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Woonsocket detective discusses city's first serial killer at Forensics Seminar

By Jeff Sullivan
On March 4, 2008

  • Woonsocket Police Detective Gerard Durand speaks on Friday about his experience with Woonsocket's serial killer, Jeffrey Mailhot. Amanda Neves

03/04/08 - Detective Gerard Durand of the Woonsocket Police Department discussed in detail the methods used and breaks found in his department's first serial murder case on Friday at the University of Rhode Island's weekly Forensics Science Seminar.Jeffrey Mailhot was an active serial killer in the Woonsocket area, murdering three confirmed victims, all of whom were prostitutes.

"Woonsocket has always had a lot of crime, particularly against prostitutes," he said. "But we have never had a case like this, mainly because everyone knows each other here for the most part," he said of the close-knit community.

Durand said that this case was unique because there was never much evidence as to who may have committed the crime. Mailhot admitted his motive in a taped confession obtained after his arrest.

"He said only that they were whores, and that no one would miss them," Durand said. "It was so frustrating trying to find evidence on this guy."

The difficulty, he said, was that since prostitutes work outside the law, and basically get into cars with complete strangers, there are usually no witnesses and few punctual missing person reports filed.

He is not the only person who realizes this problem. Kenna Quinet, a professor of criminology at Purdue University, said in a recent article, "The Missing Missing: Toward a Quantification of Serial Murder Victimization in the United States," the number of serial killer victims are much more numerous than current figures estimate.

She said because there are so many cases of under investigated deaths in the United States, many victims, like prostitutes, runaway foster children and transients, are not counted as murder victims, and therefore not even considered in serial killings.

She states in her article, that the number of estimated homicides is so low that if such missing persons were serial murdered, the number of serial victims in the United States could be as much as 10 times the initial estimated annual amount, which she said is around 1,832 victims every year.

Durand said that in the beginning of the case, the fact that Mailhot killed people who would not be missed, there were very few clues to point to him.

"He was a very neat individual, and very hard to spot," he said. "He never had a record, not even a parking ticket or moving violation. From the time he was 22 to 28 years old, we have no idea where he was or what he did."

Mailhot was 33 when he committed the murders.

Woonsocket police's big break came when an anonymous call came in, instructing investigators to talk to Joseline Martel, who was in prison for prostitution.

She told Durand and his team that she had been physically attacked by a man trying to choke her to death, and gave police the address.

"She jabbed him in the eye, and then snap, he was a different person," he said. "All he said was get out of here right now."

Investigators had to use unique methods in evidence gathering in the Mailhot case when trying to gain a warrant on the address Martel had given them, such as sending robotic cameras down sewers or digging up landfills.

The real problem, Durand said, was that after they found possible genetic material in the sewer leading to Mailhot's house, extracting an 80-year old pipe sitting just a few feet from a gas line without losing the evidence or damaging the fuel line.

"There's nothing in the Police handbook or training that tells you how to do that," he said. "We had to hire outside help to dig it out."

They had genetic material, but it was unclear as to exactly what it was, so it was sent to the lab for testing. Durand pointed out DNA testing takes a lot longer than shows like "C.S.I." portray, and because of this, police had to keep searching for evidence.

The final nail in the case though was the recovery of the most recent victim's body from the Johnston Landfill two weeks postmortem. Investigators had to search a grid with a square area of 1,000 yards and a depth of 20 feet.

"We had 20 sifters going through the compacted trash eight hours a day for eight days, in July," he said. "You always knew who had dump detail."

The remains of the victim were found in a trash bag, nearly crushed from the compacting treads of the landfill vehicles. They were immediately sent to the lab for fingerprint analysis and identification.

It was Durand's duty to analyze the remains, now about a week and a half old and mixed with a considerable amount of garbage.

"It was the worst smell I have smelt in my life," he said. "But, at the same time, I could not help thinking that this was the most exciting moment of my career."

They were unable to find any fingerprints on the remains because the extent of decomposition made her fingerprints were unidentifiable, and sent the remains to the lab to be tested.

"At that time, we did not take full handprints, and while we had partial prints on one hand, we had nothing to match with our file on the victim" he said. "I was expecting to find a head or some other identifiable piece of evidence, but even dental records were impossible to use."

While investigators were waiting for the results to come back, they swept the house for evidence. Police found Mailhot lived alone in a four apartment house because he was the only tenet the landlord could stand. The landlord said he was neat, orderly and clean in some rooms and yet messy in others. The level of neatness bordered on obsessive-compulsive disorder, he even folded his trash, but combined with the fact he did not even have a sheet that fit his mattress, which was positioned on his room's floor, the inconsistency of the man's lifestyle was curious.

"It was like two different people were living in that house," he said. "I mean it was strange to see the kitchen of a single male living alone so clean and orderly."

During the search through the house, investigation teams went on advice from Mailhot that he had dismembered his victims in his bathtub, and found slight cuts in the tub that were caused by the slip of a saw. They also found traces of blood all over the house, his mop having the highest concentration of blood.

During his confession, Mailhot described the killings very casually, as if he was being interviewed as a witness or bystander. He said he would have continued, and that he considered prostitutes inhuman and expendable.

Mailhot pled guilty to three counts of murder and two counts of felony assault before the trial ever got to court, saying that he did not want to cause the victims' families any more grief. Durand said will not be up for parole until he is 77 years old.

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