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Child rapist charged in slaying of 10-year-old Chicopee girl 56 years ago

A photo of Betty Lou Zukowski, who was killed in 1966 when she was 10 years old. She left her Chicopee home after taking a telephone call and was never seen alive by her parents again. (Hamden District Attorney)

A convicted child rapist was charged Thursday with beating a 10-year-old girl from Chicopee in 1966 and throwing her into the Westfield River, where she drowned.

Donald R. Mars, 73, appeared by Zoom in a Springfield courtroom in connection with the 1966 slaying of Betty Lou Zukowski who left her home after taking a telephone call and was never seen alive by her parents again, according to state records and news coverage. He was ordered held without bail.

Hampden District Attorney Anthony D. Gulluni declined to detail what evidence connects Mars to the cold case, citing the ongoing prosecution. Mars emerged as a suspect in 1997 and multiple interviews were conducted, but no arrest was made, he said.

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In the past year, the office’s unresolved case unit refocused on the circumstances of the child’s death, he said.

“She was never off our radar,’' he told reporters.

Booking photo of murder suspect Donald R. Mars, 73, from West Springfield police.West Springfield Police

According to newspaper accounts, Zukowski insisted on answering the telephone at her family’s home on the day she was last seen. After her death, police discovered the name of the girlfriend Zukowski had told her parents she was going to see was fictitious.

The girl’s body was found by a father and son fishing in the Westfield River in West Springfield on May 30, 1966, five days after her parents reported her missing, according to newspaper accounts. The cause of death was “multiple blunt force injuries to her head, a skull fracture, and ‘terminal’ drowning,” the prosecutor said Thursday.

Funeral services for Zukowski, who was 4′ 7 and weighed 75 pounds, were held June 2, 1966, at Holy Name Church in Chicopee, the day she would have turned 11, Gulluni said. Her classmates from the Valentine School attended.

Her parents, Stanley and Mildred Zukowski, are both deceased. Gulluni said an member of Zukowski’s extended family who was a pallbearer at her funeral has been notified about the arrest.

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In 1966, authorities released a sketch of a teenager with dark-rimmed glasses known as “Ralph” in connection with the murder investigation. Mars was 17 at the time of the murder and also wore glasses, according to his high school yearbook photo, which authorities released Thursday.

The sketch “was highly publicized in local newspapers at the time,’' Gulluni said. “The release of the sketch led to investigative tips, but none led to the identity of her assailant. From there the case went cold.”

Suspect composite sketch of suspect known as "Ralph" in the Betty Lou Zukowski investigation in 1966. (Hampden District Attorney) Hampden District Attorney

During his arraignment via Zoom Thursday, Mars wore an orange prison jumper and had an walker positioned to his right. When the Superior Court clerk asked him to enter his plea, he replied “not guilty” while sounding as if he were starting to cry.

As prosecutor Elizabeth Dunphy Farris described his criminal history and asked that he be held without bail, he increasingly appeared disdainful. As the court session ended, his body was shaking as he stared into the closed-circuit camera with an angry expression.

High school yearbook photo of Donald R. Mars. (Hampden District Attorney)Hampden District Attorney

According to the Sex Offender Registry Board, Mars was convicted of two counts of rape of a child with force and three counts of indecent assault and battery on a child under the age of 14 in 1995. Details of those offenses were not immediately available Thursday.

He is classified as a Level 3 sex offender, considered most likely to commit new offenses.

In court, Dunphy Farris said that after the convictions, Mars was determined to be sexually dangerous and was civilly committed to the Massachusetts Treatment Center in Bridgewater from 1994 to 2015.

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He now lives at a Veterans Administration facility in Bedford, she said. Mars’s defense attorney, Joseph F. Hennessey of Worcester, said in court that he had just been appointed to represent Mars.


John R. Ellement can be reached at john.ellement@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @JREbosglobe.