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Cigarette butt left at 1971 crime scene solves cold case murder of Vermont woman: Police


Rita Curran. Police in Vermont say they have identified the man who killed her in 1971 (via Burlington Police).

A cigarette butt collected from a grisly Vermont crime scene in the 1970s has ended up being the clue to solving the cold case murder of a young woman in her apartment.

Rita Curran, a teacher, was 24 years old when she was killed on July 20, 1971. She had been sexually assaulted, beaten, and strangled and was discovered by her roommates, according to Burlington Police.

The man ultimately identified as her killer, William DeRoos, also lived in the building, just two floors above her, Acting Police Chief Jon Murad announced at a news conference on Tuesday. DeRoos was 31 at the time.

According to Murad, William DeRoos and his wife, Michelle DeRoos, were questioned by police after Curran was found. They told investigators they had been inside the apartment together when Curran was killed. But that wasn’t the truth.

As Michelle DeRoos told Burlington detectives five decades later, she and William had fought that night, and he left to take a “cool down walk.” He eventually returned after she had gone to bed, and she didn’t learn about Curran’s murder until the next morning when police knocked on the DeRooses’ door and asked them questions.

After that initial meeting, William told his wife to lie to the police going forward, and that’s exactly what she did. She kept her husband’s secret even after he fled to Thailand shortly after Curran’s murder and became a Buddhist monk, Murad said. The couple ended their marriage shortly after that.

William DeRoos later emerged in San Francisco in 1974, where he re-married. He died in 1986 at age 46 from acute morphine poisoning in a San Francisco hotel, Murad said at the press conference.

“He would be 83 today,” Murad said. “But there is not a cop in this building who would not happily put handcuffs on him.”

Police said that the original investigators’ thorough work at the crime scene ultimately led to the resolution of Curran’s case.

Those investigators “collected a lot of stuff way ahead of their time,” Lt. J.T. Trieb said at the news conference. That included the cigarette butt discovered next to Curran’s arm.

“It hadn’t been crushed or put out, it had been dropped there,” Trieb said. He said investigators collected it not knowing what DNA would be in 50 years.

Decades later, that cigarette butt generated a DNA profile. Burlington police partnered with forensic genetic genealogy firm Parabon to finally pin the murder on DeRoos. Forensic genealogy involves searching profiles on open-source ancestry websites for links to DNA from crime scenes, and it is increasingly used to solve cold cases.

Trieb called people who agreed to allow law enforcement to use their information in investigations, the unsung heroes of Curran’s case.

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“We’re all confident that William DeRoos is responsible for the aggravated murder of Rita Curran,” Trieb said. “Because he died in a hotel room of a drug overdose, he will not be held accountable for his actions, but this case will be closed.”

Trieb also noted that DeRoos had shown a propensity for violence at least twice after Curran was killed. According to Sarah Hepting, who DeRoos married after moving to San Francisco in 1974, he stabbed a female friend without provocation. When Hepting asked why he did it, he replied: “I thought I was stabbing you.” He later attacked Hepting in a similarly unprovoked assault, Trieb said.

At one point, it was thought that serial killer Ted Bundy may have killed Curran, as he was thought to be in the Burlington area during the summer of Curran’s murder, according to the Burlington Free Press.

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