It was a Halloween horror when a teenage girl was found murdered, her body surrounded by strange objects. Was it witchcraft? A serial killer? A coverup of something even more sinister? The 43-year-old cold case was reopened — not by police — but by two local authors. What they found while investigating the disappearance of Jeannette DePalma in 1972 is now a riveting true crime story called Death on the Devil’s Teeth. Its co-author Mark Moran, who is also co-publisher of Weird NJ, spoke with NJTV News anchor Mary Alice Williams about the mysteries and questions surrounding the cold case.
Moran says the unusual circumstances surrounding the murder led him to investigate DePalma’s case. “It had been a cold case for a long time already when I started investigating about 12 years ago,” he said. “But people from that area — Springfield, Mountainside, Union — they were still talking about it and the things that they told us were very cryptic and they said it was a satanic ritual, cult killing of some sort.”
The body was found after DePalma had been missing for six weeks and was surrounded by crosses with a halo of stones placed around the head. Moran says the newspapers got that information and started saying it was Satan worshipers, witchcraft or some kind of a cult killing. However, conflicting narratives throughout the case made finding answers very difficult.
“There was no cause of death ever determined because the body was so badly decomposed, but every aspect of this case you have conflicting evidence. Even the two police officers who were both on the scene don’t agree on what they saw. One definitively told us that these objects were there and they thought witchcraft right away at the scene where another officer, who was on the scene at the same time, says there’s nothing to indicate that,” Moran said.
The infamous List murders in nearby Westfield happened a year prior to DePalma’s murder. While there were some similarities, Moran says there’s no proof that the two were connected.
“It happened a year before John List killed his family and then fled and was missing for two decades. It was very close by, a couple miles away, so there was a sense of weird murders going on in that area around the Watchung Reservation, Westfield also. That has some religious overtones to it too because List said he was trying to save their souls from hell because his daughter was practicing witchcraft at the time,” he said.
The conflicting stories go all the way down to the Union County Prosecutor’s Office. Moran said representatives originally said the authors couldn’t have the information because the case is active, however later said they lost all of the evidence.
“They said that they lost all the evidence in a flood — Hurricane Floyd in 1995 — but we have a detective who when he was put in charge of cold cases in 1984 and wanted to familiarize himself with the case said the records were all missing then, 10 years before Hurricane Floyd. In addition to all of the other riddles in this case people have always suspected a police coverup,” he said.
What does Moran think? “I think we present — Jesse [Pollack] and I who is the other co-author who did a tremendous amount of research on this, digging up all the living people that he could find, friends, family, police officers — I think we came up with three very plausible scenarios about who killed this girl and we’re not going to tell you definitively outright but each one of them would make a terrific case,” he said.