There may be no way to get justice, but at least Rita Curran‘s family can get some peace and closure.
The 24-year-old schoolteacher was found beaten, sexually assaulted, and strangled on the floor of her apartment in Burlington, Vermont way back in July 1971. Unfortunately the murder stumped police at the time — and wouldn’t be solved for another five decades!
Probably the most well-known aspect of the case was its connection to Ted Bundy. Due to the time and location of the killing, Curran was for some time considered to possibly be one of the serial killer’s unknown murders. Bundy confessed to the 30 murders committed from 1974 to 1978, across seven states. However, authorities never believed he admitted all of them — the true number is thought to be significantly higher. The victims were mostly women in their late teens and early 20s — so Curran certainly fit the bill. Not to mention Bundy was born in Burlington, linking him forever to the area. Rita’s sister even wrote to the killer asking if he was responsible for Rita’s death, but the FBI replied, saying he refused to confirm or deny responsibility.
Eventually Bundy was ruled out as a suspect. But that didn’t get police any closer to finding the real killer. But four decades after Rita was killed, a new technology was employed in the cold case…
Burlington Police Detective Lieutenant James Trieb broke down the long story for reporters at a press conference on Tuesday, per the Burlington Free Press. The key? There was a cigarette butt found by the body, lying next to Rita’s arm. But it didn’t seem to be an old one, fallen out of an ashtray. It was from the moment of her death! Trieb explained:
“It hadn’t been crushed or put out, it had been dropped there.”
So the cigarette butt was sent for DNA testing in 2014. Unfortunately, while male DNA was found on the end, it wasn’t a match for any of the 13 men who had been considered potential suspects, nor anyone in the national database of felons. Police were stumped again.
Cut to nearly a decade later, and there’s a new way to test DNA. True crime aficionados probably already know what we’re going to say next: genealogy. The same way they caught the Golden State Killer.
They sent the DNA to genealogy expert CeCe Moore, who compared the DNA to all the public and private databases the police had access to — and found a match in a matter of hours. Moore revealed at the conference:
“The DNA evidence ended up being so incredibly key and they couldn’t have possibly imagined the power that we would have at this time to actually use that to narrow it down to one person… This case was over 50 years old and it only took a few hours to narrow it down to William DeRoos.”
William DeRoos was Rita’s neighbor. He and his wife Michelle DeRoos lived in the same apartment building. He was even questioned by police at the time! But he was ruled out because of his wife. Lieutenant Trieb explained that William told his wife “if the police ever showed up again, she was to tell him that he had been home all night.”
Acting Burlington Police Chief Jon Murad revealed that after the DNA testing, police questioned Michelle (who is now living under another name) again:
“Five decades later, she gave our detectives a different story: the truth.”
It turns out the DeRooses had a fight that day. He left the apartment to go for a walk to “cool down” — and was gone for just over an hour. He told his wife to lie about it because he had a criminal history already and thought they would pin the murder on him. And she believed him. Soon afterward he left her and moved to Thailand for a while before eventually coming back to the US and remarrying. His second wife, Sarah Hepting, told police he was violent — that he’d once strangled her, and that she’d seen him stab a woman.
Now, thanks to the DNA and the disappearing alibi, police believe they have their killer. Or at least they would… but he died in 1986, not even 15 years after the murder. Lieutenant Trieb told gathered reporters:
“We’re all confident that William DeRoos is responsible for the aggravated murder of Rita Curran, but because he died in a hotel room of a drug overdose, he will not be held accountable for his actions, but this case will be closed.”
Rita’s sister and brother, Mary Curran Campbell and Tom Curran, both attended the press conference, thanking the police for their work in finally giving them closure.
Wow. We wonder how many more cold cases will be cracked thanks to the evolution of DNA evidence…
[Image via Burlington Police Department/Netflix.]