The whole fabric of America is bloody to its very core. And there’s no quicker way to find out someone shares your bloodlust than when the subject of serial killers comes up. Think about the recent renaissance of true crime shows. Look at what some of the top rated podcasts are. People cannot get enough murder in their recreational unwinding time. It’s a way of living vicariously, and maybe it’s healthy overall, but it’s more than a little dark.
Serial killers and their tales of adventure that captivated the public really seemed to hit a stride in the 1960s and thereafter. The Zodiac Killer, Son of Sam, Ed Gein, and John Wayne Gacy kept people glued to their newspapers and news broadcasts to see what awful, mesmerizing things they had done. The cities and towns where these killers operated stayed gripped in fear during their unpredictable and sporadic reigns of terror, and that was just as true in the upstate New York town of Rochester in the early 1970s. There, between 1971 and 1973, someone was kidnapping children and murdering them. But that’s just the beginning of the weirdness surrounding these cases. Here, we take a look at the Alphabet Murders.
The First Murder
In the mid-afternoon of November 16, 1971, 10-year-old Carmen Colon was running errands before returning back to her home in Rochester. She made a stop at a pharmacy to pick up a prescription for her grandmother, and while being informed that the medication was not yet ready to be picked up, became noticeably distracted and upset. She told the owner of the pharmacy that she “had to go”, and got into a car parked nearby. Three hours later, she was reported missing to the Rochester Police Department.
In those few hours between her leaving the pharmacy and becoming an official missing person, she was observed on a local interstate, half naked and flailing her arms for help. A vehicle identified as a dark Ford Pinto was backing up frantically trying to run her down, and eventually an individual overpowered her and threw her back into the car. About thirty-eight motorists on the highway witnessed the act, though not one soul attempted to intervene in the apparent abduction. None of the drivers who saw what happened even thought to call it in until three days later. Unfortunately, by that time, it was too late.
On November 18, two teenagers came across the body of Carmen Colon, nearly twelve miles from where she was seen struggling on the interstate. Some of her clothing was in fact found near that very highway. She had been raped, her skull had been fractured, and she had been strangled to death. Local newspapers soon offered up a meager reward for whoever could offer information leading to an arrest, and some billboards were later erected asking for clues. The potential suspects that would crop up after the first murder and later would only add more perplexing questions to the cases.
The First Suspect
Miguel Colon was Carmen Colon’s uncle, and after her parents split up he became even closer to Carmen and her mother. When she would take her usual walks to the pharmacy, she was usually accompanied by her grandfather, Felix, but on the day of her disappearance she somehow persuaded him to let her travel alone. This was the day that she got into a strange car. Later on the highway, she was fleeing from what was presumably the same car, a dark Ford Pinto hatchback.
Just before Carmen Colon went missing, her uncle Miguel took possession of a car that eerily matched the car from the highway incident. When authorities learned of this, they went to Miguel’s home to search the vehicle. During the investigation, they took note of the car having recently been profusely cleaned, especially the trunk, which had been gone over in detail with a rather strong cleaning product. If you’ve paid attention to anyone’s car trunk ever, you’ll know that this is a pretty rare occurrence. Investigators asked the dealership if that was a common practice, since it was a relatively new purchase on Miguel’s behalf. The dealers stated that they had not conducted such a cleaning. More creepily, a doll of Carmen’s was found in the car, which he explained off by saying he was a family member, and that wasn’t very strange at all.
What was strange, however, was Miguel’s sudden panic two days after Carmen’s death, in which he allegedly told a friend he had to flee the country because he had “done something wrong in Rochester”, and indeed he did take off to Puerto Rico very soon after. You haven’t heard the last of Miguel Colon.
The Second Murder
On an early April afternoon in 1972, more than a year after Carmen Colon’s murder, 11-year-old Wanda Walkowicz was heading to her home after an errand, much like Carmen had been. In her hometown of Rochester, just like Carmen. She was getting groceries, and headed back down the road towards her house. It was 5:15 pm.
Joyce, Wanda’s mother, reported her missing around 8 pm. A slew of detectives canvassed an enormous area of land near her home. They scoured the area around the grocery store they knew she had been at before her disappearance, and they searched near the local river where they knew she would sometimes play. Rescue teams heard a few straggling reports of Wanda, grocery bags in hand, resting against a fence to keep herself from dropping the bags, as a dark brown vehicle approached her.
10 am the next morning, a policeman found her body at the base of a hill. It had been apparently thrown from a moving car, and rolled down to the ground below. She had been sexually assaulted and choked to death, much like Carmen the previous year. She had fought her attacker, which was clear from the defensive wounds. Oddly, she had a noticeable amount of white cat hair on her body, even though her family owned no such animals.
During the autopsy, custard was discovered among her stomach contents, something her family swore she would not have eaten at home or school. So was her killer feeding her before taking on his nefarious task?
Hotlines were set up, much larger rewards of up to $10,000 were offered, and tips rolled in from the public. One tip came from someone who said they saw Wanda speaking with the driver of that brown car from the passenger side window just before she went missing. Another tip said they saw a man forcing a girl matching Wanda’s looks into a light-colored Dodge Dart-type automobile. Fliers were plastered all over the surrounding neighborhoods in the hopes that any shred of evidence would point investigators in the right direction.
The already-apparent surface similarities between Carmen and Wanda’s cases were almost immediately dismissed by the local police department. More suspects, more tips, and even more questions ensued.
The Third Victim
Michelle Maenza was returning home from school on November 26, 1973, just about seven months after the murder of Wanda Walkowicz. The eleven-year-old stopped at a Rochester department store on the way back, attempting to fetch a purse her mother had left there earlier. Her uncle passed her at some point, offering to give her a ride, but Michelle opted to go it alone. Witnesses reported that soon after, she was seen entering a tan or beige vehicle. This was not her uncle’s car. Her mother reported her missing that evening.
Around 4:30 pm, a girl who matched Maenza’s features was seen eating at a fast food restaurant with a man described as a Caucasian between the ages of 25 and 35, and roughly 6 foot, 165 lbs.
A person traveling down a nearby road around 5:30 pm that day said they saw the same beige or tan color of vehicle as earlier in the afternoon, but with a flat tire. The motorist also apparently saw a girl that looked very much like Michelle, and noticed she was in a fair amount of distress. She was being held by the wrist by the driver outside of the car, and when the approaching witness tried to stop and check on the girl, he was met with a glare by the suspect. The kidnapper tried to hide the girl behind him and also attempted to keep his license plate out of sight. He put off a menacing enough vibe that the would-be helper drove off.
Two days later, on November 28th, Michelle Maenza’s body was found in a ditch roughly 15 miles from her home. Just like the first two victims, she had been sexually assaulted and then strangled with some kind of rope or cord. And just like Wanda Walkowicz, she had numerous strands of white cat hair on her. Some small samples of prints and semen were able to be recovered, and upon autopsy, her stomach contents included traces of hamburger, backing up the story of her being last seen at a fast food restaurant. A composite sketch of the man who was seen with her was circulated but, like most of the tiny nuggets of possible leads that crept up throughout the case, real concrete information was not to be had.
So why were these dubbed the “Alphabet Murders”? Well, you may have noticed that all three victims had first and last names that started with the same letter. As time has gone on, experts think that the likelihood that this was intentional is very low. But even if the killer had chosen his victims on this basis, that’s not even the strangest of the similarities in the crimes.
There’s the final resting place of each body. All three children were from Rochester, but when their bodies were discovered, it was in a different town, and each town corresponded to their names. Carmen Colon’s body was found in the town of Churchville, Wanda Walkowicz was 7 miles away from Rochester in the village of Webster, and Michelle Maenza was found in Macedon. While you could argue that the names were coincidences, it’s hard to argue that the killer didn’t somehow plan to dump each victim in a place that matched their name lettering.
There’s the obvious fact that each of the victims was a pre-teen girl. They all three disappeared during rainy days, were of a short height, and were all seen as loner types, without many close friends. The positioning of each body when they were found seemed to point to them all being thrown from a vehicle. Each girl was brought up in a poor Catholic family and had histories with being bullied and having issues with academic performance in school, which gave investigators some inkling that the murderer may have had a background in social services, and thus had access to knowing these very specific details about the girls.
More Suspects, Fewer Answers
Miguel Colon, as we mentioned, spirited away to Puerto Rico four short days after his niece was killed. In March of 1972, investigators made their way down there to begin asking him questions about her disappearance and murder. The fact that he had a car that resembled the one seen during the time of Carmen’s kidnapping, and the suspicious extent to which the vehicle had been cleaned gave them plenty of reasonable doubt.
However, down in Puerto Rico, newspapers caught wind of the authorities’ desire to interview him and published articles that Miguel saw, causing him to flee. He did return later in March, and was extradited back to New York state.
During questioning, Miguel was not able to provide a sufficient excuse for where he was during Carmen’s disappearance, and had no other people that could back him up regarding his location that day. Despite strong suspicion that they had their guy, in the end there was no physical evidence that could definitively link him or his car to the crimes. In 1991, twenty years after his niece Carmen was killed, Miguel took his own life after being involved in a dispute at home where he shot his brother and his wife.
The good samaritan who tried to approach the individual who had captured Michelle Maenza was a bit of help. Even though the kidnapper tried to block him from seeing his license plate, that person was able to read off a partial plate to the authorities. As luck would have it, he ran across the same car several days later, and was able to provide the full plate number. This led police to a man living with his family in Lyons, New York, just over 40 miles from Rochester. This new suspect had a beige-colored sedan, a strong resemblance to witness sketches, and had been in trouble with the law for petty crimes for quite a while. His alibi to the police was that he had been out looking for work that entire day. Upon further investigation and perusing of phone records, it seemed that his alibi was airtight. He even passed a polygraph. The suspect never had his name released, and even though he might have been the closest the police got to a real lead, it never panned out.
Dennis Termini was another potential lead in the Alphabet Murders. A local firefighter in the Rochester area, Termini was also known locally as the “Garage Rapist”, and had raped at least fourteen females between the years of 1971 and 1973, which are the years that the Alphabet Murders occurred. Termini owned a beige-colored car, which was the color vehicle that had been seen at more than one of the abductions. He also resided on a street very close to the area where witnesses last reported seeing Michelle Maenza.
Michelle Maenza was thought to be the last victim of the “Alphabet Murders”, but five weeks after her death, Dennis Termini tried to pull a gun on a teenage girl with the intent of abducting her. She started screaming, which led him to flee the scene, but he obviously didn’t learn his lesson and tried again soon after to kidnap another girl. Police were made aware, and started after him. Termini was not going to be captured alive, and so he shot himself in the head.
Years later, forensic studies were conducted with Termini’s exhumed corpse. They compared DNA from his body to semen samples that were saved from Wanda Walkowicz, the second Alphabet victim. Nothing matched. Unfortunately, no evidence was available from Michelle Maenza’s body, the one victim they had him most closely tied to. His car, however, had all sorts of white car hair on the surfaces within. White cat hair was found on two of the Alphabet victims.
Kenneth Bianchi drew police interest because he lived and worked near the first two murder locations. He held jobs as an ice cream man, a security guard, and an ambulance driver, which made investigators think he wore many uniforms that would make children approach him and trust him. He too had a car that matched the description passed around as being near the scenes of the Alphabet abductions. Biancha moved to California in 1976, three years after the last killing. He, along with his cousin, became a serial killer on the west coast, becoming the Hillside Strangler. Between 1977 and 1978, they murdered ten females between the ages of 12 and 28, though Biancha strongly denies having anything to do with the Alphabet murders.
Yet another suspect was Joseph Naso, who did his own series of killings in California between 1977 and 1994. His victims were mostly believed to be prostitutes, but one interesting detail that came up was that all the females he killed had first and last names that began with the same letter, just like the Alphabet murders. Naso was also a Rochester, New York native, and lived there in the early 1970s. In fact, he often traveled back and forth between New York and California, and this wasn’t lost on investigators. The same samples that were tested from Wanda Walkowicz’s body against Dennis Termini were tested against Naso’s DNA, and did not match. Naso was convicted of his own California Alphabet murders, however, and was sentenced to death in 2013. When police searched his house more thoroughly, they found an absolutely insane journal where Naso kept the details of his murders.
An Eternal Mystery
Obviously, the Alphabet Murders remain unsolved to this day. Little pieces of evidence have pointed to many potential suspects, but none of it has been indisputable enough to land a conviction. It’s not even truly known if all three murders are definitely connected. Tips rolled in from the public, and new suspects had a brief light shining on them, but then something wouldn’t connect. A polygraph would pass, or an alibi would line up.
Did Joseph Naso merely move to California and continue killing there, retaining the alphabet method? Was it someone else entirely, and they just moved somewhere else and killed there? Did they feel like the law was closing in after the third murder, and they somehow quelled the urge to kill again? There are so many questions and zero sense of closure from the families.
Even the experts have a hard time drawing conclusions. One such expert was Robert Ressler, who actually came up with the term “serial killer” and who spent decades profiling them and trying to get inside their heads. Ressler worked at the FBI, in the Behavioral Studies Unit, where he got to examine the actions and thoughts of some of the most horrid people that ever lived.
Ressler actually did not believe the same person conducted all three killings. When he drew up profiles of the killers, he believed that Carmen’s killing showed a much higher level of anger and aggression. She also had not received food before her death, like the other two girls seemingly did. Finally, the killer choked her with his hands, whereas Wanda and Michelle had ligatures used on them.
The experts also seemed to believe that the matching first and last initials of each victim was purely coincidence. They believed that level of thought required organizational skill that the killer simply did not have. The murders, the brutal dumping of the bodies, and even the kidnappings themselves had no methodical orchestration to them, Ressler’s team concluded.
Is it possible that the killer’s trial run with Carmen didn’t go according to plan, and that he got better at his work with the next two? Of course, but we can’t say.
The New York State Police, City of Rochester police, and two neighboring county departments all still have open cases for the girls who were killed. The departments still work closely together and meet to discuss new details when they come up.
New technology being much more advanced than what was at the police’s disposal in the 1970s, they are now able to test genetics and swab for DNA to create new suspects or eliminate past ones. Databases are available to instantly access information from decades ago. The original detectives meet with the new guard to pick each others’ brains and share leads. They all share the same sense of wanting to honor the memories of the girls and help the families close a door that’s been maddeningly left open for so long.
Carmen Colon, Wanda Walkowicz, and Michelle Maena all share the same cemetery in Rochester as their final resting place.