A former Massachusetts correction officer pleaded not guilty in Essex Superior Court Thursday to charges in the death of an 11-year-old girl in Lawrence more than three decades ago.
Marvin “Skip” McClendon, Jr., 75, was ordered held without bail at Thursday’s arraignment after being charged in May with first-degree murder in connection with the 1988 slaying of Melissa Tremblay. Attorneys will reconvene Aug. 23 to discuss any issues with compliance and discovery before the case goes to trial.
Tremblay was last seen alive on Sept. 11, 1988. The girl’s stabbed and mangled body was found the next day in a railway yard in Lawrence.
For more than three decades, the gruesome murder remained unsolved, but Tremblay’s first cousin Daneille Root told reporters Thursday that her family never gave up hope that her killer would be found.
“On behalf of her family, I want to thank everyone who has worked on her case over the years. They’ve never given up and because of that, we were able to sit in the courtroom today and face her killer,” Root said, standing outside the Essex court beside her parents and Tremblay’s aunt and uncle, Paul and Barbara Root.
“She’s always been in our thoughts. We chose to put our faith in God, the Lawrence Police Department, the Massachusetts State Police, and the Essex district attorney’s office, and clearly, that was the right choice,” she said.
McClendon’s appointed defense attorney, Henry Fasoldt, told reporters that he “expects to hold the government to a very high burden” throughout the case.
Prosecutors have said DNA taken from Tremblay’s body was linked to McClendon, but his attorney argued that the DNA could have come from any male in the McClendon family.
Carrie Kimball, spokeswoman for the Essex District Attorney’s office, told reporters at the court Thursday that the DNA came from a 2014 Massachusetts State Police crime lab examination that “pointed us to a group of people that ultimately led us to Marvin McClendon.”
Prosecutors have previously said they have other evidence linking McClendon to Tremblay’s murder. They said McClendon, who was arrested in April at his home in Bremen, Ala., was interviewed by investigators on multiple occasions and had information about the murder that was never made public.
Witnesses saw Tremblay talking to someone in a van the day she was last seen alive, and McClendon owned a van, prosecutors said.
McClendon is left-handed, and prosecutors said investigators determined from Tremblay’s neck wound that her killer was likely left-handed, but his attorney argued that his client’s dominant hand shouldn’t tie him to murder.
Authorities have said McClendon worked three stints with the Massachusetts Department of Correction between 1970 and 2002 but was not working for the state at the time of Tremblay’s murder. State comptroller records show McClendon retired from state service on July 4, 2002, and collects a monthly pension of $3,040.
Essex District Attorney Jonathan Blodgett told reporters in April that police learned Tremblay had accompanied her mother and her mother’s boyfriend to a Lawrence social club the day she disappeared, and that she played in the adjacent neighborhoods while the two adults remained inside the bar. The girl and her mother lived in Salem, N.H.
A neighbor who lived next door to the bar told reporters at the time that Melissa Tremblay often played with her children and that they had been breaking bottles on the afternoon the girl disappeared.
Tremblay was last seen by a railroad employee and a pizza delivery driver, Blodgett said.
Root thanked the Essex district attorney’s office for ensuring that Tremblay’s family could attend every court hearing so far.
She also addressed past critical remarks from some outside the family about its level of concern over the girl or that faulted her mother, who died in 2015.
“Ultimately, the only person responsible for Missy’s death is the man we saw in court today: Marvin McClendon,” Root said, fighting back tears. “He made the decision to take a life that night for whatever reason, and he’s finally going to face a judge and jury for that decision.”