The year was 1972; the place, suburban Springfield, New Jersey. One September day, a bizarre murder shattered the town’s sense of safety, and set in motion a cult-tinged mystery that’s become a local legend—and now, the subject of a new true-crime book.
Was 16-year-old Jeannette DePalma killed as part of a Satanic ritual—or was she simply a girl in the wrong place at the wrong time? Fascinated by the decades-old cold case, authors Jesse P. Pollack and Mark Moran, both known for their work with offbeat travel magazine Weird NJ, decided to further explore its many twists, turns, and historical oddities in Death on the Devil’s Teeth, named for the foreboding rock formation where DePalma’s body was discovered. (That’s it, pictured above.)
We caught up with co-author Pollack, a New Jersey native, to learn more about this startling tale.
io9: You’ve been covering strange and unusual New Jersey stories for nearly 20 years for Weird NJ. Why did you decide to pick the Jeannette DePalma murder mystery for your book?
Jesse P. Pollack: It actually began before I started writing for Weird NJ. I started writing for Weird NJ in 2001, and about three or four years before that, Mark Moran, my co-author, and Mark Sceurman—the editors of the magazine—got a strange letter about a supposed human sacrifice in the quarry over in Springfield, and the cops found the body because a dog brought a body part home. They printed the letter and then a couple of years later, other letters started coming in—all anonymous with no return addresses—saying, like, “Yes, this did happen, and her name was Jeannette DePalma, and she was killed on an altar.”
Eventually Mark [Moran] started looking into it because he finally had a name, but the cops wouldn’t give him any information, and there were very few articles about it in the local newspapers. Mark was able to write up about a one-page story—and that opened up the floodgates for even more of these weird, anonymous letters, saying things like, “She was a Christian girl who was targeted by Satanists,” and others saying “She was a drug-addled, hippie wild child.”
I think what really drew me into all of this was—unfortunately, in the world we live in, it’s not that uncommon for teenagers to go missing and turn up dead. And in the 1970s and 1980s, even the 1990s, it wasn’t that uncommon for Satanic Panic to take hold and be blamed. But [in the DePalma murder], every account has a conflicting story—even if it’s just the fact that half of the police say the case file is missing or destroyed, and the other half say, “We have a copy but we’re not going to comment on it.” And, there were so many people who wanted to share information with the magazine, but were so afraid of the repercussions that they refused to go on the record. That really is what drew me in; I knew this was not going to be an average cut-and-dried cold-case murder.
Obviously, when expanding the article into a book, you had to have people go on the record. Was it hard convincing your sources to do so?
It was an interesting double-edged sword. Once we got ahold of people, they had no problem talking to us. It would all come gushing out, what they would remember from back then. Some of them would let us use their real names, because they said they never believed in the Satanist aspect. But the majority of them asked us to change their names, because of their families or the type of job they had, and they didn’t want to be associated with a Satanic murder. Wherever possible in the book, we did use real names, but for at least half of them, we had to change their name, and those are marked with asterisks in the book.
The case became an urban legend of sorts because of those Satanic and witchcraft rumors. Were you able to find out if any of those rumors were actually true?
Here’s the thing about that: while that aspect was a big part of why Mark and I were drawn to it, we had the common sense to say, “Yes, it’s a weird murder, but do we honestly believe it was a coven of black-robed witches, or Satanists with burning torches? No, probably not.” We set out to [gather all the stories], put them on the table, weed through them, and really get to the bottom of this.
Where all the [cult rumors] came from, is very complicated but I’ll try to break it down into a CliffsNotes version. About nine months before Jeannette went missing and turned up dead, there was a guy who lived only two miles away in the next town over, Westfield, whose name was John List. He was deeply in debt, though his family lived in this grandiose mansion, and he had a very weird personality—he was a timid man, a very repressed Christian. He decided that his family would be better off if he killed them and sent them to heaven, as opposed to—in his mind—being publicly shamed for being poor. So he shot and killed them all and arranged them all in the ballroom of the house, and vanished for 18 years.
The story got even weirder when, after the bodies were found, it came out that List’s daughter—who was Jeannette’s age—fancied herself a witch. Her classmates told the newspapers that she claimed she was part of a coven that had some sort of altar in the woods. So, I think people were already on edge in Union County, thinking, “What are our teenagers doing when we’re not looking? Are they worshiping the devil, or do they think they’re witches?”
When Jeannette’s body is finally found—after a dog brought her arm home—an unidentified source at the Union County Prosecutor’s Office told two newspapers that supposed “occult objects” were found around Jeannette’s body, and they were looking into if these symbols were the same as the unidentified symbols that were supposedly found at the List house.
The “symbols” that were found around Jeannette is another strange part of this whole thing. Mark and I tracked down the two officers who were first on the scene on this clifftop, who found her body, and their stories don’t match. The first said she was lying face down, and there was a large cross above her made out of tree branches, and stones were arranged in the shape of a halo around her head. The other officer said he didn’t see anything like that. And the newspapers claimed she was found in a coffin-shaped perimeter of rocks, and that large cross was there, but in addition, there were also smaller crosses around her made out of twigs. So ... with the context of the List case happening the year before, and the witchcraft element there, it wasn’t hard for the public to say, “Was this girl the victim of the same cult?”
Another big part of that is, the whole area in Union County borders a stretch of woods called the Watchung Reservation; it’s a government-protected area with hiking trails that are open to the public. Throughout the 1970s and up into the 2000s, there were reports of “devil worship” in that patch of land. There are police reports and newspaper accounts to back that up. So it was all going on in this hot spot of weird, paranormal activity.
With that in mind, when Mark and I took a look at these things that were supposedly found around Jeannette, one thing that really struck us was that—for a supposed Satanic sacrifice, this girl’s body was surrounded by Judeo-Christian symbols, like a cross and a halo. It seemed more like a memorial, or a makeshift grave. But just when we thought there was really nothing to the Satanic aspect of this case, we got a message from one of Jeannette’s friends who said this guy that used to pick her up when she was hitchhiking called himself a warlock. It’s just such a strange case like that. You can’t really say if it was Satanic or not.
Did the police ever have any strong suspects? Do you think the case will ever be solved?
None that were ever reported in the newspapers, but we found out later on that there was a man who was brought in for questioning regarding Jeannette’s death. He was a transient living in a shack in the woods near where her body was found, and he worked as a caddy at a nearby golf course. Back in the 1970s, if people wanted to caddy, all they had to do was show up on the green that morning, and you made good money in tips. And this guy was doing that. The police went to find him, but he’d left in a hurry. Something had really spooked that guy. They later tracked him down and interviewed him, but decided that he most likely did not do the murder, so they let him go. He was never seen in Springfield again.
As far as the case being solved, not to toot our own horn or anything, but if anyone is going to conclusively solve this case, it will be on the backs of the research Mark and I did. We essentially had to start from scratch the way that the police would have to. The police would not give us her case file, as I mentioned earlier, some claimed it was destroyed when Hurricane Floyd hit New Jersey in 1999; others said they had a copy, but wouldn’t let us look at it because it’s technically an open investigation.
As far as conclusively solving it, the particulars of the case are— you’re working with a body that was so deteriorated that they could not identify a cause of death. There’s not going to be any DNA evidence. It would really have to come via a confession at this point. I don’t know what suspects the Union County Prosecutor’s Office has now, but as far as Mark and I go, the three suspects that we identify in [Death on the Devil’s Teeth] are long since dead. While we have a pretty good idea about what unfortunately happened to this young woman, I don’t think the books will ever be officially closed on it.
All photos courtesy of Jesse P. Pollack, except John List portrait, credit: AP Photo