might advance enough was no longer an option. Ryan said, “We decided to do one last sweep of the file. Is there anything else that maybe the lab could look at, maybe they could do?”
After the press conference, I hand Mike a CD in a flimsy paper jacket.
“Is this today?” he asks, thinking it’s the information packet the DA’s office handed out to journalists.
“It’s the file,” I say.
He looks at the tiny CD in his hand, wondering if it really could be what we’ve been fighting for years for. He doesn’t say anything for a long time. And then, finally: “Now I know what I’ll be doing with the rest of my life.”
Mike and I wind back through Woburn and Belmont. Mike feels satisfied. With the solution. With the investigation. With the fact that he played a big role — and a good role — in this.
I can see the post office up ahead, and I know what’s about to come. On the right-hand side is Jane’s apartment. We take one lap around it — the parking lot, her living room window that faced the river — before continuing onward.
It occurs to us that a cousin of randomness is serendipity.
Correction: This story has been updated to correct which parts of Massachusetts government claim exemption from public records law.
Becky Cooper is a writer in New York. This story is adapted from the forthcoming book “WE KEEP THE DEAD CLOSE: A Murder at Harvard and a Half Century of Silence” by Becky Cooper. Copyright © 2020 by Becky Cooper. Reprinted by permission of Grand Central Publishing, New York, New York. All rights reserved. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Cooper will be the featured author in a Harvard Book Store virtual event Nov. 13 at 7 p.m., moderated by investigative journalist Patrick Radden Keefe. Free. Register here.