A 31-year hunt for the killer of a Kingston teenager has led to the arrest in North Carolina of a man who had lived just 5 miles away from her at the time of the slaying.
Michael Hand, 61, was arrested Friday at his home in Troutman in the 1986 slaying of 15-year-old Tracy Gilpin, Plymouth District Attorney Timothy Cruz announced Sunday.
The potential breakthrough in the cold case comes four months after the victim’s sister, Kerry A. Gilpin, became the superintendent of the Massachusetts State Police. On Sunday she issued a statement on behalf of her family thanking officers who have worked on the investigation and members of the public who have provided information.
“For the past three decades, we have remained hopeful that Tracy’s murderer would be identified,” Colonel Gilpin said. “The much-welcomed news of an arrest in the case leaves us cautiously optimistic that justice for Tracy is within reach. My thoughts today are not just with my own family, but also with all the families who have lost loved ones to violence. We will continue to work tirelessly to find justice for all murder victims.”
Family members reported Tracy Gilpin missing Oct. 1, 1986, when she failed to return home after going to a party in Kingston. She left the party with friends, who went to their own homes. Gilpin stopped to buy cigarettes and then disappeared. A woman offered her a ride, but Tracy declined, saying she was going to walk.
Her body was found three weeks later at Myles Standish State Forest in nearby Plymouth covered with brush. The cause of death was found to be a massive skull fracture. There was a large boulder on her head. Her pants and shoes were missing. Her mother identified her by her jewelry.
It’s unclear what led authorities to Hand, who was 29 and living on Brookdale Street, about 5 miles from Gilpin’s home, when the teenager was slain. Last year, the Gilpin family boosted the reward for information leading to the teenager’s killer from $10,000 to $25,000.
In a statement announcing Hand’s arrest, Cruz said that State Police assigned to his office, along with Plymouth and Kingston police, had never stopped investigating the teenager’s slaying.
As a result of that investigation, Cruz said, information was developed that prompted Massachusetts state troopers to travel to North Carolina to arrest Hand on Friday.
Hand was charged as a fugitive from justice based on an arrest warrant issued in Plymouth County charging him with the murder of Tracy Gilpin. “Our office will be seeking to have Hand brought back to Massachusetts from North Carolina through the initiation of rendition proceedings,” Cruz said.
Hand is in the custody of the Iredell County Sheriff’s Office in North Carolina and could not be reached for comment. He is expected to appear in court in North Carolina on Monday, then will face arraignment in Plymouth District Court once he’s returned to Massachusetts.
Reached on Sunday, Hand’s neighbors on Klutz Street in Troutman said Hand lived by himself in a home on a dead-end street with a large collection of guns. Two said they would wave to him, speak to him occasionally on the street, but keep at a distance.
“He was my next-door neighbor, but we weren’t close at all,” Steve Suther, 70, said in a phone interview with the Globe. “I’m told he had a bad temper; he never did show me that side of him.”
Calvin Ostwalt, 68, another longtime resident of the street, said of Hand, “You learned not to trust him. He would say that the reason he was here in Troutman was on witness protection.”
Neighbor Shirley Parker, 81, described Hand as “a know-it-all. . . . He had an attitude. He was always very helpful, if I needed anything. He offered to help me with my yardwork. He never did, but he did offer.”
She said Hand would tell people he was a police officer in Boston but now lived on disability after hurting his back up north.
“I don’t know what he really did,” Parker said. “He said he went to chef’s school and worked at numerous jobs. . . . He had a lot of guns.”
Christine Nava, 52, bought Hand’s childhood home in Kingston from him in 2007; he had been living there after his parents died.
Her late husband grew up across the street from Hand. When they purchased the property, she remembers the house was unkempt and had holes in the walls. Nava said she made a point not to interact with Hand, whom she once saw walking down their street with a gun in the daytime.
“He always had an odd way about him,” Nava said. “He was always very nice to me, he never did anything negative. Some people just give you this feeling that they’re a little odd, and I just tried to stay away.”
She added that Hand carved monument stones. He made them two out of granite, one when her dog Shiner died and one when her pony, Dolly, died. Her husband got into a few arguments with Hand, she remembered, when they were building their horse farm across the street.
Nava recently sold the house to family members.
In his statement announcing Hand’s arrest, Cruz did not disclose what evidence had led investigators to him. State Police also declined to comment on the new evidence.
“In order to protect the integrity of the criminal case we are limited as to what we can say at this point,” said Dave Procopio, spokesman for State Police, in an e-mail.
Ostwalt said his daughter received the keys to Hand’s home from authorities on Friday evening after Hand’s arrest so she could take care of his dog.
“He and I did not get along,” Ostwalt said. “He was always like, ‘I need to get money from you. I need you to do this for me.’ Finally I got fed up with it.”
In her statement, Colonel Gilpin thanked Cruz, State Police detectives assigned to the DA’s office, the State Police Crime lab, police in Kingston, Plymouth, North Carolina, and “all of the investigators who have worked diligently over the last 31 years to solve Tracy’s murder.”
She also said the family was extremely grateful to members of the public who provided information to investigators. In a 2017 story about her sister’s unsolved murder, Gilpin told the Globe she believed someone would be brought to justice.
“It’s been 30 years. I know it’s solvable,” she said. “In my heart of hearts, I know that person is out there.”Cristela Guerra can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @CristelaGuerra.