Metro

Prosecutors blame serial rapist for 1969 murder of Harvard student Jane Britton

A police photo of the building on University Road in Cambridge outside Harvard Square where Jane Britton lived and was killed. Britton was a Harvard student who was killed in January 1969.
Middlesex DA's office
A police photo of the building on University Road in Cambridge outside Harvard Square where Jane Britton lived and was killed. Britton was a Harvard student who was killed in January 1969.

For years, amateur investigators speculated about who might have killed Jane Britton, a popular Harvard University graduate student found bludgeoned to death in her Cambridge apartment in 1969.

People sent theories to police. They gossiped about the case on Internet forums. Many were convinced the killer had to be a neighbor, classmate, or someone else she knew at Harvard because no one heard Britton scream and her valuables were left untouched.

All the theories turned out to be wrong.

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After conducting fresh DNA testing and analysis, Middlesex County investigators announced Tuesday they have at last identified the man they believe is Britton’s killer: a serial rapist and killer named Michael Sumpter, who died in 2001 and has since been linked to the murders of two other women he didn’t know.

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“We have finally gotten to the end of the mystery,” Middlesex District Attorney Marian Ryan said in an interview. “I’m very confident, given both the DNA information and the investigative piece.”

In 2010, investigators connected Sumpter to the 1972 rape and slaying of Ellen Rutchick, 23, at her Beacon Street apartment in Boston. Two years later, authorities said DNA evidence showed he was responsible for the 1973 murder and sexual assault of Mary Lee McClain in her Beacon Hill apartment. In all three cases, investigators believe Sumpter did not know the women.

Sumpter, who died of cancer while on parole at the age of 54, was convicted of raping a stranger at her Boston apartment in 1975 and assaulting another woman he met at the MBTA’s Harvard Square Station, just blocks from Britton’s apartment, three years after Britton’s murder. After his death, Sumpter was also linked by a DNA match to a 1985 rape in Boston.

Don Mitchell
Jane Britton.

Britton’s killing is the oldest cold case Middlesex prosecutors have ever solved, and Ryan said there were many “twists and turns” along the way.

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“I hope this is a good example for people — not that we are going to solve every case, but we are trying to get there,” she said. “It’s a matter of things lining up so that we get a result.”

Most of Britton’s family died long ago. But her brother, now a vicar at an Anglican church in Santa Barbara, Calif., thanked friends, journalists, and public officials, including State Police Sergeant Peter Sennott, for their part in keeping the investigation alive.

“A half century of mystery and speculation has clouded the brutal crime that shattered Jane’s promising young life and our family,” the Rev. Boyd R. Britton wrote in an e-mail. “The DNA evidence ‘match’ may be all we ever have as a conclusion. Learning to understand and forgive remains a challenge.”

Britton’s murder received national news coverage at the time. Britton, 23, was a talented Harvard student and the daughter of an administrator at Radcliffe College, and evidence found at her apartment — such as scattered grains of red powder — sparked endless speculation about who committed the crime and why. But police never made an arrest or named a suspect, deepening the mystery.

A former New Yorker staffer is working on a book about the case, and reality television producers are working on a potential series. The case also sparked a public records battle, as journalists and amateur investigators alike tried unsuccessfully to request copies of the office’s investigative files.

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Now that the case is closed, Ryan’s office released about 3,500 pages of redacted documents from the investigative file collected over the years. On Tuesday, her office also released a more detailed timeline of what they think happened.

On the evening Britton was last seen alive, she went ice skating with her boyfriend on Cambridge Common and stopped at a pub across from her apartment building on University Road, authorities said. She returned to her fourth-floor apartment with her boyfriend around 10:30 p.m.

After her boyfriend left an hour later, Britton visited her next-door neighbors, where she had a glass of sherry before returning to her apartment at 12:30 a.m.

The next day, her boyfriend discovered her body on her bed after she failed to show up for an exam. At the time, police suggested that Britton was probably killed in the middle of the night by a blow to the head, but they never positively identified a murder weapon.

Prosecutors now believe that Sumpter probably climbed up a fire escape and crept through an open window to her apartment, where he raped and killed her. A neighbor told police that her daughter heard a noise on the fire escape earlier that evening, and another witness saw a man roughly matching Sumpter’s build running away from the building around 1:30 a.m.

Investigators said previous DNA testing had generated a “soft hit” pointing to Sumpter, but it wasn’t conclusive. This time, investigators used newer technology to obtain a more detailed DNA profile from the swabs collected from Britton’s body, which matched Sumpter’s DNA profile in a law enforcement database. They were also able to track down a new DNA sample from Sumpter’s brother, which also pointed to Sumpter and ruled out his brother. The results excluded 99.92 percent of the male population, officials said.

Investigators also found that Sumpter had numerous ties to Cambridge and once worked on Arrow Street, a 10-minute walk from Britton’s apartment.

However, prosecutors said they have no reason to think Sumpter was responsible for the death of Ada Bean, another Cambridge woman found bludgeoned to death in her apartment a month after Britton’s murder.

Authorities also said there is no apparent connection with the murder of Beverly Samans, a 23-year-old graduate student who was killed in Britton’s apartment complex four years earlier. Albert DeSalvo, the Boston Strangler, claimed responsibility for that murder, but he was in prison by the time Britton was killed.

Prosecutors also said the ochre powder turned out to be a red herring. Shortly after the murder, a university professor suggested the powder was consistent with an ancient Persian burial ritual, sparking speculation the murder may have been committed by someone in the anthropology department, where Britton was a student. She had also gone on an archeological expedition to Iran with classmates.

But investigators found no connection between the department and the killing, and learned the pigment is commonly used in painting, one of Britton’s favorite hobbies.

Prosecutors recently collected DNA samples from a number of people who knew Britton to rule them out as suspects. Among them was Don Mitchell of Hawaii, who lived next door to Britton with his wife at the time and was one of the last people to see Britton alive.

Like others, Mitchell had long suspected the killer was someone Britton knew at Harvard.

“I was surprised,” Mitchell said Tuesday. “Very few people at the time thought it was somebody random who came in and killed her. Everyone thought it was connected to the anthropology department.”

After learning last month that her killer had been found, Mitchell planted a Hawaiian tree with yellow blossoms as a symbol of putting the case to rest. Since her death, hardly a month has gone by without Britton crossing his mind.

“Now we go on from here,” he said.

Todd Wallack can be reached at twallack@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @twallack.