ALLENSTOWN, N.H. — Thirty years ago, children playing in the woods bordering Bear Brook State Park found the heavy steel drum and made a game of rolling it around the towering pine trees. They abandoned it when the cover popped off, dumping a trash bag onto the ground.
Some days later, on Nov. 10, 1985, hunters stumbled upon the scene and discovered that the tattered plastic covered the naked, partially dismembered, and decomposing bodies of a young woman and little girl. Investigators learned the pair were beaten to death but were unable to identify them.
By 2000, the trail had long grown cold when New Hampshire State Police Sergeant John M. Cody, who was newly assigned to the case, was trekking through the woods and made a startling discovery some 100 yards from where the first bodies were found: another steel drum containing the skeletal remains of two more little girls.
On the 30th anniversary of the first discovery, the killings of the woman and three children — whose ages and identities are unknown — remain one of New Hampshire’s most baffling mysteries.
But the investigation continues, with new information expected next week.
Members of the New Hampshire State Police, the FBI, and the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children met last week about the case and are in the process of reviewing new scientific data, including isotope analysis of the victims’ hair, bones, and teeth, that might pinpoint what region they lived in based on the drinking water they consumed. They plan to announce the results at a press conference Nov. 17.
“I think we are going to be able to give the public a much better picture of the relationship between these four victims and where they originated from,” said Carol Schweitzer, a senior forensic specialist at the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children.
The center, which posted three-dimensional facial reconstructions of the victims on its missingkids.org website three years ago, is also poised to release new, more lifelike computerized images — similar to the type recently used to help identify a child’s body found on Deer Island as Bella Bond of Dorchester.
Mitochondrial DNA tests performed years ago indicate that the woman found in Allenstown is related to the oldest and youngest girls found in the woods but don’t distinguish whether she was their mother, sister, or aunt. It’s unclear whether the third girl is related to any of the other victims.
“This is one of the larger unidentified familial-related sets of remains in the country,” said New Hampshire State Police Lieutenant Joseph Ebert, who has been investigating the Allenstown slayings for about six years. “It’s so difficult for me to wrap my mind around the thought that there is a whole family that disappeared . . . and nobody reported it.”
Authorities said the case has been hindered over the years because so little is known about the victims. Police said they believe the woman, who was between 23 and 32 years old, and the children were killed at the same time, probably between 1980 and 1984.
Kim Fallon, chief forensic investigator for the New Hampshire Medical Examiner’s office, provided the following descriptions of the girls: a 9½- to 10½-year-old with light brown hair and double-pierced ears who might have been suffering from pneumonia; a brown-haired 3- to 5-year-old who had a noticeable overbite and might not have been related to the others; a 2- to 3½-year old with fine, long blond hair and a slight gap between her two front teeth.
A forensic anthropologist concluded that the woman had Native American characteristics but listed all of the victims as Caucasian.
The woman and oldest girl died of blunt force trauma to the head, but the cause of death could not be determined for the younger two. Police said it appeared that the woman and oldest girl had been partially dismembered to fit into the steel drum.
The killings still haunt Cody, the now-retired trooper who found the remains of the two youngest girls in May 2000 and returned to the site last week with a Globe reporter, videographer, and photographer.
“It always sticks in my head,” Cody said. “There’s somebody out there . . . did they basically get rid of their entire family and just start over? And are they now living with someone? It’s a scary thought.”
The first 55-gallon generic steel drum was found on private property that borders Bear Brook State Park, a popular site for campers, hikers, and snowmobilers, located 10 miles north of Manchester. The bodies were not far from a trail that snakes from a trailer park to the charred remains of a convenience store that was destroyed by fire in 1983.
Police checked missing persons reports across the United States and Canada, unsuccessfully seeking a match to the two victims. They checked local school records but found no unaccounted-for children. They interviewed residents of the trailer, which was home to at least one convicted sex offender and members of a local motorcycle gang.
They issued a nationwide bulletin, eliminated numerous missing persons, and distributed composite drawings of the victims throughout the Northeast and Quebec.
Cody said he ventured into the woods 15 years ago to familiarize himself with the area and was stunned when he spotted the steel drum partially covered with leaves and discovered human bones inside. Initially, he said, he feared it was “a serial killer’s dumping site.”
No more bodies were found during a massive search by police and a cadaver dog.
Cody said he did not fault police for failing to find the drum earlier because it was a football field away from where the first one was found and wouldn’t have been considered part of the initial crime scene.
Police suspect that the two drums were dumped in the same spot. During the investigation of the initial discovery, police learned that children had rolled the drum into the woods and abandoned it when the trash bag tumbled out, unaware of its contents, Cody said.
Domestic violence emerged as a theory in the case because no husband or father seemed to report the woman and girls missing, Cody said. Still, he said, “You really have to keep an open mind and say it could be a lot of different people.”
He noted that tractor trailers sometimes parked in the woods by the Bear Brook store overnight, raising the possibility that a trucker disposed of the bodies.
Edward Gallagher, who owns the property where the victims were found, said a lot of transient people and “unsavory characters” lived in the trailer park that abuts his property and shopped at the Bear Brook store that was operated by his late mother.
“You just hope somebody on their deathbed admits something,” said Gallagher, 75, of Portsmouth, N.H. “How do you run around with all this guilt in your head?”
The Allenstown mystery has drawn the attention of Internet detectives, including a California forensic reconstruction artist who sketched a portrait of the victims based on the three-dimensional images released by authorities.
The artist, Carl Koppelman, who is a member of Websleuths.com and posted his drawings of the Allenstown victims on the website, said the shape of the eyes, lips, and hairstyles are not intended to be exact depictions, “but it gives a general sense of how they may have looked in life.”
Ronda Randall, a Maine social worker and genealogist, and her brother, Scott Maxwell, have spent nearly five years trying to identify the Allenstown victims, operating a website that has collected tips and theories about the slayings that they have shared with investigators.
Ebert, the New Hampshire state police lieutenant overseeing the case, said the story is “going to get even sadder. Either we are not going to be able to identify them or we will and there will be a backstory to these kids that will break your heart.”Shelley Murphy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @shelleymurph.