Three young girls, all aged between 10 and 11 years old, were raped and murdered in Rochester, New York between 1971 and 1973. That alone, while a sad statement of fact, would be largely unremarkable in the decade of death that was the 70s. The murders remain unsolved, also a fairly common occurrence in violent crime.
What’s uncommon about the murders of Carmen Colon, Wanda Walkowicz, and Michelle Maenza, is this:
- The victims’ first and last names began with the same letter, hence the “Double Initial Murders”. While investigators would come to believe that this was not a materially significant fact, it remains an unlikely and morbid coincidence
- The victims’ bodies were found in small towns whose names also began with the same letter as their names
- They all came from single parent households of limited income
- They were all bullied at school, and considered outcasts to some degree
- Each of the little girls were sexually assaulted and then either manually strangled to death or by a ligature – most likely a rope or a belt
- All of the victims were abducted in broad daylight
So how were these little girls snatched from the streets, raped, murdered, and dumped?
The killing of Carmen Colon
On the gloomy afternoon of November 16, 1971, Carmen Colon disappeared. The 10-year-old Puerto Rican girl was on her way home after running an errand for her grandmother; getting a prescription filled at the local pharmacy. She left the pharmacy empty handed after learning that the prescription was not yet ready. Store owner Jack Corbin remembers Carmen’s hurried last words to him: “I got to go. I got to go.”
She was seen by witnesses entering a parked car nearby the pharmacy and was reported missing later that night by her family.
In one of the saddest turns in this sordid tale, almost 100 motorists driving on the interstate 490 saw Carmen, naked from the waist down, running away from a reversing car that was reported to have been a dark colored Ford Pinto hatchback. The poor girl was waving her arms, shouting and pleading for any of the passing cars to stop. None did.
She was last seen being led back to the Ford Pinto by her abductor, her head down, sullen.
It would be two full days before her body was discovered, partially nude, in a gully only 12 miles away from the interstate highway where she was last seen, close to the village of Churchville. Her coat was found in a culvert 300 feet from her body, but her trousers were only found almost two weeks later, close to a service road where she was last seen attempting to escape her kidnapper.
The forensic examiner noted that Carmen suffered a fractured skull, and a broken vertebrae before she was strangled to death. She was also raped, and her body indicated excessive fingernail scratches throughout. The viciousness of the beating and the scratches indicate an incredibly emotionally charged murder. Perhaps an impulsive one, as a result of her attempt at escape, which the other children did not manage to do.
Almost a year and a half later, on April 2, 1973, little red-haired Wanda Walkowicz, 11, disappeared from east Rochester, also when returning home from an errand. She visited a delicatessen to purchase a few groceries, and was seen by the owner of the store walking down a major avenue at 5:15 pm. Wanda was reported missing by her mother three hours later, when she failed to return home.
Detectives quickly jumped into action, orchestrating an intensive search to locate the missing child. Approximately 50 police officers searched a wide area around her home, the store where she was last seen and a nearby river where Wanda used to play.
While the search was ultimately fruitless, several witnesses saw Wanda struggling to carry the bag of groceries, with three classmates recalling with clarity that they saw her brace the bag against a fence so she could get a better grip, as a brown car drove past her. The same color vehicle that witnesses saw in the Carmen Colon abduction.
After setting up a tip hotline, police received a witness who claimed to have seen the young girl standing next to the passenger door of a large, brown vehicle as she spoke to the driver. Another witness that came forward said they saw a man forcing a young girl matching Wanda’s description into a light-colored Dodge Dart on the day she went missing.
Only one day later Wanda’s body was discovered by a police officer in the morning, at the base of a hill alongside the access road to state route 104, in Webster, about seven miles from her hometown of Rochester. The way her body was positioned seemed to indicate that she was likely thrown from a moving vehicle, her small delicate body rolling down the dirty embankment to its final resting place.
Just like Carmen, she too was sexually assaulted and strangled. Although unlike Carmen, she was fully clothed, and was strangled by a ligature (thought to be a belt) from behind, whereas Carmen was manually strangled from the front. She also appeared to have been redressed after her death, with the autopsy revealing traces of semen and pubic hair on her body.
Interestingly, several strands of white cat fur were found on her clothes, although her family didn’t own a pet with white fur.
Only seven months later, on November 26, 1973, another 11-year-old girl went missing. Michelle Maenza failed to return home from school, and was last seen by her classmates walking alone towards a shopping plaza located close to her school, with the intention of getting a purse her mother had left inside a store in the plaza earlier that day.
A little while after she was seen walking to the plaza, a witness saw Michelle sitting in a beige or tan car that was traveling at high speed. The witness noted that Michelle was weeping.
Hours later, another motorist saw a man standing by a large beige or tan car with a flat tire, alongside Route 350 in the nearby town of Walworth, holding a girl he believed to be Michelle by the wrist. When the motorist stopped to offer a hand, the man “grabbed the girl and pushed her behind his back”, while also covering his license plate from view. The witness claimed that the man stared at him with an angry, menacing look that compelled the driver to move along, although he did write down a partial license plate.
Two days later, Michelle’s small, fully clothed body was found lying face down in a ditch on a rural road in Macedon, 15 miles from Rochester. Like the other two girls she had been raped, strangled from behind with a ligature, with her body bearing bountiful evidence indicating excessive blunt force trauma.
Like Wanda, there was the presence of white cat fur on her clothing, while leaf samples in her clenched fists matched those in the surrounding area where her body was found, meaning she was likely strangled to death at the location she was discovered. Police also noted the presence of semen, which helped determine that she was raped by only one person. Unlike the other cases, detectives were able to recover a partial palm print from her neck, although so far of little use.
Oddly, her stomach contents revealed that she had eaten a hamburger and onion rings approximately one hour before she was murdered. This was corroborated by earlier reports of a girl matching Michelle’s description eating at a nearby fast food joint with a white male with dark hair, aged between 25 and 35, approximately 6 ft tall.
Carmen’s murder caused considerable outrage in the community and across the country, as did the fact that so many motorists saw the poor child, clearly in distress and needing help, on the day of her abduction running half naked down the highway, and yet, no one stopped. Of all the dark details of these cases, this is one that leaves a mark. While diffusion of responsibility is a well-researched topic in psychology, one had always hoped that people would act when they see someone vulnerable in need, especially a child.
Following her murder, two New York papers – the Times Union and Democrat and Chronicle – offered a join reward of $2,500 for any information leading to the arrest and conviction of her murderer. After local businesses and residents added private donations to the reward, the sum quickly exceeded $6,000. Despite this, and a lengthy investigation that precluded several suspects, no arrest was made.
Several months after Carmen’s murder, five large billboards were erected alongside major Rochester Roadways, bearing a picture of the child and imploring: “Do you know who killed Carmen Colon?”. And although they generated several leads, they were all dead ends.
Following Wanda’s murder, a local TV network televised a reconstruction of her abduction, and while it also produced numerous calls and leads, none bore fruition.
Did one killer commit the Double Initial Murders?
Because of the similarities between the victims noted above, as well as the fact that they all had few friends and had recently been bullied, and had poor grades, led some investigators to posit that the killer may have been employed in a social service agency. This would explain the coincidences between all three victims, as well as the potential that he may have already initiated contact with the victims prior to abducting them, enabling him to earn their trust first.
One thing that has been almost unanimously agreed upon, is that it is extremely unlikely that the killer picked the girls based on the double initials of their names. This is mainly because for the killer to do so, he would have had to stalk his victims well in advance and over a considerably long period of time, which would increase the likelihood of his discovery.
Some police investigators believe that Carmen Colon may have been murdered by a different attacker than the other two girls. The modus operandi of her murder seemed to have indicated to investigators that her killer, unlike the other two girls, not only knew her, but could have even been related to the young girl.
Building on police investigators’ theory that Carmen knew her killer, police strongly consider Carmen’s uncle Miguel Colon as the main suspect. Miguel was Carmen’s father’s brother, and once her parents divorced, he formed a relationship with Carmen’s mother, quickly becoming known as Uncle Miguel.
There are several compelling reasons why he is thought to have been her killer:
- Weeks prior to her murder, Miguel purchased a car that closely resembled the vehicle seen by witnesses reversing down the interstate chasing down Carmen. When investigators searched his vehicle after the murder, they found that it had been wiped clean both inside and out.
- To add to the suspicious nature of the state of his car, the trunk was found to have been washed with an incredibly potent cleaning solution. The dealership that sold him the car confirmed to police that they didn’t wash the car’s trunk with detergent before selling it.
- One of Carmen’s dolls was found in his car, which relatives informed police was not unusual considering that she frequently traveled with Miguel.
- Merely two days after the death of his niece, Miguel informed his friends that he had to leave the country to Puerto Rico, as he had “done something wrong in Rochester.” He left only four days after Carmen was murdered.
While investigators did travel to Puerto Rico to question Miguel in 1972, local papers leaked this, causing Miguel to flee. He eventually surrendered a few weeks later and was extradited back to Rochester for questioning. Although he didn’t have a credible alibi on the date of Carmen’s murder, and other circumstantial evidence, there was simply no physical evidence at the scene or his vehicle to link him to the murder. And so he was released.
Several years later Miguel would commit suicide in 1991 after a domestic violence incident in which he shot his wife and his brother, both of whom survived.
A serial rapist known as the Garage Rapist, Dennis Termini was another key suspect in the case. He was known to have committed at least 14 rapes of teenage girls between 1971 and 1973, when the murders were committed. A retired fireman, Dennis also had a vehicle that matched the descriptions of the abductor’s car provided by witnesses.
A little over a month after Carmen’s murder, Termini tried to abduct a teenage girl at gunpoint but ran off after the teen kept screaming. After this horrifying incident, he abducted another victim, although this time he ended up committing suicide by shooting himself in the head as the police were in his pursuit.
Interestingly, an examination of his vehicle later revealed traces of white cat fur on the car seats, similar to the white cat fur that was found on two of the victims’ clothing. Over thirty years later his body was exhumed, and his DNA was compared to semen samples recovered from Wanda’s body, which ruled him out as a suspect in her murder. There were no similar samples for the murders of Carmen and Michelle, however.
One half of the infamous Hillside Stranglers in California, Kenneth Bianchi, worked as an ice cream vendor in Rochester during the time of the murders. He is even known to have worked close to at least two of the murder scenes, driving a vehicle of the same color and model as the one seen near one of the abduction sites. Although, it should be noted that the car’s model and color was fairly common. He was never charged with these murders, although he was later convicted of strangling 10 girls and women in California with his cousin, Angelo Buono.
Thirty years later another suspect emerges
In 2011, Joseph Naso, 77, was arrested in Nevada for killing four female prostitutes in California between 1977 and 1994 – all of whom had surnames and first names that started with the same letter. Originally from New York, and having lived in Rochester during the time of the murders, he was cleared in the murder of Wanda Walkowicz by a DNA sample.
Questions remain in Rochester
Despite the supposed differences between Carmen’s case and those of the other two girls, some detectives insist that they are the work of the same killer, as there are far more similarities than there are differences. The differences between the cases noted above (Carmen was partially clothed when she was found vs. Wanda and Michelle who were fully clothed, as well as others), can be explained by circumstances, namely, Carmen’s attempt at escape.
It was this attempt that led to the differences between the cases, as an escaped girl running down the highway would cause the killer to rush her murder, not feeding her as he did with the other girls, and not re-dressing her either. Yet, profilers and their research insist that killers who strangle their victims face-to-face, as they did with Carmen, differ significantly in their psychology from those who strangle from the back, as was the case in the other two murders. Rarely does a killer do both.
Sadly, while police still strongly believe that the killer is still alive and out there, only Wanda’s case has any viable DNA that can be tested using today’s technology.
Who killed these little girls in Rochester? Why did he dump them like garbage off of the side of a highway when he took the time to feed them before death, and dress them afterwards?
So many questions remain and as the years go by, the likelihood of finding any answers diminishes close to none. Yet hope persists.
“The day will come,” said Wayne County Sheriff Richard Pisciotti, “when there will be answers.”
If you have any information regarding the murders, please call the Monroe County Sheriff’s Office at 585 753–4178.