It’s always tragic when children are murdered and that makes this blog a particularly difficult read. Between 1971 and 1973, one of the most mysterious and supposedly short-lived serial killings in United States history occurred in Rochester, New York. Due to the matching first and last initial of the victims names, the killings were dubbed The Alphabet Murders by the press. The three young victims were all children aged 10-years-old. For 30 years their murders went unsolved until DNA evidence revealed a staggering string of Alphabet murders that included young women and children from the 1950s into the 1990s between the U.S. East and West coasts.
The first child to be abducted, raped and murdered via asphyxiation from manual strangulation in The Alphabet Murders was Carmen Colon on November 16, 1971. Colons mother was only 16 when she gave birth to her little girl. Naturally, she wasn’t equipped to offer the child a stable life. Colons intellectual ability was around the age of a 7-year-old. For whatever reason, the child frequently suffered from nightmares. The day she disappeared she went to a pharmacy to have her grandfathers prescription medication filled. At 4:20 p.m. she mysteriously blurted I’ve got to go! I’ve got to go! One hour later the child reappeared running away, her arms flailing, from a car that was backing up towards the frightened child. No one ever saw Colon alive again. Somehow Colons abductor acted swiftly in order to recapture her.
As soon as she was reported missing law enforcement officials set up a search party and went looking for the lost child. Two days later her remains were found by two young boys in a field in the town of Churchville. One police officer noticed the initials of her first and last name. He also noted it was the same as the first letter in Churchville. At this point in the investigation, though, this fact was dismissed. People were outraged that no one had stopped to assist the terrified girl however in 1971 many people may have assumed the girl knew her driver.
In April 1972, 17 months after Colons murder, a ten-year old girl named Wanda Walkowicz was discovered missing. Walkowicz’s father was dead. She lived with her unemployed mother and her mentally ill live-in boyfriend, who had a criminal record. Walkowicz fended for herself and was street-smart. She was often involved in schoolyard fights with other children. On the day Walkowicz went missing, she had gone to the market and was returning home with groceries when she stopped to talk to a man in a car. She hesitated then climbed in beside him. Walkowicz was never seen alive again.
It was at this time that officers established the fact that the first and last name started with the same letter – much like the case of little Carmen Colon. They acted as fast as they could to figure out where the body would be found. Based on the information of the previous case, they determined that the alphabet killer would likely place the body in the city of Webster. Unfortunately, they were right. Just one day later, like Colon, the young child was found murdered, her body dumped in a field off an expressway. However she was more fully clothed than Colon. She had white cat hairs on her clothing. The autopsy revealed Walkowicz had been fed prior to being killed. Evidence presented in the case indicated that she was also raped by the predator. His creepy game kept law enforcement on their toes.
By this time, investigators became concerned that they had a serial killer on their hands. The promptly identified the predator as the “Alphabet Killer” and the murders as the “Alphabet Murders”. Things remained quiet for a while, and then on the 26th day of November in 1973, another child who was also ten years old was reported missing. Quickly, they scrambled to locate clues and made every effort to locate the alphabet killer. The child’s name was Michelle Maenza. Maenza also didn’t fit in socially with other children. She was intellectually low. She was often taunted and bullied, possibly making her an easy target for someone who offered friendship and kindness. Maenza was shy, trusting and easily frightened. The fact that she was both shy and easily frightened meant the killer used a slow, careful approach with the child in order to win her trust.
On the day she disappeared she was en route to the market for her mother. A witness stated she saw Maenza in a car at a fast food restaurant, and a man carrying a bag of food slipped into the car in the driver’s seat. That the murderer had the confidence to take the time to feed two of the girls was significant to law enforcers. His behaviour may have assured the girls that he could be trusted. so they knew that this was part of the alphabet killers modus operandi. Within forty-eight hours, a trucker named Jean Vandewald saw something laying alongside the road and got out of his truck to investigate. What he saw was Mazenza’s raped and strangled remains. Even though there was a culvert and a tunnel with water nearby, she was found in plain sight dumped by the side of a road the city of Macedon.
The child victims were all high-risk victims, meaning they behaved in ways that made them an easy target for their killer. There were also commonalities in each of the Alphabet Murders. They were:
- · Each girl’s first and last name started with the same letter.
- · Each child was ten years old.
- · Each child was discovered in a city that started with the same letter as their name.
- · Each child was from a Catholic family.
- Each child lived within proximity of each other.
- Each girl was socially isolated with few friends.
- · Each child lived in a poverty-stricken home.
- · Each child suffered from either disciplinary and/or academic challenges at school.
- Each child was manually strangled.
- Each child was dumped in a rural area.
There were significant differences between the Alphabet Murders:
- One child was fed before her murder; two were not.
- Carmen Colon was strangled by hand, Walkowicz and Maenza were strangled by ligature.
- Food may have been used to lure one victim into the car.
- One child was more clothed than the others.
- One child had cat hairs on her clothes; two did not.
- Two children were intellectually slow.
Exactly why the little girls were lured into the killers car will never be known since they aren’t here to explain it. The bottom line is, in spite of their difficult lives, they were still children. Perhaps that’s the only explanation that is needed.
The 1970s drew to a close with few viable suspects and no directly connected arrests. Some people believed that the killer likely worked with a social service group. Many even thought that they could have known the families, or that they worked at the schools the children attended.
One investigator believed there were two killers at work; one in the case of Carmen Colon the profile would be as follows:
- average to below intelligence.
- 25 – 30 years old
- abused alcohol
- explosive temper
- probably knew the child
In Walkowicz and Maenza’s case investigators believed the killer:
- had a prior record for nuisance type of sexual offences, such as obscene phone calls and voyeurism
- had some respect for his victims since the girls were either dressed or allowed to re-dress after the sexual assault and in Walkowicz case someone visited the grave for years, clearing away weeds and leaving flowers on the tombstone
- selected the girls not due to the letters of their names but to their vulnerability
- possibly suffered from remorse
Years later, in hindsight, it was believed that the killer couldn’t be a local who may have known the girls since the killers choice of dumping ground suggested he wasn’t familiar with the local areas. While several suspects were interviewed, such as the “Hillside Strangler” named Kenneth Bianchi, the case remained technically “cold” until 2010. 79-year-old Joseph Naso, a former photographer, was initially arrested in Nevada for parole violations for a theft charge. He was later convicted in The California Alphabet Killings. Eventually it was established that he was the most likely suspect in the Rochester killings.
Suspicions that The Alphabet Killer in the Rochester area that the killer might have worked with social services or might have known the family were incorrect. Suspicions that he was a photographer hadn’t been considered. Another fact the investigators had missed was that Naso was actually a native of Rochester and travelled regularly between California and New York. Strange that Naso didn’t live in Nevada or New Mexico or some such state. That he continued killing and didn’t limit himself only to children was another characteristic that had been completely overlooked. Clearly, criminal profiling isn’t what it’s cracked up to be.
The Arrest and Conviction
Naso was arrested for the murders of young prostitutes in California. The final murder he is known to have committed occurred some time in the 1990s, placing Naso in his sixties. For all authorities know, he may have been killing in his seventies.Upon investigation of his home, dozens of photographs of unconscious and dead young women and children were discovered among his belongings. Police also found his rape diary, where he detailed the rapes he committed of several women. A DNA test revealed a match to Nasos DNA that was found in a victims pantyhose.
The bodies of Roxene Roggasch, Carmen Colon, (a woman with an identical name to the child in Rochester), Pamela Parsons and Tracy Tafoya were found strangled and dumped in rural areas of California, the same as the three 10-year-old children he had murdered. During his trial, Naso smiled and appeared smug. He insisted on representing himself as he told a judge he has had a lot of success in the courtroom. That may have been the case before this trial but he failed himself. He was convicted of the killing of four prostitutes, although not the little girls in the Rochester area. However police were satisfied that he was the killer in the cases of Carmen Colon, Wanda Walkowicz and Michelle Maenza.
During his sentencing, Naso insisted “I have sympathy, remorse for anybody who dies and the people they leave behind….But I’m not guilty of these crimes.” Analysts said that despite the death sentence, Naso was unlikely to ever be executed as he could well die of natural causes first. Naso is the oldest convict to arrive on Death Row in California since the state resumed executions in 1977 after a five-year-hiatus. Even though the sentence may not actually be carried out there’s always the chance that another inmate could enact revenge against him for the crimes he committed against women and children. Que sera.