Metro
    Next Score View the next score

    Chapter 6

    A killer confesses

    This story is from the Globe archive. It originally ran July 9, 1999.

    Filmmaker Melanie Perkins is looking for her friend Andy Puglisi, a Lawrence boy missing since 1976. She finds a killer.

    Throughout her intense, 10-month attempt to discover what happened to Andy Puglisi, Melanie Perkins has had a feeling that the answer is sitting in police files, right under investigators’ noses.

    In November 1998, she comes across information about a man who has fallen through gaps in the police work: Charles E. Pierce.

    Advertisement

    In a memo dated April 4, 1989, Captain Joseph Fitzpatrick, then head of the Lawrence detective division, relates a phone conversation with Trooper Joe Flaherty, working for a special investigations unit in Norfolk County. Flaherty has told him Pierce, imprisoned in Norfolk, is dying and wants to confess a crime in Lawrence.

    Get Metro Headlines in your inbox:
    The 10 top local news stories from metro Boston and around New England delivered daily.
    Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

    ``He has told people he murdered a young boy in Lawrence in the 1970s. . . ,’‘ says the memo in the file.

    In a letter six days later, Flaherty again urged Lawrence police to talk to Pierce. But the interrogation never occurred, for reasons that are unclear to current investigators or their retired predecessors.

    ``I don’t think we were even aware of this particular individual,’‘ says Mike Carelli, a retired patrolman who worked on the case sporadically from 1982 until 1997, referring to Pierce. ``If we knew and didn’t follow up, there’s a black eye on Lawrence police.’‘

    Melanie is stunned to discover that Pierce was raised in neighboring Haverhill and was familiar with places Andy and his family frequented. He worked as a dishwasher at Captain Chris’s Seafood Restaurant in Haverhill and the Woolworth’s store in Lawrence, both spots where the Puglisi family ate. He helped to set up tents and rides at the Topsfield Fair, which Andy attended.

    Advertisement

    And Pierce drove a dark-colored van or station wagon which seems to resemble a vehicle that several of Melanie’s informants remember idling by the public pool where Andy played, around the time he disappeared.

    Melanie also knows that Pierce is a vicious killer. He is serving a 20-year sentence for the 1969 murder of Michelle Wilson, a 13-year-old Boxford girl. In that case, Pierce accosted her as she rode her bicycle home from a friend’s house, dragged her into his van, and strangled her. Then he had sex with her dead body and took her to some woods, where he bit her, beat her, kicked her in the head, put a 98-pound rock on her head and covered her with leaves, according to Robert Weiner, the Essex County first assistant district attorney who prosecuted the case in 1980.

    A glimpse into Pierce’s twisted psyche is provided by the State Police detective captain who arrested Pierce in the Wilson case. About 10 years after the murder, Pierce confessed and led investigators to the spot where he put the body. The captain, who declines to be named, was sitting in the back seat of a police van with Pierce at the crime scene. At the time, Pierce was suspected in several child murders and also had active tuberculosis.

    ``A big, big moon came out and it was shining into the back seat. And I’m trying to get Charlie [Pierce] to tell me where some of the children [he killed] are, saying it would be nice to let the parents know that much.

    ``Charlie said, `There are so many.’

    Advertisement

    ``So I said, `Well, how about if we start with the ones in Massachusetts?’

    ``Just then, clouds blocked the moon. He turned to me and started spitting on me, so I’d get his TB. And he hit me over the head with his handcuffs and said, `You no-good [expletive.]’ He rambled on, calling me other names. And from then on, he wouldn’t say anything more to me or Dougie [Boxford police chief Douglas A. Warren].’‘

    Melanie doesn’t relish an encounter with this necrophiliac, who is still alive despite his earlier life-threatening illness, in a prison in Shirley. But since police aren’t pursuing leads in their own files, and have not yet interrogated Pierce, she resolves to question him herself.

    But two letters to Pierce, asking about Andy and requesting an interview, generate no reply. Instead, he starts talking at the prison about crimes he committed in Lawrence. A prison guard calls Lawrence Detective Sergeant Gene Hatem.

    ``You better get out here,’‘ says the guard. ``This guy is giving out everything now because he’s dying.’‘

    Pierce has prostate cancer and is not expected to live much longer. Hoping to hear a deathbed confession, Lawrence police detective Captain Michael Molchan and state investigator Sergeant Jack Garvin go to MCI-Shirley in January to meet the ailing inmate, who is 77 years old. Afterwards, Garvin describes the chilling encounter.

    When he was convicted of the Wilson murder in June 1980, Pierce was a big, muscular man, 6’ 2’‘ and more than 200 pounds. Now he weighs barely 135. ``His skin is hanging off him,’‘ Garvin says. Pierce’s face is lined and drawn, with dark circles around baggy, bespectacled eyes. He is sitting in a wheelchair, covered with a blanket and wearing an oxygen mask.

    Pierce tells the detectives that he murdered several children, including Janice Pockett, a 7-year-old girl from Tolland, Conn., and a 10- or 11-year-old Lawrence boy, whom he will not name.

    The Lawrence boy had olive skin and wanted to go fishing, Pierce says. He killed him in his van, had sex with the boy’s body and with the dead body of Janice, which he was carrying in the vehicle. He says he buried the children in graves about 30 feet apart, each two feet deep, using a spade he kept in his van. The burial site was a field in Lawrence, which he marked with pieces of coal.

    The next day, Pierce recants his story. When detectives try to get more details, he becomes stubborn and belligerent.

    ``He threw his oxygen mask at me,’‘ Garvin says. ``Then he pretended to keep falling asleep.’‘ When Pierce refused to talk any more, ``I said I’d wait till he dies if I have to.

    ``He said, `Good, then you can suffer with me.’

    ``I said I’d claim his body and take it out for the animals to eat. That was my parting shot.’‘

    Pierce would tell detectives nothing more about his crimes. Because he said he met the Lawrence boy by the Strand Theatre, which closed in 1956, and drove past George’s Diner, which was torn down in 1958, Lawrence police believe the murders occurred in the 1950s.

    ``This has nothing to do with Puglisi,’‘ says Molchan, noting that Andy disappeared in 1976. Garvin says the boy Pierce says he killed may have been just passing through Lawrence when Pierce accosted him.

    Pierce may have been confused or lying about landmarks, Melanie figures, but she knows that Janice Pockett vanished in 1973. ``So if one of the children Pierce killed is Janice Pockett, it definitely happened in the 1970s,’‘ she says.

    She learns that Pierce told detectives during the prison interview that he sometimes watched children at the pool in Lawrence where Andy was last seen. Melanie also is shocked to learn that Pierce said he knew Wayne Chapman and discussed his sexual activities with him.

    In a Globe interview, Chapman denies knowing Pierce, but Melanie nonetheless wonders: Were these two men partners in perversion?

    Yes, says Andrew Barnhart, the psychic who vanished in 1983. After an extensive search, the Globe finds him in a location which he asks not be disclosed. He says he now believes the two pedophiles worked together.

    ``Pierce disposed of the bodies in Lawrence because he knew from Chapman that it was a safe place,’‘ Barnhart says. ``He also knew from him that the pool was a good place to find kids.’‘

    Police, and Melanie, are skeptical about psychics. But despite inconsistencies in Pierce’s story, they think it may be essentially true. They decide to bring specially trained dogs to sniff for the children’s remains, as soon as the weather gets warm enough for the dogs to detect the telltale smell. They believe Pierce’s victims may be buried in a field off West Street in an industrial section of Lawrence, which seems to fit his description of the gravesite.

    Melanie thinks they probably are looking in the wrong place and overlooking the possibility that the missing boy is her friend, Andy Puglisi.

    But she anxiously waits to see what the dogs will find.