(Editor's note - this is 7th article in a series The Waterbury Observer is publishing about unsolved murders of Waterbury women in the past 34 years, six of whose bodies were hidden in the forest along a desolate road in the Campville section of Harwinton.)
Story By Robert Muldoon
Jessica Muskus walked out of her family’s front door on Bunker Hill Avenue in Waterbury in July 2004 and never returned.
Two years later, her remains were found along a dark stretch of Route 8 in the Campville section of Harwinton. Five other Waterbury women have been found near that same spot since 1988, most recently in 2021.
Several of the Campville murder victims have been described as drug addicts and prostitutes by law enforcement and the media, a characterization that the Muskus family pushed back hard against. Over the years, news updates rehash negative descriptions that continue to inflict pain on the grieving family.
In an effort to have a more holistic look at Jessica Muskus, the Observer spoke with her older sister, her daughter and her best friend. Here is what we learned…
Jessica Muskus experienced early struggles in life. In Hartford, her mother Linda had suffered from a brain tumor, which led to a period of drug use. But Linda moved to Waterbury, recovered at Health Inc. in Watertown, and reunited her family. It was a struggle, but Linda found sobriety and redemption.
As inspirational as Linda’s story is of 30 years clean, equally inspirational is that her daughter, Jessica, never for a moment blamed her mother for her human struggles. She loved Linda wholeheartedly, unconditionally.
“She really loved my grandparents (Linda and Mike)” said Destiny, her daughter. “She forgave her mom. She cared about them a lot. She would do anything for them.”
So many stories are heard these days of children blaming parents, living a lifetime of resentment, sometimes over small slights. Not Jessica. She loved and admired her mother.
And that reveals a lot about Jessica’s character. In the same way that she never became a jealous rival of her friend Jennifer Spinella, when both dated the same boy in high school, Jessica never stopped loving her mother. Who among us can summon such uncommon grace?
Nicole Muskus Edmonds acknowledged that in the last six months of her sister’s life that Jessica had begun using drugs. She said this in the hope that it might help the investigation into her murder.
But Jessica was not a hardened user. She lived with her family. She brushed her daughter Destiny’s hair each morning. She fetched the family ice cream on summer days.
Jessica never had the chance to overcome this rough patch of life, like her mother had. Jessica never had a chance at redemption, like her mother had. Jessica’s life, with all its promise and exceptionalism, was stolen.
The media and the police often parrot each other. Together, in a twisted dance, they demonize victim and family. A victim’s photo is needed, police hand over a mug shot, the press prints it. A victim’s background is needed, police provide an arrest record, the press prints it.
Annual updates on an investigation are needed, police bravely assure us that all leads are being followed, no stone left unturned, and the public watch dog laps it up.
Decades pass, updates are still needed, and the media and police begin their twisted dance anew, recycling all the empty promises, arrests and mug shots.
And all this while, victims’ families suffer.
Going back to 1992, a lot has been written about Jessica and her family, much of it damaging, misleading and incomplete. Family and friends have long wanted to speak out, but they’ve been burned too much. They’ve suffered indignities no one should endure, as has the cherished memory of their beloved Jessica, a girl who dazzled the world from such a tender age.
An Exceptional Artist
From the beginning, Jessica Marie Muskus stood out from crowds for exceptional talents. At age 9, she won a citywide contest in Hartford for a painting of a bowl of fruit. The work was so mature and evocative that her teacher sent a note home and offered to buy it for $35. Her mother refused.
When the family moved to Waterbury, Jessica continued to stand out. Graduating from North End Middle School, she was admitted into the Waterbury Gifted Program for “intellectually gifted high school students.”
In the North End yearbook, the superlatives rolled in. Awarded “Best Dressed,” Jessica was dissatisfied with the black-and-white photo in the yearbook. Thinking creatively, she pasted a color photo of herself atop the dreary one.
It seemed a good metaphor. In a bland and colorless world, Jessica burst out with life, vitality and vibrancy. Jessica Muskus was exceptional—and going places.
Best Friend Forever
At Wilby High, Jessica met Jen Spinella in her freshman year. The circumstances were unusual. They both had been dating the same boy. But far from becoming jealous rivals, as many teens might, they became best friends. It revealed something of the generous character of the gifted freshman. The two became inseparable.
“Jess was a people person,” Spinella said. “A hard worker. A good girl.”
At Fulton Park, the two spent hours together discussing “everything and anything.” They found a favorite spot, near an old, fallen tree. The two girls shared similar childhood experiences. They trusted each other.
Jessica’s first car was a red Geo Tracker. “She loved that little thing,” Spinella recalled.
But at the outset, there was a small problem. The tracker was a standard. And the gifted student, who excelled at most everything, had trouble grinding the gears. But eventually she got the hang of it and the car lasted for years.
The two friends drove around Waterbury and cranking tunes. Jessica’s favorite was “Juicy” by Biggie Smalls. It’s an upbeat song about overcoming adversity with lyrics about “turning negative into positive,” Spinella said.
Jessica often parked her little red Tracker in front of La Cazuela Restaurant at the bottom of Willow Street, and ordered takeout. On top of other enviable qualities, “she ate a lot” Spinella said, “but she never gained weight.”
In 2000, when Jessica was 17, she gave birth to daughter Destiny Perez. Fortunately, she had the support of her family, especially older sister Nicole. Nicole accompanied Jessica to all of her doctor’s appointments.
Being a mother and building a future became the dual focuses of her life. With the little red Tracker, Jessica had learned to shift gears, and now she did so in life.
She completed her GED at Waterbury Adult Education. Her family moved to Vermont, and she completed a Certified Nursing Assistant degree and worked in the medical field. When the family returned to Waterbury in 2002, Jessica worked at the Mediplex of Southbury.
All the while, she nurtured her creative side. It’s part of family lore that “you could give her anything, and she would cut it up, dye it—turn into something beautiful,” Destiny said. “She loved writing and poetry, too.”
And her art work, celebrated with a city award at a young age, matured too. Jessica’s drawing of an elephant captured “every small detail,” Destiny said, “every little wrinkle.”
An Ice Cream Day
July 24, 2004 dawned like any other day. Destiny was starting kindergarten that fall. Anticipation filled the air. Her mom Jessica did her hair that morning. Then Jessica went out to get ice cream at Carvels for the family. She returned with the treats.
Later that day, she went out from home at 27 Bunker Hill Avenue. But she hadn’t returned after nightfall. It wasn’t like Jessica not to call. Everyone was adamant about that.
“She would always call if she were not going to be home,” Spinella said. “That’s one thing about her that sticks out. She would call no matter what. She would call her mom to say where she was and she’s not going to be home, whatever the case may be.”
Nicole added, “She left without a change of clothes, without her pocketbook.”
Her worried mother called police. But the family did not get the response they expected. Police said she was an adult, and they did not classify her as a “missing person.” Critical days sailed by with the police on the sidelines. The Waterbury police refused to act, chalking up the disappearance to an adult making a conscious decision to leave.
On November 14, 2006 a hunter found skeletal remains in Harwinton, off Route 8 in Campville, in a dark stretch off of Exit 41. It was not far from where the bodies of four other Waterbury women had already been found. In 2021, a sixth woman, Brianna Beam, 20, with Waterbury ties would be found there.
In December, as the Muskus family was hanging Christmas lights, two state police arrived and told them the remains were Jessica’s. Her remains had been covered in clothing. Duct tape was nearby.
“Please let police catch who did this,” Nicole pleaded, in tears. “She was a wonderful person.”
Police felt that the killer of Jessica Muskus might be the same person who killed Karen Everett, 25, in 1988, and Mildred Alvarado, 30, in 1989. Both were found near that spot in Campville, down a steep embankment by the Naugatuck River.
Unexpectedly, another serial killer came onto police radar: William Devin Howell. He had moved from Virginia to Connecticut in 2002. Howell hadn’t been charged with any murders yet, but police arrested him and began testing his van for DNA. On July 22, 2004, before the DNA results were in, he was released from prison—two days before Jessica went missing.
Howell’s van had been seized in April 2004. When the tests were completed, police found DNA evidence of several missing women. Howell later confessed to murdering six women and a man—including three women picked up in Waterbury.
All of the victims’ remains were later found buried behind a strip mall in New Britain which he called “his garden.” In a book by that grisly title, author Anne Howard interviewed Howell in Cheshire Correctional Institute where he is serving 360 years.
Howell denied killing Muskus, pointing to a lack of DNA evidence in his van where, the book revealed, testing for Jessica’s DNA had been done in December 2004, and again in May 2014. Both results were negative.
But Howell’s van, which he called his “Murder Mobile”, had been seized three months before Jessica went missing. If he abducted her, then it would have been in another vehicle. Howell denied killing Jessica Muskus in an interview.
“Muskus had died at the very end of July. I had already left for Virginia, or Carolina, I forget which one, but I had left Connecticut by then,” he told Howard.
After Jessica was found in November 2006, years went by and the Muskus family experienced the same frustrations of other victim’s families. Lack of police communication, jurisdiction issues, false hope of DNA, and dismissive police attitudes.
While the murders of Karen Everett and Mildred Alvarado are being investigated by the Connecticut State Police, the Waterbury Police Department took control of the murder of Jessica Muskus.
Why the difference? Waterbury had launched a missing person investigation into Jessica’s disappearance, so they were already involved. Captain Mike Ponzillo is now head of the Waterbury Detective Bureau, and in 2006 the Muskus investigation was his first assignment as a new detective. Ponzillo worked the case with experienced detective Rich Baxter, and they worked with Jessica’s friends to try and unravel the mystery.
“We developed several leads but were unable to link anyone to Jessica’s death,” Ponzillo told the Observer.
In 2006, Ponzillo and Baxter tried to bridge the two-year gap between when Jessica was reported missing, until her remains were found. The Muskus family lived each day in agony and uncertainty—hoping the best, fearing the worst.
“This was the most traumatic event of my life,” Nicole said.
Eventually the investigation became a cold case. Over the years, other detectives have been assigned the investigation, but Nicole Muskus Edmonds said getting information is frustrating.
“The case seemed to be bounced from one uninterested detective to another,” she said.
The Muskus family is right where they were in 2006: seeking justice. They are thankful to the Smolinski Family, who’ve fought to pass “Billy’s Law” forcing police to take seriously, and act on, reports of missing adults—instead of dithering days and weeks, when the time to act is immediate.
Ironically, Billy Smolinski went missing one month after Jessica Muskus.
A Daughter’s Quest for Justice
Destiny Perez was four when her mother went missing. Her mother’s mysterious disappearance has cast a shadow over her life.
But her voice had never been taken seriously—or even listened to. As Destiny grew older, she had things to say, and she wanted answers, too. At age 15, she went to Waterbury police with her memories of the day her mother went missing.
She remembered her mother telling her to come in a car with her. She remembered seeing magazines and sweaters in the back seat. She remembered a tan interior. She had “a bad feeling.” She refused. She returned up the stairs. The memories gnawed at her.
Destiny asked Waterbury police for information. A records officer gave her a phone number. He promised to put together information for her. He never did.
Destiny Perez was now the third generation pleading for help and being ignored.
The Apple Never Falls Far from The Tree
As a 9-year-old, Jessica had made an award-winning painting of a fruit bowl. Years later, another beautiful apple was born—and this one did not fall far from the tree.
Destiny Perez is 22 now, the age her mother went missing. As a girl, she looked at her mother’s photos and saw an adult. Now she looks at the same pictures and sees a young woman like herself. One day, she imagines, she’ll look on them and see a young girl.
Grandparents Linda and Mike Alley raised her, and Destiny showed the telltale signs of being the prodigy that her mother once was. By kindergarten, she was reading “chapter books—books with actual chapters” while the rest of the class looked at “picture books.”
In fifth grade, she read at adult levels, while the class finally caught up with the “chapter books.” Today, Destiny enjoys a variety of fiction, non-fiction and short stories.
As a young girl, she idolized her mother. “I thought she could do no wrong,” she said. “I had a perfect image in my head.”
Older now, she talked to her mother’s friends, especially to her father, and developed a more mature view.
“She was very sweet—but could be a spitfire, too” she said, flashing a reader’s vocabulary, “but never to the friends or family she cared about.”
When asked about her own accomplishments, the modest Destiny hesitates.
“I don’t think I’ve done anything very spectacular in my life,” said the woman, a tender-aged reader, who has navigated a family tragedy that few can ever imagine.
She has her GED. She has a job as a mail carrier for the Post Office in Naugatuck. She’s taken college classes in psychology, but is focusing on her job now. She may go back, but she’s independent now and on her own. She’s shown grace, resilience and grit under circumstances that would buckle most anyone.
“I see in Destiny her mother’s beautiful smile,” said Jen Spinella, crowning the daughter with a glittering compliment.
The family prays for justice for Jessica, and one day for reunion and reconciliation.
“The loss of my sister is the worst thing I’ve ever went through in my entire life,” Nicole said. “I believe in God and I believe in heaven, so I lean on that and my faith. I know that one day we’ll meet again. She was a bright soul who is missed beyond measure.”
In the words of Jessica’s favorite song “Juicy”, the one she loved playing in her little red Tracker car, it’s long past time to set the record straight on Jessica’s shining life and her family:
"You know very well
Who you are
Don’t let ‘em hold you down
And if you don’t know, now you know." •
The Waterbury Observer is investigating the deaths of...
1) KAREN EVERETT ("Brandy") -
10/16/88 (Valley Rd Harwinton) -
STRANGLED (age 25)
2) MILDRED ALVARADO -
1/19/89 (Valley Rd/Harwinton) -
STRANGLED (age 30)
3) MARIE THRASHER
Body found in Naugatuck River near Bank Street
4) MARY JO MARKIEWICZ -
11/25/92 -(Chase River Rd Wby) -
STABBED (age 34)
5) Evelyn L. Bettancourt – age 27
1/3/93 (Valley Rd/Harwintonfrom road)
SHOT - SOLVED MURDER (copycat killing)
Michael Curry, Thomaston, bragged in cell in 1995
45 years in Jail
6) OLGA MARIE CORNIELES-UBIERA
11/01/94 -(Rte 262- Waterbury Rd in Thomaston - 8 miles south of Campville)
7) FREDERICA SPINOLA -
12/9/94 (Rte 8 Harwinton) –
RUN OVER (pushed/fell from van) (age 40)
Albert S. Boyson, age 77, van driver for Kelley Transit was driving
8) LORI DELGADO
41-year-old Waterbury resident
Notch Road embankment
Bludgeoned, blunt head trauma
Believed to be killed elsewhere and dumped
9) SHAWN MAE HASKELL
8/99 partially clothed by RR Tracks in Waterbury
Chief Medical Examiner ruled death as an overdose
10) BERNADINE PAUL (Missing)
6/7/00 - Bradlees Parking lot (Chase Ave)
11) ELIZABETH GRZYWACZ
10/7/2002 - 69 Linden St – naked, bludgeoned (age 34)
12) JESSICA MARIE MUSKUS - age 22
found 11/14/2006 (Campville Exit Rte 8/ 300 yds from Valley Rd)
Below are 3 Waterbury victims of convicted serial killer William Devin Howell, who murdered at least seven women, three from Waterbury. Were there others?
13) MELANIE RUTH CAMALINI (29) - missing 1/1/2003
14) MARILYN GONZALEZ (26) - mother of 2 (2003)
15) MARY JANE MENARD (40) – 10/2003
Substance Abuse Counselor from Waterbury
16) DEE-MICHELLE RODRIGUEZ –
Age 36 - Train Tracks - Thomaston AVE –
17) KELSEY MAZZAMARO, 26, of Litchfield
Found murdered on May 6, 2018 in Burlington
18) BRIANNA BEAM age 20
Harwinton - 100 feet off Campville Rd
If you have any photographs or memories or information about the life and unsolved murders of any of these women, please contact the Waterbury Observer at 203-754-4238 or email John Murray at email@example.com.
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