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Column By John Murray
In the winter of 1993 two journalists launched an investigation into a series of murders in Waterbury, Connecticut, that was never published. The unpublished story and notes sat in a cardboard box for nearly three decades.
In 2020 the story was as cold as the unsolved homicides it was written about.
The investigation was into a possible serial killer who was murdering prostitutes and dumping their bodies in the Campville section of Harwinton, a short 15-minute drive up Route 8 from Waterbury.
After the story went into a box, more bodies were discovered in 1994, 2004 and most recently in December 2021. Eight murders in total, and in the thirty-four years since the first body was discovered in 1988, only one of the murders has been solved.
I was one of the journalists working on that story for the Register-Citizen newspaper in Torrington, Connecticut. After the third body showed up in January 1993 I began a collaboration with our police reporter, Bob Muldoon, to plunge into Waterbury and investigate. Bob would write the story, and I would provide photographs and guidance to the project.
Bob was a recent graduate of the Columbia School of Journalism and was new to the Register-Citizen. He was a talented writer learning the tight craft of news reporting, and his word usage led to frustrating collisions with copy editors, who instead of mentoring and guiding him, confronted him, or simply cut chunks out of his stories. Bob had lofty ideals about the impact journalism could have on a community and wanted to work on meaningful projects; but the editors were more interested in a nightly diet of P&Z stories, science fairs, and the latest details about robberies, accidents and fires in the city.
We didn’t have much support from our editors to report on the murders, so we agreed to do it on our own time. Most of my documentary projects in the four years that I worked at the newspaper developed after I had satisfied the daily quota of news and feature photographs. First, you had to feed the beast. This story would be no different.
We were almost ready to publish our first story chronicling a night interviewing sex workers when Bob suddenly left the paper. Another collision with editors had led to his abrupt departure - our investigation was upended - and the unpublished story was relegated to a cardboard box Bob lugged back home with him to Massachusetts.
I remained in contact with Bob over the years and he eventually wrote a book about the Hartford Whalers departure from Connecticut entitled, “Brass Bonanza Plays Again”, but he was through with journalism. I left the Register-Citizen in September 1993 to launch The Waterbury Observer with Marty Begnal. In the late 1990s I tried to recruit Bob to join the Observer and implored him to give journalism another shot. He declined; his spirit was broken.
We reconnected through Facebook a decade ago, and although I haven’t seen Bob in many years, we share a love of nature, boxing and writing, and send messages to each other every few months. When the pandemic hit in March 2020 Bob went into lockdown in his apartment in downtown Boston, and like millions of other Americans in quarantine, he started exploring boxes and organizing his clutter.
During one of his excavations, he opened a box he hadn’t looked at in 27 years and found a manilla folder with the word “Waterbury” written on the tab. Stunned, he opened the folder and was shocked to find a typed version of the nearly finished story he’d been working on in 1993. Also in the folder were pages of notes from our investigation.
Bob immediately texted me, and I texted him back a haunting image of a sex worker standing on Grove Street that I had captured during our investigation in downtown Waterbury in January 1993. The image was never published, but the photograph had been part of a photojournalism exhibit I had at the University of Connecticut in 1996.
I didn’t know her name, but Bob knew immediately who she was; Frederica Spinola. All the details were in his story. After Bob saw the photograph, he Googled her name and was stunned to learn that Frederica had died in December 1994 in a bizarre accident when she “jumped or fell” from a moving van on Route 8, not far from where many of the bodies had been dumped in Harwinton.
Immediately, we both wanted to know why she jumped? Did she fear for her life? Was she in the van with the serial killer?
In a few hours a cold story that lay dormant in a box for 27 years was white hot. Bob spent hours researching the cold cases on the internet and fired off Freedom of Information requests to the Connecticut State Police and the Waterbury Police Department. Obtaining public records is a tedious process, but requesting 30-year-old documents is at best, daunting.
I spoke with Waterbury Mayor Neil O’Leary who had been involved in the murder investigations when he was a detective in the Waterbury Police Department. O’Leary provided several names of retired Connecticut State Police detectives for us to reach out to, and we are now actively pursuing interviews and police reports about the cold cases.
We’ve made attempts to contact Frederica’s family to let them know we were about to update and publish our cold story in The Waterbury Observer in late March, and to give them a chance to talk about her, and help us humanize Frederica and tell her story. She has an ex-husband still living in Waterbury, and a daughter that is now in her mid-thirties. We hope to talk with them.
Frederica’s death remains a bit of a mystery. There doesn’t appear to be any reasonable explanation of how and why she “fell or jumped” from a van. The driver was a 77-year-old man from Newtown, a former Boy Scout leader and Newtown constable, who was briefly questioned and never charged with a crime. Frederica’s body was struck by a second vehicle that fled the scene, and that driver eventually turned himself in and was charged with negligent manslaughter.
What was Frederica doing inside the van, and why did she exit a moving vehicle driving 50 mph on a state highway? We have questions.
Twenty-eight years after she tumbled out of that van on Route 8 and died, we are publishing a story that has Frederica Spinola talking about her drug addiction and forecasting her own death. It is haunting, and although Bob Muldoon only met Frederica once, for little more than 30 minutes, that encounter has emotionally impacted him.
Half a dozen times Bob has broken down on the phone as we’ve discussed the story. On January 3rd, 2022, the night before we were scheduled for an hour-long segment on WATR radio about our project, Bob was out riding his bicycle on the streets of Boston. I called to discuss the radio show and Bob stopped pedaling to answer my call. In our previous few exchanges Bob had expressed shame and guilt for not following through and getting our project published in 1993.
As he straddled his bike on a frozen Boston street, Bob wondered aloud if Frederica Spinola might still be alive if our story had been published back in 1993, and then he began to sob. Deep sobs, from places so far inside they are impossible to contain. Bob tried to speak but was unable to. Several minutes passed as Bob heaved and gasped and let the pain tumble out.
I listened in silence to the sobs and to the horns and to the sounds of traffic on the streets of Boston.
Yes, Bob was crying for Frederica Spinola, but he was simultaneously grieving for the death of his journalism career and his once-held conviction that journalism mattered.
I eventually told him that I didn’t believe our story could have saved Frederica, that our words did not have the power to silence her drug cravings, or to keep her off the streets. I told Bob that I still believe in the importance of journalism, especially local journalism that gives a voice to vulnerable populations often overlooked by the larger mainstream media.
The following day we began to share our story on WATR radio and Bob broke down again. He is not ashamed or apologetic for sharing his emotional soul on the radio or in print. Our cold story haunts him, the vivid memory of Frederica Spinola standing on Grove Street in downtown Waterbury is seared into his mind.
Our cold story sprung to life on WATR radio on January 4th and is now published on The Waterbury Observer website at https://www.waterburyobserver.org/wod7/out-cold, and additional reporting and updates will appear in the next print issue of the newspaper.
Frederica Spinola is gone, but we can honor her memory and the memory of the other seven murder victims by telling their stories, by asking unanswered questions, and by shining a spotlight on these unsolved crimes. This is journalism, and I hope Bob Muldoon can rekindle his faith in journalism, and in himself, to continue to report on this important story for our readers.