CONCORD, N.H. — For decades, they were known only as the Allenstown victims, a woman and three young girls murdered and dumped in steel barrels hidden deep in the woods. Their identities were a mystery, eluding investigators even after their killer — a drifter who left a trail of victims across the country — was identified two years ago.
Now, officials say they have identified three of the four victims, a significant step toward resolving one of New England’s most infamous cold cases. They were Marlyse Elizabeth Honeychurch, who was last seen in California on Thanksgiving in 1978, and her daughters, Marie Elizabeth Vaughn, born in 1971, and Sarah Lynn McWaters, born in 1977.
Relatives of Honeychurch and her daughters spent years searching for them online and provided DNA to help authorities identify the remains, found in separate discoveries in 1985 and 2000. They traveled to New Hampshire Thursday to attend the announcement, wiping away tears as authorities detailed how Honeychurch and her daughters intersected with their killer, Terry Rasmussen.
New Hampshire State Police Colonel Christopher Wagner said the breakthrough was the result of tireless work by law enforcement and public volunteers across the country and “restores a level of dignity and respect to those who lost their voice” decades ago.
“It gives us an appreciation of who they were and how they lived,” he said.
In a statement, relatives of the victims thanked “everyone who has spent decades tirelessly working to identify our loved ones.”
“This day comes with heavy hearts, Marlyse, Marie and Sarah were so loved by our families and they are greatly missed,” they wrote. “We take solace in finally having the answers we have longed for.”
In 1985, hunters stumbled upon a barrel containing the decomposing bodies of a woman believed to be in her mid-20s and a girl believed to be about 10 or 11 in Allenstown’s Bear Brook State Park. Fifteen years later, a State Police sergeant newly assigned to the case discovered a second barrel, containing the remains of two more girls, believed to be about 3 and 4 years old.
Authorities believed they were all killed at the same time, between the late 1970s and early 1980s. DNA tests revealed that the woman and two of the girls were related.
DNA testing had previously showed that the still unidentified Allenstown victim was a female child of Rasmussen, who died in prison in 2010. Authorities presume her mother was a victim as well, and have not been able to determine who she was.
Authorities identified Rasmussen as the Allenstown killer after a woman he had abandoned as a child helped unravel the case by searching for her parents through genealogy sites.
The case was at the vanguard of genetic crime solving, an emerging field that uses the latest DNA technology and online ancestry databases to identify suspects — and victims — through even-distant genetic relatives.
Genetic crime solving was most prominently used to arrest the Golden State Killer, a California man linked to a series of unsolved rapes and killings between 1976 and 1986, along with dozens of other cases.
On Thursday, New Hampshire State Police Sergeant Matthew Koehler, of the Cold Case Unit, credited a Connecticut researcher, Rebekah Heath, with her role in identifying the victims. She was searching for clues on ancestry websites to identify the Allenstown victims when she discovered messages from Honeychurch’s family searching for her and her daughters.
Heath reached out to one of those relatives, who revealed that Honeywell had been seeing a man by the last name of Rasmussen before she vanished. The researcher alerted police.
Koehler said the cold case unit launched an investigation into Honeychurch’s life and interviewed dozens of her family and friends who “shared personal memories, photographs, and their own DNA.”
Honeychurch was born in Stamford, Conn., in 1954, the second of five children. Her parents separated when she was 7 and she stayed with her father until she was 15, when she moved in with her mother in California, authorities said. She married her high school boyfriend in Las Vegas when she was 17 and gave birth to her first daughter, Marie Elizabeth Vaughn, in December 1971. In 1973, she briefly lived in Fall River with her husband, who was stationed in the Navy, and their daughter.
That same year, she moved back to California and took custody of her daughter. In 1974, she divorced her first husband and remarried. Her second husband was in the Marines and the couple lived near Camp Pendleton in Southern California. Honeychurch gave birth to her second daughter, Sarah McWaters, in December 1977.
In March 1978, Honeychurch separated from her second husband, then met Rasmussen.
On Thanksgiving 1978, Honeychurch and her daughters went to a family event at her mother’s house in LaPuente, Calif., with a man she identified as Rasmussen, Koehler said.
“An argument ensued between Marlyse and her mother over a trivial matter,” Koehler said. “Marlyse left the event with the children.”
It was the last time her family ever saw them, he said. Honeychurch was 24 at the time, and her daughters were about to turn 1 and 7.
The father of Honeychurch’s youngest daughter, Sarah, died in 1983. The father of her oldest daughter, Marie, hired a private investigator to try to find her, without success.
Authorities believe Rasmussen, then living under the name Bob Evans, arrived in New Hampshire around the late 1970s. But they have been unable to locate anyone who remembered seeing him with Honeychurch and her daughters, and urged anyone who did to contact police.
Rasmussen lived in Manchester and worked as an electrician at Waumbec Mill. In 1980, he was arrested by Manchester police for writing a bad check and stealing electricity. In police reports, he listed his spouse as Elizabeth. On Thursday, police said it is possible he was referring to Honeychurch, whose middle name was Elizabeth.
By 1981, Rasmussen was living with a new girlfriend, Denise Beaudin, and her 6-month-old daughter. All three vanished after spending Thanksgiving 1981 with Beaudin’s family, according to investigators.
Beaudin’s family never reported her missing because the couple was having financial difficulties and they believed she had left voluntarily, according to police. Authorities have said they believe Rasmussen killed Beaudin, then raised and abused her daughter for five years before abandoning the child at a California trailer park in 1986. At the time, he pretended to be her father. Beaudin’s remains have never been found.
In 2002, Rasmussen killed Eunsoon Jun, a woman he married a year earlier in an unofficial backyard ceremony, and buried her body in the basement of their Richmond, Calif., home. He was serving a sentence for her killing when he died in 2010.
When he was being questioned about Jun, police ran his fingerprints and discovered he was the same man who had abandoned Beaudin’s daughter, Lisa, years earlier. A DNA test revealed he was not her father. Lisa’s search for her birth parents led her, and investigators, back to the woods of New Hampshire.