Forty-eight years ago, Harvard graduate student Jane Sanders Britton was found bludgeoned to death in Cambridge, with red powder sprinkled around her apartment. The case has never been solved. Now three outside researchers — including the longtime leader of a Boston think tank and a former writer for New Yorker magazine — are fighting to see the case files in hopes they may be able to finally solve the mystery.
Globe reporter Todd Wallack, who wrote about their quest for the records in Saturday’s Globe, answered some questions about the case.
What was mysterious about the case?
Jane Britton’s death made national headlines at the time. It involved a talented graduate student at Harvard University. Her father was a vice president at Radcliffe (Harvard’s affiliate for women at the time) but her death flummoxed police, who never named any suspects. The motive was unclear. Britton’s money and valuables were untouched. And no one heard any screams from her apartment, despite the fact that her windows were open. Her body was found on her mattress with a coat and blankets piled on top of her head and the top part of her body. One of the Boston Strangler victims had died in the same apartment building six years earlier. And then there was the red powder that had been sprinked around the crime scene.
What was the red powder?
It was red ochre, a pigment that had been used by artists for centuries. It’s possible Britton used the red ochre for painting, one of her hobbies, so it didn’t have any greater meaning. But a university professor speculated at the time that it was also consistent with an ancient Persian burial ritual, raising questions about whether the murder was committed by someone in her department. Britton had been on an archaeological expedition to Iran the previous summer.
How did Michael Widmer get involved?
Widmer may be familiar to some people because he was a spokesman for Governor Michael Dukakis and ran the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation, a business-backed budget watchdog group, for more than two decades. So he was one of the most quoted people in the state. But years ago, when Widmer had just graduated from college, he worked as a reporter for United Press International. And Widmer’s first assignment was Britton’s murder. So he has never forgotten the case and has always been bothered by the fact that the killer was never caught. After Widmer retired in 2015, he finally had time to start looking into the case again.
How did you come across the story?
I was having trouble getting records from a local prosecutor. So I asked for copies of other public records requests to see whether others were having the same issues. It turned out that one of the requests was from Becky Cooper, who at the time was working for the New Yorker magazine and trying to get records on Britton’s murder. (She has since left the New Yorker to work on a book about the case full-time.)
I decided it was worth a story after I learned Widmer was trying to get records on the exact same murder. And when I asked our librarian to pull clips on the murder, I was told another reporter had already asked for the same files last year. It turned out a third person, a Colorado woman who moderates a Reddit forum on unsolved mysteries, had also tried to get the files on Britton’s murder and encouraged the Globe to look into the case last year. The e-mail wound up nudging the Globe Ideas section to do a special issue on true crime stories. But the Globe’s request for the records were denied as well, and the paper wound up leaving Britton’s murder out of the package.
Were the three citizen investigators all working together at the time?
No, it was coincidence. Cooper got interested in the case because she heard about it when she was a student at Harvard. Widmer, of course, covered the case as a reporter in 1969. And the Reddit moderator got interested after seeing a passing reference to the case online.
Why won’t the Middlesex district attorney, Marian Ryan, release the records?
Ryan said she doesn’t want to risk jeopardizing any potential prosecution by releasing documents on the case. If someone eventually confesses, prosecutors could help determine whether the confession is authentic by checking to see whether the person provided any details only the killer would know. That job becomes harder if all the details on the case are public. Though it’s been 48 years, Ryan said she hasn’t given up on solving the case and doesn’t want to hurt the investigation. She pointed out that her office brought charges in another 1969 murder after one of the killers came forward in 2011. And on Monday, the DA’s office said it has decided to conduct additional DNA testing in the Britton case, which could potentially provide new leads.
Can the DA withhold the records forever?
The Massachusetts public records law contains an exemption for investigatory documents. But it only includes materials that would “so prejudice the possibility of effective law enforcement that such disclosure would not be in the public interest.” In this case, the researchers argue that the case is so old that the odds of catching the killer would be higher if the DA releases some of the files. And the Supervisor of Records — the state official charged with overseeing appeals of public records cases — has repeatedly questioned why the DA can’t release at least some portions of the records. In this case, the DA’s office has even withheld records with information it gave to journalists at the time or that is available from other public records, such as the death certificate. The only documents the DA’s office has released in response to public records requests are newspaper clippings from the time. Widmer and Cooper are continuing to appeal the denials.Todd Wallack can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @twallack.