For three decades, a 7-year-old’s death went unsolved. Then a debris sample provided a clue
CENTRAL FALLS, R.I. — The child was naked and abandoned in death, left face up under overhanging brush near a nameless bog, down behind a shots-and-beer rental hall. The pink T-shirt and purple shorts that she’d worn to a playground were laid beside her bruised body.
Michelle Norris had struggled in her seven years, a shy girl who grew up in poverty and neglect. Then, she suffered a death that has haunted this tight-knit city for 31 years.
The person who raped and murdered her over Memorial Day weekend in 1988 has never been caught. Now, investigators believe Michelle’s last breaths might contain clues to her killer.
Detective Jeffrey Araujo said the debris Michelle inhaled as she was forced facedown and suffocated didn’t match the soil where she was found. No one, it seems, ever asked why.
“It’s been assumed for 31 years that she died there,” Araujo said recently. “Now, we’re looking at another angle — that maybe she didn’t.”
The FBI crime lab that did the geologic testing back then had determined that Michelle had inhaled “primarily masses of mineral wool-insulation-type material, fiberglass and botanical material,” according to court records.
Not a bog. A building.
This evidence, little noticed at the time and never made public, is now bringing an old case into focus. Investigators recently collected soil samples from the basement of a century-old apartment house where Michelle’s father lived in May 1988.
William Darrell Norris, 59, who was separated from Michelle’s mother at the time, skipped out of Rhode Island six months after the girl’s death. The couple later divorced.
Norris was one of several “persons of interest” identified by investigators over the years, and he has given different accounts of his actions when his daughter disappeared.
One thing that’s unchanged: Norris is the last person known to have seen Michelle alive.
. . .
Michelle was a timid girl from a rough-and-tumble home, the third of four children and the only daughter of Norris, known by his middle name, and his wife, Julia Tager. The couple had married young and separated early, their lives troubled by alcoholism and physical abuse.
The children lived with their mother on Summer Street, and their father moved in with his mother a few streets away.
Michelle “had a horrible life,” said Araujo, the detective. She was sometimes dirty and hungry, he said, left with her siblings to forage for any food their chronically ill mother left in the refrigerator.
“It got that bad because I was very sick,” Julia Tager Norris said. “I was struggling. I couldn’t get out of bed.”
A tip about neglect led state child welfare officials to remove the children from their mother’s custody and place them with their maternal grandparents on Kendall Street on May 27, 1988.
Michelle vanished the next day, from a playground within view of her grandparents’ apartment.
She was with her brothers and cousins behind the Captain G. Harold Hunt School, where she attended first grade, when the older children went to the nearby store for candy. Michelle stayed behind with her 4-year-old brother and a 5-year-old cousin.
Then, she was gone.
Her grandmother later told reporters that she realized Michelle was missing when she called the children for dinner a few hours later. Her uncles searched for Michelle, even checking with Norris, who said he hadn’t seen her.
Her family reported her missing, telling police that Michelle would have gone only with someone she trusted.
. . .
Central Falls wasn’t a place where children disappeared easily. Tenements and triple-deckers elbow against each other, with windows like eyes on the narrow streets. Generations of immigrants have interwoven their lives within the city’s 1-square-mile borders.
“Everybody knew everyone back then,” said retired police chief Joseph Moran, who grew up on Hunt Street.
The city was popping with crime in the mid-1980s, when it was dubbed the “cocaine capital of the Northeast” by the federal Drug Enforcement Administration, stretching the few dozen officers.
But underneath the danger, the city’s children roamed with ease. There were sports and the community center, playgrounds and postage-stamp front yards, in tight neighborhoods where there always seemed to be someone watching.
“It was real safe,” Moran said.
In the months before Michelle’s disappearance, however, the sense of safety began to turn, as one child after another in Rhode Island vanished and turned up dead.
Frankie Barnes, 9, riding his bicycle in Providence that November. Jason Wolf, 6, checking his family’s mailbox in Providence in December. Christine Cole, 10, walking to a store in Pawtucket in January 1988. Justin C. Ellinwood, 9, dead in a brook near his home in Warwick, after disappearing in April.
The killers of Frankie, Jason, and Justin were soon caught, but police were stymied by the murder of Christine, whose body washed up onto Conimicut Point in Warwick in late February.
And then, Michelle — the fifth child in seven months.
. . .
Decades before Jeffrey Araujo was the detective investigating the Norris case, he was a 13-year-old boy, whose parents were already warning him about the “scary people out there,” when Michelle disappeared. They lived in neighboring Lincoln and knew her large extended family — his cousin was best friends with one of her uncles.
“When Michelle went missing, it was a big deal,” he said.
Fear spread. The State Police and FBI agents joined the investigation. Then on the afternoon of May 30, a firefighter recruit helping search a wooded section bordered by Higginson Avenue found Michelle’s body. Down behind the old “Bug Club,” she lay like a discarded doll along a trail used by people going drinking or fishing.
A medical examiner determined that Michelle had been raped and suffocated. Revealed in recent court documents: Her injuries also showed sexual assault had been a “chronic occurrence” in her short life.
The city reeled. “We always wondered, as we have for 31 years, who did this to her?” Araujo said.
. . .
Cold cases are difficult. Memories fade. Witnesses die. Evidence can be damaged or lost. Interviews weren’t often recorded, making it difficult to analyze what was said — and how.
Central Falls also spent years teetering on the edge of financial insolvency, toppling into bankruptcy in 2011, which meant far fewer officers and resources in a city busy with crime.
The police found other ways to keep the investigation going. As head of detectives and later as chief, Moran invited retired officers to collaborate with the newer detectives.
None could forget the case of Michelle Norris.
“It’s pretty much been the black sheep of this department because no one finished it,” said Araujo, who joined the department 19 years ago and became a detective in 2005.
Araujo brought it with him in April to a cold-case homicide conference in Albany, N.Y. That’s where Pawtucket Detective Sue Cormier introduced him to an expert in criminology from Australia.
David Keatley is chairman of crime science at Murdoch University School of Law and director of an international research network, Researchers in Behavior Sequence Analysis. Keatley focuses on behavior and patterns in a criminal’s life history and the way they operate. By noting consistencies — and inconsistencies — in the behavior and testimony of witnesses and suspects, Keatley said, he can give the police some insight into the type of offender they’re seeking and other crimes the person may have committed.
Araujo said that meeting with Keatley and Cormier led to new steps in Michelle’s case. He would not give specifics but said the connection was a tipping point.
When he returned to Central Falls, Araujo was thinking about how the soil collected from the crime scene in 1988 didn’t match the debris that Michelle inhaled.
Araujo wanted to know why. He turned his attention from the soil to the debris in the girl’s lungs.
On April 25, two days before what would have been Michelle’s 38th birthday, he obtained a search warrant to collect samples from the basement of the apartment house where her father used to live.
In his affidavit, Araujo wrote that the bog where Michelle was found could be a “secondary crime scene.”
“It would be important to consider if Michelle was possibly murdered somewhere else,” he wrote.
Where? “At the residence of her father.”
. . .
When her maternal uncles first began looking for Michelle, Norris told them he hadn’t seen her and, Araujo says now, he “didn’t seem interested in finding her.”
But after her body was found, Norris told police that he last saw Michelle at the playground, according to court records. Later, he told police that he took her to the store to buy candy, then returned her to the playground, according to the affidavit.
No one saw them return.
In 1999, while in custody for failing to pay nearly $60,000 in child support, Norris was questioned again. This time, Norris said Michelle asked to stay with him at his mother’s apartment, but he changed his mind on the way there because of the state child welfare investigation and returned her to her grandparents’ home on Kendall Street, according to the affidavit. Under further questioning, Norris “began to get stressed, stretched his arms wide out, took a deep breath,” and asked for a lawyer.
In 2011, Norris was living in Florida when Araujo and Detective Craig Viens flew down to question him again. Norris admitted that he had been “touching” Michelle, starting when she was 5, according to the affidavit.
In the three-and-a-half hours they spoke to him, “Darrell never denied killing Michelle, but only kept stating that he didn’t remember,” Araujo wrote.
. . .
While forensic soil analysis isn’t common, it’s a tool to help determine where a crime occurred, said Dennis Hilliard, the director of the Rhode Island State Crime Laboratory at the University of Rhode Island.
Soil is not as specific as fingerprints, which are unique to the individual, but it can yield clues about geographic location, said Jim Turenne, assistant state soil scientist at the US Department of Agriculture in Warwick.
For example, the soil in Rhode Island’s East Bay has a different mineral structure than that in Newport or in the western part of the state. Eventually, scientists will classify the urban soil of cities in Rhode Island.
But back in the 1980s, investigators were still learning about how forensic soil analysis could help them solve crimes. In Michelle’s case, they collected soil samples from under her body and the surrounding area. The FBI found that it wasn’t a match in 1988, and that’s where it was left.
Now the FBI is analyzing the samples from the basement and comparing it with the debris that Michelle inhaled. The results are pending.
. . .
William Darrell Norris knows he’s a suspect in his daughter’s murder.
“I reckon I’ve always been,” Norris says over the phone from Lake City, Fla., early Sunday afternoon. “It’s been a long time, almost 30 years. . . . They didn’t need to tell me. I figured it out.”
When a little girl from the next county disappeared sometime in 2005 or 2006, Norris said, Florida sheriffs wanted his DNA. He gave it up but suspected the Central Falls police were behind that, too.
“They have my DNA, they have my set of fingerprints, they have the whole nine yards,” he said. “And I’m still sitting here, drinking.”
Norris said he picked up Michelle at the playground that day.
“I was going to bring her to my mom’s, but we were going fishing the next morning,” he said.
Instead, Norris said, he brought Michelle to the store to get some chewing gum, then back to her grandparents’ house on Kendall Street, all in about 20 minutes or so.
He said he was “kind of drunk at the time” but remembered dropping her off and then going to a bar. He doesn’t explain why this memory is different from what he told the police.
He said he didn’t molest Michelle. He said he didn’t kill her. Instead, he has a question for police.
“Ask them if they are done with me or not,” Norris said. “They know where I’m at. . . . I ain’t hiding.”
. . .
A high chain-link fence surrounds the school playground now. Michelle’s photo is on a plaque at the entrance.
Her death “had a big impact on the city,” Moran said. “It hasn’t gone away. Not even close.”
Another anniversary has passed.
“There are times I sit here, when it’s quiet, and I think,” Julia Tager Norris said.
Araujo now has two daughters who are just a few years older than Michelle.
He thinks about how their lives differ from Michelle’s, and how he wishes he could have helped her.
Solving her case is something he can do.
“It’s not an ‘if.’ It’s ‘when,’ ” he said.