Death and the Maidens

To the petite prostitute trolling the streets of the Combat Zone, Eugene McCollom must have looked harmless. His face could have blended into the Fenway Park bleachers or mingled in a theater ticket line without raising a single eyebrow, because everything about his appearance was extraordinarily average, from his build — 5 feet, 9 inches, 170 pounds — to his hazel eyes, buzzcut, and freckles. It all made for a guy-next-door appeal, a wholesomeness that belied his 36 years.

When he offered her money for sex back at the cramped 13-by-10-foot room he was renting for $85 a week at the Lynn YMCA, it probably seemed an innocent gesture. Certainly, he couldn't have appeared any more dangerous than the typical johns she encountered.

Two days later, the hooker turned up dead. Her body, what was left of it, was discovered beneath a black and white quilt near a parking lot at the Chelsea Soldier's Home, her feet tied together with a shoelace. Her head was gone. So were her hands and her toes. And her heart. The nine-month investigation ended last summer with McCollom confessing to the murder, right down to the fact that he strangled her and the “Rambo”-style knife he used to dismember her. It was a gruesome story but one that nonetheless seemed destined for a quick and quiet resolution: Hooker killed by john. What more was there to say?

Certainly nothing that could interest Debbie Ford. A mom who lived in South Boston, her life had unraveled a few months before McCollom's arrest, during the summer of 2001, with the murder of her 23-year-old daughter, Kelly, on Cape Cod. Kelly's killer had not been found. A prostitute's death in Chelsea and the alleged murderer's arrest could not have been more insignificant to Ford at that moment — until she started hearing the details about the decapitated body with its heart cut out.

The Massachusetts State Police, investigators in several jurisdictions, and lawyers from a couple of district attorneys' offices are all keeping quiet about McCollom, even as he's made several routine court appearances. And several documents related to search warrants are impounded, still part of an active probe, with details known only to the murderer and investigators. But while no one will utter the words outright, a trail of bodies with severed heads up and down the East Coast has prompted investigators to acknowledge that they are looking at McCollom not merely as the prostitute's murderer, but also in connection with other serious crimes — a possible serial killer.

McCollom has not been charged with any other murders, nor has he admitted involvement. The similarities between the murder of the Combat Zone prostitute and others may simply be coincidence.

“There are concerns about the press having information before certain people are interviewed,” one police official says on condition of anonymity. “But if I was a reporter, I'd keep going after that. Find out where the guy was in the last year.”

At 4 pounds, 11 ounces, Eugene Michael McCollom, named after his father, was one tiny baby when he was delivered by his mother, Arlene, on the afternoon of September 19, 1964, at Winthrop Community Hospital, the couple's third child. His father worked at the airport. His mother stayed home with the kids. Not much is known about McCollom's childhood — his family declines to talk about him — but his Winthrop High School yearbook from 1982 begins to tell his story. “Hope to make a good living,” it says beneath a photo of McCollom with an open-collar shirt wearing a chain necklace. The yearbook also talks of “Cape Cod '81,” McCollom's membership in the school's association of business-minded students, and his favorite bands, the Beatles and the Who.

While their sister, Anastasia, settled down and married a Revere cop, Eugene and his younger brother, Patrick, drifted through their twenties. Losing both of their parents two years apart in the mid 1990s was a crushing blow, but then more sadness came. Early on the morning of May 11, 1996, Patrick McCollom, a refrigerator technician, was stabbed in a fight at a Revere Beach rock club called The Tank, and died after being thrown through a window onto the Revere Beach Boulevard sidewalk. He was 27, the single parent of a two-year-old daughter.

Details about McCollom's adulthood are sketchy and few — there are references in court records only to occasional run-ins with the law, including a warrant for assault and battery on a police officer — and his family declines through their lawyer to talk about his life or the case against him. They are concerned, the lawyer says, that an article would “paint Eugene in the most unfavorable light.”

But one document filed by prosecutors in Lynn District Court speaks volumes. It's the widely overlooked legal motion that succeeded in having documents relating to the search warrants impounded. Disclosure of such information, it says, would seriously jeopardize the investigation into the murder, “and investigation of other, similar crimes committed elsewhere.”

Now locked up at Bridgewater State Hospital, McCollom takes the occasional state-sponsored roundtrip van ride to preliminary court appearances, laying the groundwork for his trial on charges that he killed the still-unidentified prostitute, referred to in court as “Jane Doe.”

Shackled at his ankles and wrists, McCollom waddles in and out of the Pepto Bismol-pink Salem Superior Courtroom, saying little more than “not guilty” and, for the most part, looking stoically ahead while slowly tapping a chained left foot. State physician Susan Skea, who evaluated the alcoholic former handyman, described him as “mentally ill” and warned: “Failure to confine him in strict security would create a likelihood of serious harm to himself or others.”

Debbie Ford, 44, has been told next to nothing about McCollom, but when she hears what he's accused of doing to Jane Doe in Room 48 at the Lynn YMCA, she can't help but wonder. “It's the same MO,” she says in the police vernacular she's picked up since her daughter's death.

Seven months before Jane Doe's murder, there was 17-year-old prostitute Latasha Cannon's body, discovered near the Bedford Raytheon plant.

In 1995 there was 35-year-old Florida prostitute Darlene Toler, a mother of three, whose body was found in a black plastic bag, dumped like trash on the side of a remote road. Toler's head and heart were missing, and Miami-Dade detectives say the cases are similar enough to warrant further investigation.

And in 1992 there was the murder of Maria Rivera, 39, whose body was found dumped beside Lynn Marsh Road in Saugus in the dead of winter, frozen solid.

McCollom is being eyed in connection with all of these deaths, plus Kelly Ford's.

For now, McCollom is charged only with the single count of murdering and dismembering Jane Doe in Lynn. But his DNA, obtained through a blood sample, is being scrutinized by investigators.

When the young Combat Zone prostitute's headless, heartless, handless, toeless body was discovered wrapped in that quilt in Chelsea on November 13, 2000, investigators caught a break: There was a working surveillance camera pointed at the scene. With some FBI doctoring, grainy images of a figure and a vehicle became a short film of a white man driving a tan 1988 Lincoln Town Car around the Chelsea Soldier's Home the day before the body was discovered. The driver, wearing a baseball cap, is seen walking into the Chelsea Soldier's Home building, then appears in the parking lot again, moving back and forth between the vehicle and a guardrail.

A composite drawing of what the victim may have looked like — black, light-skinned — was handed out, Room 48 of the Y in Lynn was searched, and dozens of people were interviewed, including McCollom. Finally, on August 30, while McCollom was driving in a stolen 1991 black Oldsmobile Cutlass through South Boston, he was pulled over by police and arrested for an outstanding warrant. That afternoon, he waived his Miranda rights and confessed. He also signed a consent form for a search of that tan Lincoln. “He was very quiet,” remembers Lynn YMCA executive director Bruce MacDonald. “I interviewed him before he came in and found him to be very pleasant. Just paid his rent. He really kept to himself.” MacDonald says McCollom had already moved out and his room had been rented when the police showed up asking about him.

He pleaded not guilty and is being held and evaluated at Bridgewater State Hospital, where he is scheduled to stay until mid June. In the meantime, the evidence against him seems to be growing. A list of 178 incriminating items expected to be entered into evidence by the Essex County District Attorney's office includes interviews, police reports, surveillance tapes, blood samples, hair, semen samples, photographs, autopsy reports, transcripts of telephone calls and letters from McCollom while in jail, and DNA evidence taken from a paper cup and soda bottle he used while being interviewed by state police. Three hairs found on Jane Doe's body have been examined; at least one is thought to be McCollom's. Swabbings from the murdered prostitute show semen on her genital area and on her lower back and left bicep. Blood was found in the Lincoln Town Car and McCollom's room at the Y. Still more evidence was found in the Oldsmobile he was driving at the time of his arrest, as well as inside his sister's Lynnfield home where he reportedly was storing his belongings. A November 16 court order forced McCollom, over his lawyer's objections, to stick out his arm and have his blood drawn at Essex County's minimum-security jail in Middleton to provide the DNA investigators needed to compare with what was found on Jane Doe.

While McCollom's attorney has fought the method through which his client's DNA was taken, and state police crime lab scientist Gwen Pino concedes that the DNA swabs don't offer “unequivocal” evidence of McCollom's guilt, Pino says it's “probable” McCollom is the source of that sperm and hair found on the prostitute.

Meantime, McCollom has been officially classified as indigent, making him eligible for $3,000 to pay for a DNA expert to monitor the state's testing, and another $3,000 to retain a forensic psychiatry or psychology expert. This, according to a motion filed by his court-appointed attorney, Lawrence McGuire, because McCollom's mental state at the time of the murder “is at issue.” McGuire declined to comment and McCollom did not respond to written requests to be interviewed.

In tony, seaside Swampscott, where local twenty-somethings are prone to sporting Tiffany silver and shirts embroidered with polo players, Kelly Ford's urban style stood out. Her dyed, plum-red hair; multiple piercings on her ears, right nostril, and left eyebrow, and underneath her bottom lip; and handmade ankle bracelet made it easy for a local insurance agent to recall seeing her.

It was about 2 p.m. on August 15 when Jim Hughes looked up and saw Kelly walk under the green awnings and through a pair of glass doors into the Burrill Street insurance agency bearing his name. She told him she was lost.

For the previous four months, Kelly had been living at Project COPE, a women's substance abuse rehabilitation facility with a residential treatment program in Lynn, where she'd been struggling to beat a heroin habit. She had a young daughter, a four-year-old named Summer Love, and she was trying to clean up for her. At 1:30 p.m., Kelly took and passed a drug test in Lynn, then hopped the bus for a job interview in Marblehead arranged by Project COPE.

But Kelly had mistakenly gotten off in Swampscott. She walked under a railroad bridge, past the town's Victorian train depot, and about a half mile until she came to Hughes Insurance.

“I told her she was in the wrong town,” Hughes remembers. Kelly told him she'd get back to Lynn and do the job interview another day.

She walked out and was never heard from again.

It was 8:15 that night when Debbie Ford answered the telephone in her South Boston home. A Project COPE manager was calling to report that Kelly had never returned from the job interview. It's not uncommon for people in recovery to run away from such programs, Ford was told. But she knew her daughter. They spoke daily, she says, “even on her worst days.” She knew Kelly hadn't run away.

“I was hoping she relapsed, rather than think the worst,” Debbie says. “And I was so involved in the search, day and night, I didn't have time to think about the worst.”

Plastering missing person signs on buses, trains, and Mass Pike toll booths, Debbie Ford held out hope that someone might have seen something and would come forward. That someone turned out to be Jim Hughes, who called police after seeing a poster with Kelly's photograph and description.

Beyond that, Debbie heard nothing about her daughter's whereabouts until October 30, two months after she went missing. A police detective on Cape Cod phoned for a description of the tattoo, the Chinese character for love, that was inked on Kelly's lower back, and identically on each of her parents' backs. The description was enough for the detective to travel from the Cape to Southie.

Some remains had been found entombed in the sands of Scusset Beach in Sandwich after a couple playing a game of Frisbee saw bones poking through a 10-inch-deep duneside grave. When police came to collect the cadaver, they also bagged up an ankle bracelet and some teeth. A portion of her head was missing.

A police officer visited Debbie carrying a small stack of photographs, including one of the ankle bracelet Kelly had made for herself. That, along with teeth that matched Kelly's dental records and the tattoo, established for certain what Debbie Ford had feared: the worst.

There's no evidence of stabbing or gunshot wounds, though forensic tests, including one to determine if Kelly was sexually assaulted, are ongoing. Debbie Ford was told by police early on that part of her daughter's head may have been carried off by foxes. Other than that, she says, “I'm not getting anything from anyone.”

Down in Florida, the Miami-Dade homicide bureau has not ruled out McCollom's involvement in the murder of prostitute Darlene Toler in November of 1995. The particulars are too much like those of Jane Doe's murder to ignore.

One Florida detective told the press that because Toler's head and heart were also removed, he plans to look at the evidence Massachusetts has compiled against McCollom, despite the discrepancy that Toler's hands and toes were not cut off like Jane Doe's. “Beheadings are not something you see every day,” he told the Miami Herald. They're also looking into whether McCollom may have been staying in Florida around the time Toler was murdered.

Links between McCollom and the other Boston-area murders are also being investigated, though some are not so obvious. Maria Rivera had no visible signs of trauma to her body when she was found by electrical workers, strangled to death and frozen solid along Lynn Marsh Road in Saugus in January 1992. The murder by slashing of Latasha Cannon, the prostitute whose body was found dumped near the Bedford Raytheon plant, is similar only because she worked the streets of Boston, like Jane Doe.

While all of the murder cases are being studied, McCollom continues to keep his preliminary court dates, always wearing the matching Department of Correction gray pants and shirt. He politely refers to his lawyer as “Mr. McGuire,” and while seated next to other defendants, McCollom always looks like the most harmless one in the bunch.