Saturday, September 25, 2010

Was There A Combat Zone Strangler?

By Don L. Stradley
Witnesses remembered 17-year-old Judy Belfrey because she was such an ordinary girl.  Boston police learned that on Tuesday night, June 7, 1977, Judy was seen among the aging street walkers at the 663 Lounge on Washington Street. She was probably the youngest girl in the place, and she left with a man more than twice her age. Approximately two hours later, at 10:30 PM., she was found dead in her Back Bay apartment. Her roommate discovered the body; still fully clothed, Judy had been badly beaten and strangled.

The case made both local and national news. The headlines that accompanied the story were right out of the worst pulp fiction, including Popular Girl Dies In Dump, and Everything To Live for, She’s Dead.  The photo accompanying the Associated Press coverage showed an unhappy looking girl, with wide-set eyes, and straight brown hair to her shoulders. Lincoln-Sudbury Regional High School superintendent David Levington described Judy as “beautiful, terrific. She was a fine student, popular with friends. I think she was on the field hockey team…It doesn’t make any sense for us to believe. We’re all distraught.” 
Judy was the youngest of four children born to Charles and Shirley Belfrey. Charles supported the family by working as a carpenter. Judy’s two older sisters, Barbara and Jean, had already moved out, while Judy and her brother Christopher lived at home. Judy was a junior in high school when she learned of a program that involved living in Boston for a semester. Although the project was aimed at seniors, Judy signed up along with 20 other students.

Once in the city, Judy lived with the family of a Boston banker, worked three days a week at a clothing store in Harvard Square, and volunteered two days a week at Boston’s Children’s Museum. She was good with kids. She told people she wanted to pursue a career as a teacher or a daycare worker. Other museum workers remembered her as a nice girl, friendly, always on time. When the semester was over, she joined the program’s other students on a bicycle tour of Cape Cod.

Judy returned to Sudbury in late May, surprising her family with the news that she was moving permanently to Boston. She borrowed bus fare from her mother for the 17-mile trip back to the city, where she moved into a shabby Back Bay apartment with 21-year-old Carol MacDonald, an unemployed woman she barely knew.

It was also around this time that witnesses began seeing Judy at a topless lounge known for being a hang-out for prostitutes. Detective Robert Hudson tried to downplay the prurient aspect of the story, saying at the time, “Look, she was a 17-year-old high school girl learning about the city.”
The story vanished from the news after the revelation that Judy had become a familiar face in Boston’s adult entertainment district. A story about an innocent young girl being murdered could sell newspapers; the plight of a budding barfly was less appealing.

But if readers forgot her, Boston detectives feared Judy might be the latest victim in what seemed to be the area’s worst killing spree since The Boston Strangler had terrorized the city over a dozen years earlier.

The recent murders were linked in that they all were rooted in Boston’s notorious Combat Zone, the 12-acre neighborhood of X-rated cinemas, prostitution, adult bookshops, and nudie bars.

Around the time of Judy's murder, a woman named Ann Serrano was shot to death after leaving a Combat Zone bar. Her body was found in a parked car. (Several months earlier, another young woman, 21-year-old Patricia Dempsey, was found naked and stabbed to death in her Brockton home. Police wondered if there was a connection, but never established one.)
There also had been 16-year-old Kathleen Williams, whose naked body was found in December 1974 in a rest area off Massachusetts 125 in Andover; Holly Davidson, 22, was found dead in a grassy area near Route 495 in Methuen in March 1975; and Melodie Stankiewicz, 26, was found in Captain’s Pond in Salem, New Hampshire in July 1975. The first two women had been strangled; the third was stabbed to death. Williams, Davidson, and Stankiewicz, were all prostitutes, known to find clients in the same lounge that Judy had visited on the night of her murder. Although the term “Combat Zone Strangler,” wasn't being used, Boston's homicide division openly wondered if a maniac was seeking victims in the Zone, and if Judy’s death was connected.  Judy’s apartment had been less than a mile away.

* * *

The Zone no longer exists, having been replaced by high rise condos and trendy coffee shops, but it was at the height of its sinister glamour when Judy Belfrey arrived in Boston in February 1977. Although the neighborhood’s reputation had been colorful and risqué since the mid-60s, the grimy three-block area was officially centralized by city officials during the mid-70s in an effort to keep prostitution out of the other Boston neighborhoods. This coincided with the Government relaxing its obscenity laws, which meant an explosion of porn-theaters and sexually-oriented entertainment.  

Centering on Washington Street between Boylston and Kneeland, and extending up Stuart Street to Park Square, The Combat Zone was Boston's dark Oz.  Rising up among Boston’s classic movie palaces that had been built in the 1920s, the Zone was visible to people traveling through the city by bus, the billboards and arc-sodium lights beckoning. For a city mostly known for blue collar sports fans and provincial politics, the Zone provided a shadowy alter-ego. A Boston businessman on his lunch hour could walk through the neighborhood, stop somewhere for a drink, flirt with a stripper, and be back at his desk by 2:00 PM. Mayor Kevin White once said, “My idea of a city has room for these places. What harm are they doing?”

But it was inevitable that the neighborhood’s tone would transcend the designated parameters. Families coming into Boston to do their weekend shopping would see drug-addled hookers arguing with pimps right outside Filene's Basement. If you drove through the Zone and stopped at a red light, a prostitute might run out to your car, reach in through the driver’s side window and grab for your cock; before the light changed your wallet was gone, baby, gone.

Sometimes street entrances were blocked so unwitting tourists wouldn’t end up in the Zone where they might see something horrifying. One night, a woman's body was dumped in a parking lot near the Golden Nugget. She'd been burned to death and was unrecognizable. When the medical examiner tried to fingerprint her, the blackened skin peeled off.

Yet, there was much campy entertainment to be found in the Zone. Burlesque superstars Chesty Morgan and Blaze Starr performed at the old Pilgrim Theater on lower Washington Street.  Exotic dancers like Panama Red, Machine Gun Kelly, and Princess Cheyenne developed loyal local followings. Many of the Zone’s retired strippers and musicians recall with affection The Mousetrap, The Pink Pussycat, Good Time Charlie’s, The Sugar Shack, The Tam, The Two O’clock Lounge, and a dozen other places where middle-aged men, college kids, hippies, and hookers, wasted away the wee hours. For many years, Roger Pace and The Pacemakers, an amphetamine-fueled R&B group, provided the Zone with a jumping Soul soundtrack. Known as “the white James Brown,” Pace is still remembered for his high powered dance moves, and the time some local wiseguys stuck him pompadour-first into a barroom toilet.

“Life in the Combat Zone was a highly charged cocktail... dangerous, exhilarating and absolutely unforgettable,” said Jonathan Tudan, author of Lovers, Muggers & Thieves, A Boston Memoir. Tudan told me the Zone was “dangerous... people got hurt bad on a regular basis; exhilarating... the fast action never dragged; unforgettable... impossible to put behind us what happened. The retrospect fondness comes from having drank that cocktail and survived.”

Male students from Boston College or Boston University often took jobs in the Zone, tending bar, or clerking at adult bookstores. It wasn't uncommon for the Harvard football team to celebrate a win by heading to the Zone and downing a few beers. “I was an 18-year old, virginal, white kid from the suburbs,” said Tudan, who worked as a flophouse manager in the Zone. “I was not the youngest, whitest, most virginal kid in the crowd. The woods were full of them.”

Occasionally, though, the ugliness of the neighborhood trumped whatever fun was to be had. Award winning photographer and musician Jerry Berndt recalled the night he saved the life of a prostitute outside of the Golden Nugget.

“I had been playing with the band, and after the last number the bass player and part-time pimp flew into a rage at one of ‘his girls.’ He grabbed a microphone stand and started for the door, yelling he was gonna kill the ‘hoe.’ I got in the way, yelling he was nuts, that he'd never get away with it, that he'd go to jail, that there were too many people around.”
The action flowed into the street, where Berndt physically restrained the bass playing pimp.

“Suddenly he calmed down,” said Berndt. “He said he’d kill her later.”

By the ‘90s, most of the entertainment venues were gone, and the Zone had become a dank, boarded up area, with crack-whores turning tricks in abandoned buildings. Throughout the changes, the Zone remained a playground for sadists:
- In 1979, Beverly Trumble was a 26-year-old telephone operator who moonlighted as a Combat Zone prostitute. George Hughes, a 35-year-old alcoholic prone to violent behavior and blackouts brought her to a hotel room where they argued over money until Hughes stabbed her 35 times. 

- Tufts professor William Douglas made headlines when he was convicted of killing Zone escort Robin Benedict in 1983.

- In 1988 a New Hampshire man, Ronald Spiewak, was convicted of killing two Combat Zone prostitutes.

-  In 1994, three men picked up a teenage prostitute named Sonia Leal in the Zone; when she argued with them over her payment, she was beaten, raped, killed, and hidden in the granite Rail Quarry in Quincy. Her body was found wrapped in a blanket, weighted down with cinder blocks.

- As late in the Zone’s existence as 1995, computer programmer William Palmer picked up Chanelle Pickett at Playland, took her to his apartment where they smoked $180-dollars worth of crack, and then strangled her to death when he realized Pickett was a transvestite.

But these cases were solved, the murderers sentenced to prison. Not so for Judy Belfrey, although Detective Juan Torres told HUB that Judy's is the type of case that may one day be reopened.

 “We're looking back at a lot of cases from the 1970s and 80s, to see if there’s something we can do with forensics. A woman strangled certainly fits the type of cases we’d look at,” said Torres.

The cases of Stankiewicz, Davidson, and Williams were reopened last year after former Suffolk County prosecutor Timothy Burke's 2008 book, The Paradiso Files: Boston's Unknown Serial Killer, suggested they were killed by Lenny “The Quahog” Paradiso of East Boston. The three women were killed and dumped in the same manner that Paradiso disposed of other victims.

Judy Belfrey, though, was never linked to Paradiso. For one thing, Paradiso was in the Salem House of Correction at the time of her murder. Paradiso was occasionally granted furloughs during the summer of 1977, but it's doubtful he killed Judy.  Also, Paradiso was an obese 300-pounder, and police reports mention nothing about Judy being seen with a fat man. Finally, Judy was killed in her apartment, which wasn't Paradiso's style. He was a body dumper, conniving enough to lure a woman into his car, but not daring enough to enter a woman's home.

But if Paradiso didn't kill Judy, who did?

* * *
Police claimed to have a suspect in 1977, but no charges were made. During the days following the murder, police interviewed many informants. Carol MacDonald wasn't much help because she’d barely known Judy - they'd been roommates for less than two weeks. The witnesses in the Zone described Judy’s male companion as “average,” in his 40s, wearing a maroon or red sports blazer, and blue slacks, the standard garb of a 1970s Boston lounge lizard. Judy had been visiting the 663 for about three weeks, witnesses said. Some suggested she had met a pimp and was taking her own first steps into prostitution. The idea was harsh, but some thought it had merit.

“You come to the Combat Zone if you want to prematurely emancipate yourself,” said Tufts psychiatrist Dr. Arthur Z. Mutter, who spearheaded a movement to council young girls rescued from the Zone within weeks after Judy Belfrey’s death. Mutter told the Associated Press in 1977, “You can act out your pseudo-adult roles; you can pretend you’re an adult, that you don’t need your parents. These kids become susceptible to these guys who say they care.”  

The year of Judy Belfrey’s death, police arrested 97 girls under the age of 17 for soliciting men in the Zone. Some were as young as 12; many had been in the city for only a short time. “These kids, from middle or lower class homes, feel emotionally so deprived, if you put them into a situation where someone is concerned about them, caters to them, protects them, well, it’s a set up,” said Mutter.

In a way, this sudden wave of teen-girl hookers may have been an indirect result of another murder that took place just four months before Judy Belfrey’s arrival in Boston.

In November of ‘76, Harvard Crimson defensive back Andrew Puopolo was partying in the Zone when a prostitute picked his friend’s pocket. Puopolo chased her into the street only to be stabbed by three of her male friends. Puopolo died as a result of the attack, inspiring a massive crackdown on Combat Zone prostitution. That it took the death of a white male to alarm the locals, rather than the death of several females, says much about Boston in the 1970s.

Within weeks of Puopolo’s murder, police routed Zone prostitutes on to Cambridge, and in some cases, out of state. To remedy this, local pimps may have started recruiting a new generation of prostitutes from the pool of teen runaways.

It never was certain that Judy had become a prostitute, although a teenage girl with no money was an obvious target for pimps.

We tried to find the original police report that was filled out the night Judy Belfrey was killed. The Boston Police Department came up empty-handed.

“We’re in the process of reorganizing,” said Detective Torres. “It’s daunting. We’re only up to the year 2000. Anything before that is difficult to find. A lot of it will be destroyed. Most of it is stolen bicycle reports.”

And just like that, Judy Belfrey was forgotten again.


This story was illustrated with photos by Jerry Berndt. His "Combat Zone" series has been exhibited around the world, most recently at the IN CAMERA Galerie in Paris.

The picture of Judy Belfrey originally appeared in the Lowell Sun, June 1977.

For another of my tales of the zone, read:


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Interesting, thanks for posting this.

  3. I remember Holly Davidson. She was a beautiful, troubled young woman. I was only 15 and the son "Young American" by David Bowe came out right when she died. To this day I cannot hear that song without thinking of Holly.

  4. I remember Holly Davidson. She was a beautiful, troubled young woman. I was only 15 and the son "Young American" by David Bowe came out right when she died. To this day I cannot hear that song without thinking of Holly.

  5. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  6. I knew Holly, dated her a couple of times. She wasn't a drug addict or alcoholic. Sweet girl who had demons we didn"t know. Miss her.