Recap: E52 Alphabet Murders

A girl was slain near Rochester, New York in 1971 after at least 100 drivers ignored her distress. Half-naked and afraid, ten-year-old Carmen Colon was seen running away from a car on the shoulder of I-490 on November 16, but passerby didn’t think it was for sinister reasons – it was just a girl throwing a temper tantrum while being chased by her parent or guardian. They couldn’t have been more wrong. Carmen’s death was the first in the series of slayings aptly named the Alphabet Murders, as two more girls, whose first and last names started with the same initial, would also fall at the hands of an unknown serial killer and rapist.

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A woman and her husband see a half-naked girl running away from a car on the highway. Believing the girl to be in trouble, the woman begs her husband to turn the car around after passing them. He refuses, thinking the girl is mentally ill and that it’s her father trying to catch her; there’s also no safe way to turn around. The woman insists that something wasn’t right and that the girl looked terrified. He assures her that someone else driving by will stop to help.

Earlier that day, Carmen walked alone to the pharmacy to pick up medicine for her baby stepsister. Eager to please her mother, she did not wait for her grandfather who usually accompanied her on walks around the neighborhood. At the counter, Carmen hands the pharmacist the prescription and her mother’s insurance card. The pharmacist informs her that it will take about a half an hour to fill, but offers children’s books for her to look at if she waits there. Carmen declines the offer, stating that she needs to leave but will be back. She never returns – to the pharmacy or home.

When 5PM rolls around, Carmen’s worried grandparents and mother begin searching for her. A team of forty police officers joins them, and they knock on every door in the neighborhood. However, since none of the motorists on I-490 report a little girl running down the road around 5:30PM, the search party doesn’t think to look for Carmen on the highway.

Two days later, two teenage boys racing to a creek spot Carmen’s body in a ditch. Only wearing a purple sweater, socks and sneakers, physical evidence indicates that she was raped and strangled. A $6,000 reward for useful information draws in callers but no helpful tips. Without useful crime scene evidence, and only tip line suspicions to follow, police interview known sex offenders, neighbors and teachers, hoping to find a lead.

When the trail grows cold, a local organization called Citizens for a Decent Community put up billboards with Carmen’s photograph to renew interest in the case. An anonymous caller contacts the witness tip line to report that Miguel Colon, Carmen’s uncle and common-law stepfather, confessed to needing to leave the country, because he “did something bad in Rochester.” District Attorney Lazarus and Detectives Clark and DeRosa travel to San Juan, Puerto Rico to pursue Miguel and speak to his cousin.

According to the cousin, Miguel fled into the jungle before their arrival and is armed. To draw Miguel out, the team convinces a newspaper to run a false story; it reports that Candida Colon, Miguel’s mother, was detained by authorities in Rochester. Effectively baited, Miguel turns himself in and flies back to New York for questioning.

Detectives ask Miguel about a doll found in his car and the last time he drove Carmen somewhere. No matter how hard they push, Miguel maintains his innocence. Detectives DeRosa and Crough recount Miguel’s shady behavior, but all their evidence is circumstantial, and Miguel passes a polygraph test. As a result, he is released from custody.

Another promising suspect, James Barber, skipped town shortly after Carmen’s murder without giving his job notice or taking any of his belongings. Furthermore, the day Carmen was murdered, Barber penciled in his work hours on his timecard instead of punching it in the automated system. Despite his suspicious behavior, police are unable to find enough concrete evidence to pin him for the crime.

Seventeen months after Carmen’s murder, 11-year-old Wanda Walkowicz and her friend Kimmy walk near the railroad a block away from home, singing “Miss Susie had a steamboat.” Wanda abruptly stops singing when she hears footsteps from behind. She tells Kimmy that someone is following them. Kimmy turns to look but sees nothing. Wanda adds that the person is hiding behind the bushes, and they keep walking. When the footsteps resume, Wanda instructs her friend to run home as fast as she can.

They both make it and tell Kimmy’s mother and the police what transpired. Two days later, on April 2nd, 1973, Wanda’s mother sends her to a local deli with a grocery list. When she doesn’t return home, Wanda’s younger sister Rita and a schoolmate go looking for her. Joyce Walkowicz calls the police to report Wanda missing and rushes to the deli herself. She frenetically grills the clerk about her daughter and breaks down in tears. Joyce is sent to the hospital for shock and a massive search party scours the streets.

Witnesses place a brown car and Wanda together after she left the deli. Soon after, authorities discover her body at a rest area access road that’s ten miles away. Like Carmen, Wanda was raped and strangled. Her mother asserts that she would never have accepted food or a ride from a stranger. Considering the distance between the deli and the access road, as well as the custard found in her stomach, the possibility rises that Wanda was abducted by someone she knew well or recognized as an authority figure. But no solid suspects emerge.

11-year-old Michelle Maenza is the last girl to be raped and strangled in the Rochester area. On November 26th, 1973, Michelle is held for detention after school, and doesn’t leave the building until 3:15PM. On her way home, she planned to stop by the Super Saver to look for a purse her mother left behind, but never made it. Her mother, Carolyn, calls the police at 5:40PM to report her daughter missing. Two days later, Michelle's body is found face down in a ditch and appears to have been redressed and tossed from a vehicle. The hamburger found in her stomach reveals that the killer fed her before murdering her.

Callers on the tip line fixate on the killer’s predilection for girls with the same first initial in their first and last names – Carmen Colon, Wanda Walkowicz and Michelle Maenza.

A young girl named Nancy comes forward as a witness in Michelle’s case. On the day of Michelle’s disappearance, Nancy saw her in a fast-moving beige car that almost hit another driver. Police use the newspapers to appeal to that driver to come forward; she does but is unable to recall anything other than it was a beige sedan.

Another witness tells police that he approached a beige sedan parked on the side of the road, thinking the driver must be having car trouble. However, when he asked the driver if he needed help, the man inside pushed a girl matching Michelle’s description behind his back and raised his fist at him. The witness then drove away.

Although he didn’t catch the license plate or car model, the witness got a good look at the man. A criminal sketch artist works with the witness to create a drawing of the suspect. Gilbert Cole, a security guard for Gannett Rochester Newspapers, meets the suspect when he comes in asking for new information on the Michelle Maenza case. At the time, Gilbert hadn’t yet seen the story with the sketch. When Gilbert turns his back to get the suspect the requested information, the man runs away. Gilbert follows him out to see him speeding away in a light-brown Ford Pinto.

After seeing the sketch in the newspapers, a third witness tells police that she saw the suspect getting a hamburger at Carrol’s Drive-in for a girl matching Michelle’s description. At a later date, the first witness to get a good look at the suspect sees him again and writes down his license plate number. Captain Andrew Sparacino and Lieutenant Anthony Fantigrossi rigorously question the car’s registered owner but evidence clears him of involvement.

On next week’s episode of Unsolved Murders: True Crime Stories, show hosts Carter and Wenndy pick up the Alphabet Murders case and follow police as they investigate new suspects, including a Rochester firefighter, a photographer, and a dastardly serial killer duo known as the Hillside Stranglers.