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Mother relieved that daughter’s murderer died behind bars

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Joanne Arruda reacted to the Middlesex Superior Court jury's guilty verdict against James Kater in the 1978 murder of her daughter.
Joanne Arruda reacted to the Middlesex Superior Court jury's guilty verdict against James Kater in the 1978 murder of her daughter.JIM MAHONEY

Joanne Arruda did not celebrate when she heard the news, but she certainly did not mourn, either.

"To believe that he really died — we are numb,'' Arruda said Tuesday in a telephone interview. "I do believe in a heaven, and I do believe there is a hell. And he's going to rot in it.''

James M. Kater died recently after spending years behind bars for kidnapping and killing Arruda's oldest daughter, Mary-Lou, on Sept. 8, 1978. The 15-year-old's body was found weeks later in the Freetown State Forest, tied to a tree.

The Department of Correction notified Arruda last weekend that Kater had died, concluding the family's long struggle for justice through the state courts, where Kater was tried for Mary-Lou Arruda's murder four times.

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During every hearing, every trial, Joanne Arruda was there, along with relatives and friends. His death, she said, "means a lot ... he's gone and will never slip through the cracks again.''

One of Kater's trials ended in a mistrial. He was convicted two other times, but those convictions were overturned by the Supreme Judicial Court.

During the fourth trial in 1996, Kater took the stand in his own defense and admitted that he abducted a 13-year-old girl who was riding her bike, took her to a wooded area of Boxborough, tied her to a tree, and assaulted her. That girl escaped. Kater was imprisoned for several years in her case.

But Kater insisted at the 1996 trial that he was a changed man by the time Mary-Lou disappeared while riding her bike. He said he was innocent of Arruda's murder, a position he maintained through decades of court action on his case.

James Kater at his trial in 1996.
James Kater at his trial in 1996.GRETCHEN ERTL

The jury convicted him. The Supreme Judicial Court eventually upheld the conviction and sentence of life without parole.

Joanne Arruda said that she had recently learned through the "grapevine'' that Kater was sick, leading her to hope that his illness "would last a long time and [he would] suffer hard." When she learned Kater was dead, her family shared the news in quiet telephone conversations.

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"I can't say that I am jumping for joy. It's a heavy load,'' she said."I am just glad [he's] not around any more.''

Arruda said she did not go often to visit her daughter's grave, but instead carries memories of her everywhere she goes.

"I hold her in my heart,'' she said. "She was very beautiful, very sincere. Cared about people, but she could stick up for herself. That's why we believe with all of our hearts that she had to put up some kind of a fight. ... I can't stand the thought that his face was the last thing that she saw. That really bothers me.''


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