New England's Unsolved: New book details case of New Bedford highway killer

by: Bob Ward Updated:

NEW BEDFORD, Mass. - The New Bedford highway killing investigation may be the biggest unsolved murder case in New England's history. Now it is the subject of a brand new book called ‘Shallow Graves.’ Boston 25's Bob Ward spoke to the author about a case that still haunts the area.

A serial killer was preying on women in the New Bedford area in the spring and summer of 1988. Many of the victims had ties to Weld Square, which was a high-crime area in the heart of this historic seaside city at the time.

By the time the killer's gruesome work was finished nine women were dead, their bodies found along highways in the area.

>>RELATED: Documentary crew delves into mystery of 'The Highway Murders'

The killer's death toll could be even higher. Two more women disappeared in 1988. They were never found and are feared victims of the New Bedford Highway Killer.

“No one realized that these women were missing until they started turning up dead,” said author Maureen Boyle.

A serial killer at work

In 1988, Boyle was a police and crime reporter for the New Bedford Standard Times. Her reporting first broke the news that a serial killer was working the city.

“I had an inkling in the summer of ‘88 that there was more to this than anyone realized, but in November it became very, very clear,” Boyle told Boston 25’s Bob Ward. “After the third body was found, a fourth body was found, directly across the way on 195 in Dartmouth and then another body was found, and then another body, and then another one.”

The victims all struggled with drug addiction, and some had histories of prostitution. But the killer was mysterious. He left few clues, and no eye witnesses.

“There had always been a vague description of a pick-up truck, even prior to the killings. Girls would talk about some really weird guy that was driving around in a pick-up truck. There's a lot of pick-up trucks out there, unfortunately,” said Boyle.

Identifying the suspect

Ultimately, the New Bedford highway murders investigation led state police to Kenneth Ponte: a lawyer with a drug habit.

“He knew all of the women that were found dead,” remembered Boyle. “He was not very cooperative, he was a bit of a jerk to law enforcement, so that raised a lot of red flags.”

Ponte became the only person ever indicted in the New Bedford highway murders case. He was charged with the murder of Rochelle Clifford Dopriela, but the charge would not stick.

Charges dropped

In the summer of 1991, the murder charge against Kenneth Ponte was dropped. To this day, no one has ever been held accountable for the New Bedford highway murders.

“It’s been heartbreaking for the families, absolutely heartbreaking,” said Boyle. 

Boyle says she wrote ‘Shallow Graves’ so that the lives and deaths of the wives, mothers and daughters who were killed would never be forgotten.

The book, which is out now, details the police efforts to find a brutal killer, and it provides the disturbing reminder that the New Bedford Highway Killer is still out there.

“If he could kill the most vulnerable individuals in your community, as his anger escalates, what's next?” said Boyle.

If you have any information that could help identify the New Bedford Highway Killer, call the Bristol County District Attorney’s office at  508-997-0711.

Other New England's Unsolved:

New England's Unsolved: The death of rising star Jamie Lee

New England's Unsolved: Deborah Bates, missing and murdered

Family pushing for exhumation in 1982 unsolved murder of Brenda Lacombe

New England's Unsolved: Sheila Levesque of Malden


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