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Package sent to Globe brings end to long mystery

Inside the nondescript cardboard box were a skull and other skeletal human remains, along with a plea and a clue. The plea was from the anonymous sender: Find out whose bones these are. The clue was about where to start, with four young people who vanished at sea in 1976, four whose families never gave up the dream of their return.

Marge Habib waved to her brother and sister as they rode past early that Saturday morning of Memorial Day weekend in 1976. Her brother’s 16-foot motorboat was hitched to the back of her sister’s Mercury Cougar and they were heading to Plymouth for a day of fishing along with their dates.

“It was a beautiful day,” recalled Marge, who was working at a fruit stand on Route 9 in Westborough when the coast-bound foursome cruised by. “They were tooting and laughing and they were happy.”

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That was the last time she ever saw her younger siblings, Danny and Elaine. The next morning, fishermen came upon Danny Kwiatkowski’s tri-hull Arrowglass motorboat floating partially submerged — but otherwise undamaged — about 6 miles off the coast of Marshfield. The people were gone, leaving behind only Elaine’s purse, two pairs of shoes, and some cans of soda.

The Coast Guard concluded that the four were probably dead — victims of the frigid Atlantic – but their families never believed it. They kept looking for the lost boaters, scouring the shoreline and islands of Cape Cod Bay, traveling the country on the advice of psychics, and appealing for help in every imaginable quarter.

But answers seemed lost to the vastness of the ocean and the passage of time — until the arrival last fall of one of the strangest packages ever mailed to The Boston Globe.

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The worn-looking cardboard box, postmarked in Medford, contained skeletal remains from two human beings, including what appeared to be a human skull. Each was accompanied by a medical examiner’s note from 1978 indicating that the bones had been evidence in police investigations.

Also in the box was official paperwork suggesting some of the evidence may have been linked to the mysterious loss of Danny and his mates.

And then there was the letter. “This is not a Halloween prank,” read the Oct. 29, 2012, typed appeal, written by someone using the pseudonym “Veritas” — the Latin word for truth — who said he was a doctor.

Medical examiners had given up hope of identifying the remains back in 1978, Veritas explained, and literally wanted to put them out with the trash — “dispose as you see fit,” the medical examiner said. Instead, a conscience-stricken state crime lab employee slipped the bones to Veritas for safekeeping until a day when science could figure out whose they were.

“Please see that justice is done now for the sake of these two victims,” wrote Veritas.

So began the unraveling of a 37-year mystery as the State Police and the Globe launched separate investigations to determine the identities of the dead and to bring some measure of peace to their survivors.

1976 boating accident

The crew of the Gloucester-based fishing vessel Kingfisher spotted the bow of Danny Kwiatkowski’s boat poking up from the calm waters of Cape Cod Bay just after sunrise on the Sunday of Memorial Day weekend in 1976.

COONAN FAMILY

Jana Coonan, shown with her younger brother, Brian, was one of four people who disappeared in a boating accident off Plymouth over Memorial Day weekend in 1976. Her family searched for her for years. Some of her remains were recently identified, after they were mailed to the Globe last fall.

The boat was swamped, but that wasn’t the only sign of trouble: the outboard motor was tilted up as though someone had been looking for a malfunction, while the anchor line looked like it had been cut.

Whatever had befallen the passengers – Daniel Kwiatkowski, 24; Elaine Kwiatkowski, 20; Daniel Poirier, 26; and Jana Coonan, 16 — appeared to have happened suddenly. Their baited fishing rods were still attached to the side of the boat, while a distress flare on the boat and three life belts were recovered unused.

For two days, the Coast Guard searched, focusing intently on 10 square miles near where the boat was discovered, logging 41 hours of search time by boats and helicopters. Many others pitched in, too, including the crew of a private yacht that recovered Kwiatkowski’s gas tank and a lighthouse keeper who walked Duxbury Beach for signs of the missing people.

Late on Memorial Day, however, Coast Guard officials suspended the search, concluding in their daily dispatch that the 54-degree ocean water “yields 99 percent expectancy of death within 4.3 hours.”

They also disclosed that Elaine Kwiatkowski’s pocketbook “contained a package of marijuana,” and suggested that Danny Kwiatkowski may have been at fault for the wreck, noting that the boat had only been out once before that year — and Kwiatkowski had run it aground.

But the families of the missing found serious flaws in the Coast Guard’s findings, starting with the fact that all four were excellent swimmers — Elaine was a certified lifeguard — who might have made it to shore, especially if the boat were closer to land when it initially foundered.

They scoffed, too, at the idea that Danny Kwiatkowski might have caused an accident either by taking risks at sea or not maintaining his boat. Kwiatkowski was a machinist at Bay State Abrasives in Westborough who loved his Dodge Charger muscle car — and his boat. He knew his way around motors, relatives said.

“Danny knew mechanics well,” said his cousin Jim Williams. “He wouldn’t take a boat to the ocean knowing there was something wrong with it. It doesn’t make any sense at all.”

And, despite the Coast Guard’s claim that Kwiatkowski’s boat had suffered propeller damage, the crew at a Worcester marina didn’t find any mechanical problems after disassembling the motor. The boat was still seaworthy.

Lacking bodies to bury, the families refused to believe their loved ones were dead. Could the four have been kidnapped, they asked. Were they out there somewhere in desperate need of their family’s help?

So they kept searching.

“We feel there has been foul play,” Joseph Kwiatkowski, brother of Danny and Elaine, told the Worcester Telegram in early June 1976. Joseph Kwiatkowski, now deceased, spent that summer searching Cape Cod Bay, practically living on a boat for three months.

Meanwhile, the Kwiatkowskis’ sister Linda went on the Worcester TV station Channel 27 asking for financial help so the families could keep looking.

“The whole family was in turmoil,” recalled Patty Habib, niece of Danny and Elaine Kwiatkowski. “They were obsessed with what happened, and it completely flipped their lives around and brought all of them down.”

And the obsession didn’t fade with time. Almost two decades after the accident, Patty Habib wrote to the producers of the popular TV show “Unsolved Mysteries,” asking them to consider a segment on the dis-appearances.

“We would like to believe in our hearts,” Patty Habib wrote, “but reality has somewhat taken that hope away.”

But the show’s producers declined, only adding to the families’ despair.

In truth, investigators had precious little evidence to work with. Certainly, the hours leading up to the incident yielded few clues, no matter how many times family members reviewed that Memorial Day weekend of 1976.

They recalled that Elaine, a home health aide still living with her parents, had recently broken up with a longtime boyfriend and started to date someone new — Danny Poirier, a roofer from a large family in Worcester, who had returned in 1969 from two tours of duty in Vietnam.

With his dark good looks, Poirier was “footloose and fancy free, a ladies man,” according to Mary Jane Poirier, who was married to Danny’s brother, Richie. And Danny Poirier clearly wanted to make a good impression on Elaine.

“He came to our house the day before he took off and asked me for a haircut,” recalled Mary Jane, who often cut his hair. “I was pregnant and I wasn’t up for it. I said, ‘Catch me tomorrow.’ He said ‘No I’m going to the Cape for the weekend.’ ”

Danny Kwiatkowski brought along his 16-year-old girlfriend, Jana Coonan, whose parents were divorced and who was staying at the Kwiatkowski family home in Leicester.

Once a pudgy little girl, Jana had matured into a beautiful young woman while attending a special school for troubled girls, the Madonna School in Marlborough. But she bridled at discipline and liked to run away from home, her relatives said. Though Jana was supposed to be living with her dad, who divided his time between homes in Florida and Massachusetts, she was largely on her own.

Jana Coonan’s older brother, Michael, who was already married and living with his wife when Jana disappeared, said that most family members didn’t even know that his sister had a boyfriend, let alone that she was living with his family.

He was shocked when his father called him from Florida to tell him his sister was missing at sea. And that wasn’t the only surprise. “That gave me a shock, too, him being in Florida and Jana being up here by herself. We never knew any of this,” he said.

The condition of the boat, with engine up and fishing gear set, made the accident even harder to comprehend.

“I thought maybe they ran away. There was no evidence of any foul play, really,” said Coonan, who lives in Connecticut.

As the years wore on, he still fantasized about finding his sister alive: “I thought she might have been playing some kind of prank on my mother. Your imagination can do strange things.”

Unidentified remains

Medical examiner Dr. George Katsas, was well respected – he had done the autopsies on some of the victims of the Boston Strangler in the 1960s — but the odds were stacked against him. His equipment was ancient and he didn’t even have an X-ray machine.

“Nothing’s changed in 25 years,” Katsas told a Globe reporter in 1982.

But Katsas didn’t need special equipment to identify the man’s leg that came up in the nets of the fishing trawler Barbara Christine on Oct. 25, 1976, not far from where Danny Kwiatkowski’s boat had been recovered: The leg was still inside a high leather boot that contained a wallet with various identification cards in the name of Danny Kwiatkowski.

The cause of death was listed as “accidental drowning” and the condition of the body attributed to five months in the ocean.

The Kwiatkowski family confirmed that the wallet and boot were Danny’s and they even buried it in Notre Dame Cemetery in Worcester. But they never really accepted that it was him — the pants were blue jeans, a style Danny never wore, they said. Plus, the wallet seemed too well preserved to have been in the ocean since Memorial Day.

A second set of remains was recovered on the same day, remains that the Kwiatkowskis and the Coonans never knew about. About an hour after the Barbara Christine recovered the leg, its sister vessel the Lussin, pulled up a mud-caked skull in the same general area. The skull made its way to Katsas’s examining table in November 1976, according to documents contained in the box.

“The examination shows that this is a human skull probably from a female individual and of young age, probably late teens or twenties at the time of death,” Katsas wrote to the Scituate doctor who had sent him the skull. “Death appears to have occurred in the recent past, probably within a year.”

Katsas knew about the 1976 boating accident and realized that the skull could have belonged to Jana Coonan or perhaps Elaine Kwiatkowski. But, in the era before DNA testing, he had no way to be sure. All but one of the teeth were missing and Jana Coonan had no dental records anyway, he asserted. As a result, “the possibility of identification is slim.”

That summer, the state crime lab also received an unrelated set of remains from a gravel pit in Monson: a backbone and jawbone that workers uncovered when they were clearing a remote area.

Katsas speculated that the victim may have been Native American. Otherwise, he wrote in his Sept. 7, 1976, report, “no comments possible re: time and cause of death, age, sex or identification.”

Unable to resolve the mysteries, the medical examiner sent both sets of remains to a storage area at the old State Police crime lab on Commonwealth Avenue near Boston University, where they sat for two years, according to documents in the box sent to the Globe.

Finally, in July 1978, state lab officials moved to get rid of the remains. Once police confirmed that the investigations were complete, lab officials prepared identical forms for both sets of bones, explaining that the lab “does not have facilities to hold evidence indefinitely.” A handwritten notation on the side of both forms indicates they were “disposed” of on Aug. 8, 1978.

In those days, that could have meant a trip to the incinerator or landfill, a policy that troubled John McHugh, then the state’s chief toxicologist, who ran the crime lab.

A long quest for answers

Paul Coonan, a career Air Force man who had retired in 1967, was bereft at the disappearance of his daughter, who was still a child, after all, and supposed to be in his care following a bitter divorce.

Coonan moved back to Massachusetts from Florida to devote himself to finding out what happened to her.

There, he worked closely with Marge Kwiatkowski, Danny and Elaine’s mother, whose own husband had died several years before and who had received a large financial settlement from a taxi accident that she was prepared to spend on the search. Paul and Marge gave each other strength and moral support in the long quest for answers, following every lead, no matter how unlikely.

Devout Catholics, the two initially tried to keep secret that their relationship had blossomed into romance and that Paul had moved into Marge’s Cherry Valley home. They were quietly married by a Maine justice of the peace in 1977, but later remarried at St. Joseph’s Church in Leicester, their relationship blessed by both of their families.

“They were soul mates. They were inseparable,” said Celeste Fong, Jana’s niece.

When conventional methods failed to find their children, the couple turned to extraordinary ones, consulting a controversial charismatic priest and several psychics, all of whom said the children were alive.

Celebrity psychic Jeane Dixon, who visited them for a weekend, told the family their children had been abducted and forced to join a cult. The family thought it might have been the Moonies, members of the Rev. Sun Myung Moon’s Unification Church, which had been accused of recruiting and indoctrinating unsuspecting teenagers across the country.

The couple even asked Senator Edward M. Kennedy’s office to help them get Danny Kwiatkowski’s remains exhumed so another famed psychic, Dorothy Allison, could examine them and the FBI could conduct forensic tests. That never happened.

Ultimately, the couple traveled to California, Arizona, Pennsylvania, New York, and Florida pursuing leads from various psychics. All were dead ends, but the couple was always willing to try again.

“Every time we talked, he mentioned something about some other psychic or someone with information or knowledge,” recalled Paul Coonan’s son, Michael.

Partners in grief, Marge Kwiatowski and Paul Coonan eventually died, almost exactly one year apart in 2002 and 2003, spending all the money from Marge’s taxicab settlement and then some on their search, family members said.

“She never — until the day she died — gave up hope they were still alive,” said Williams of his Aunt Marge. “It cost her everything. . . . You do that for your kids. You’d do that.”

Throwing out evidence

McHugh, the state toxicologist in the 1970s, had seen it all during a long and distinguished career, providing crime scene analysis on everything from victims of the Boston Strangler to Senator Kennedy’s 1969 accident at Chappaquiddick Island that killed Mary Jo Kopechne.

But he was uncomfortable with one part of his job: As manager of the state crime lab, McHugh had to dispose of evidence that was no longer needed to preserve the lab’s limited storage space — even when that evidence was an unidentified human being.

“He couldn’t have unresolved cases just thrown out,” remembered McHugh’s son, John McHugh, who worked summers in the lab while he was in college. “He wanted the unresolved cases to be solved when they had better science.”

The senior McHugh died in 2008, but his son suspects his father may have found a way around the evidence disposal policy by finding a friend willing to store human remains privately. The younger McHugh recalled at least one occasion when he was working in the lab in 1974 when his father shipped a package to someone recorded in the log books only as “Veritas.”

“Think about it. A lot of what goes out from a crime lab . . . is going to troopers or the police or medical examiner or sometimes representatives,” John McHugh said. “But then in the log there is this Veritas . . . it makes you wonder a little bit.”

John McHugh never pressed his father for details, and he had no idea who his dad would trust with human remains. But last October that person sent the remains to The Boston Globe where mailroom clerks were stunned to see a skull and other human bones when they X-rayed the package.

“A friend of mine worked for the Crime Lab for many years and was told one day to dispose of these remains,” explained Veritas, apparently referring to McHugh. “I am a doctor and in 1978, he sent them to me. I never felt right about this, but it was better than the remains going to a landfill.”

Veritas said he had held the remains until rogue state chemist Annie Dookhan made headlines last year with reports that she may have falsified drug tests in hundreds of criminal cases. Outrage over the lab scandal inspired Veritas to mail the long-stored bones to the Globe.

“As if the problems with the state crime lab aren’t bad enough,” Veritas wrote, “they just got worse.”

The Globe’s editor at the time, Martin Baron, immediately contacted Boston police about the package, which included not only bones, but also documents showing that Katsas suspected one set of remains could be Jana Coonan or Elaine Kwiatkowski while the other could be a Native American.

Boston police then passed the information along to the Plymouth district attorney, Timothy Cruz, since the boating accident happened in his jurisdiction. State Police assigned to Cruz’s office then reopened the long-dormant investigation, interviewing Coast Guard officials, local police, relatives, and others who may have had any pertinent details.

Coast Guard officials didn’t have any records, but a Globe reporter provided troopers with the Coast Guard’s original paperwork, including its theory of the accident: the motor had stalled out, prompting the boaters to tip the outboard motor out of the water to take a look. The shift in weight then unbalanced and rocked the small boat, causing it to take on water rapidly and dumping the boaters into the ocean. The cold water did the rest.

The investigators also put to rest one of the darker suspicions discussed by some of the searchers: that Danny Poirier – someone that neither the Kwiatkowskis nor the Coonans really knew – was still alive and that he was somehow responsible for the disappearance of the others, perhaps in a drug deal.

Though Poirier’s name has appeared in public records, including the phone book, with a Worcester address since the accident – giving the impression he was alive — it turned out that Poirier’s brother, Richie, had been using his identity. Richie Poirier, who had lost his license after multiple drunken driving arrests, was issued a new driver’s license using his own photo and Danny’s name.

But the investigators, Captain Scott Warmington and Trooper Donald Short, didn’t have to rely solely on records and fading memories for their investigation. They also had a DNA sample extracted from the only tooth remaining in the unidentified skull.

In December, State Police collected genetic material from three relatives — Marge Habib, Michael Coonan, and Pamela DePaoli, Poirier’s sister. Then, they waited.

Finally, in June, Short called Michael Coonan with the results of the DNA tests: The skull was his sister’s.

“It came back a match,” said Coonan, voice quavering, a few minutes after getting the news. He was relieved yet deeply shocked. “Until I got the phone call . . . I always kind of expected to see her walking down the street.”

After notifying the families, the State Police closed the case, concluding that the four had accidentally drowned in 1976. Samples they collected from the relatives of the two still unaccounted for boaters were entered into a missing person’s database in case their remains are ever discovered.

Separately, the bones from the Monson gravel pit were delivered to the medical examiner, who determined they were more than 100 years old and turned them over to state archaeologist Brona Simon. Simon said the bones were 400 to 500 years old and were from two different people. She is now trying to determine which tribes the remains came from.

But the mysteries don’t end there. Police and the Globe also sought to locate Veritas, who had safeguarded the bones for decades before mailing them to the Globe.

Both police and the Globe visited the return address on the package – a condo building at 618 Boston Ave. in Medford – but could find no residents who knew anything about Veritas or the state crime lab in the 1970s.

Police also interviewed security officers at Tufts University and visited the Medford post office where the package was mailed, trying to find videotapes, sales records, tracking numbers — anything else that could help them track down Veritas. No luck.

Like the families, the troopers hope Veritas will surface now. “We want to ascertain whether there are any additional remains that we need to return,” said Warmington, who credited him with helping to relieve one family’s pain. “If this guy didn’t show up, the Coonans would still think their loved one was alive.”

The Coonans would like to personally thank Veritas for bringing an end to this long, painful chapter. It wasn’t the answer they were hoping for, admits Gertrude Coonan, Jana’s sister-in-law, “but it’s still an answer.”

The Poirier family accepts that Danny Poirier probably died in the boating accident, but it still pains them that, unlike the Coonans, they have no physical evidence.

“I wish there was a way we could have put it to rest and we never did,” said DePaoli, Poirier’s older sister. “Even now, when I think of him and see his face and his dark hair and that grin, it brings a smile to my face” and she wished she had a chance to say goodbye.

But for Marge Habib, sister of Elaine and Danny Kwiatkowski, nothing has really changed. She still doesn’t know what happened to her brother and sister on that perfect spring day.

“Look at us now, 30 years later, and we still have the same questions,” said Marge, sitting at her kitchen table where, every year, her family still marks Elaine’s and Danny’s birthdays with a cake.

The Kwiatkowskis are happy for the Coonans because “at least they’re able to put her to rest,” added Marge’s daughter Patty. “Whether or not we obtain that closure, I don’t know. It will be according to God’s will, not ours.”

Andrea Estes can be reached at estes@globe.com. Scott Allen can be reached atallen@globe.com.
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