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After more than 50 years, Burlington police say they've solved the murder of Rita Curran

A man in suit stands behind a brown podium. A picture of a young woman and an apartment is off to his side.
Liam Elder-Connors
Burlington Police announced on Tuesday that they’ve solved the 50-year old murder of Rita Curran. Police say Curran was killed by her neighbor, but that the man died in 1986 so he can’t be prosecuted.

The Burlington Police Department announced on Tuesday that they’ve identified the person they believed killed Rita Curran more than 50 years ago, officially closing one of the state's most high-profile cold cases. But police say the man died in 1986, so he can’t be prosecuted.

Curran, 24, was found in her apartment on 17 Brookes Ave. by her roommates on July 20, 1971. She had been strangled, beaten and sexually assaulted. Her murder shocked the Queen City and stumped investigators for five decades.

“She was a teacher, and a singer and a giver and she was loved,” said Acting Burlington Police Chief Jon Murad during a press conference on Tuesday. “And the random violence of her murder left a stain on our community and it devastated her family and for 50 years they have waited for justice.”

During the press conference, police said that advances in DNA technology and a cigarette butt left at the crime scene allowed them to finally identify the alleged killer: William DeRoos, Curran’s upstairs neighbor.

According to police, DeRoos died from a drug overdose in 1986 in San Francisco.

Members of Curran’s family met with Burlington police last week to learn what they had uncovered, according to Murad. At Tuesday’s press conference, Curran’s brother and sister both spoke and thanked the department for its five decades of work.

“I'm so proud of the kindness, the consideration, the caring and the compassion that they've shown to us, over decades, over multiple administrations of multiple police chiefs, multiple officers over all those years,” said Mary Campbell, Curran’s sister.

Curran’s brother, Tom Curran, said on this day he was thinking about his family.

“I don't think so much about the guy who did this, as I do about Rita, and my parents, what they went through,” he said. “I pray to my parents, and I pray to Rita.”

Police say the key piece of evidence that allowed them to pin the murder on DeRoos was a cigarette butt left at the scene in 1971.

“It was a Lark cigarette butt; that's all they had — it was just a brand name,” said Detective Lt. Jim Trieb. “But they collected it anyway not knowing what DNA was going to be for another 15 years. That cigarette butt sat in evidence for over 40 years.”

When Burlington police first had DNA from the cigarette sequenced in 2014, they didn’t find any matches. But last year the department contracted with Parabon Nanolabs to conduct genealogy research using open source DNA databases. The company was able to match the DNA to DeRoos in a few hours, said CeCe Moore, a genetic genealogist with Parabon.

“In this case, we were incredibly lucky,” Moore said by video call during the press conference. “This doesn’t always happen this way, but this case is a fantastic illustration of the power of investigative genetic genealogy to narrow down the pool of suspects to just one person.”

Investigators also were able to match DNA found on Curran’s jacket to DeRoos after identifying his DNA from the cigarette butt.

DeRoos and his then-wife lived above Curran, and in 1971 they told police that they were home and didn’t hear anything on the night of the killing. But after DeRoos’ DNA was identified on the cigarette butt, Burlington police re-interviewed DeRoos’ ex-wife last fall. According to a police report, she told investigators that DeRoos asked her to lie and say he was home when, in fact, he’d left their apartment that evening after the two got into an argument.

DeRoos ex-wife won't face any charges for lying to the cops in 1971, police said on Tuesday. Detective Thomas Chenette said the couple had only married two weeks before Curran's murder, and DeRoos told his new wife to lie because he had a past criminal record.

"She was newly married and she was in love," Chenette said. "I do not believe in my heart that she was aware that the murder had occurred or that she had any suspicion that he did it until we put the pieces together for her."

According to police, DeRoos left Burlington shortly after Curran’s murder and went to Thailand to become a Buddhist monk. He later moved to San Francisco and re-married. According to a police report, DeRoos’ second wife, in an interview with Burlington police last fall, said DeRoos once stabbed a mutual friend without provocation. The woman also told police that DeRoos in one instance strangled her to the point that she lost consciousness.

"We're all confident that William DeRoos is responsible for the aggravated murder of Rita Curran, but 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."
Detective Lt. Jim Trieb

“We see the propensity for violence — unprovoked violence,” Trieb said. “Given all these information, our detective bureau, myself, the chief — we're all confident that William DeRoos is responsible for the aggravated murder of Rita Curran, but 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.”

The case was reviewed by Chittenden County State’s Attorney Sarah George, who said she believed there was enough evidence to charge DeRoos, if he were still alive.

“I would have felt perfectly comfortable going to trial,” George told reporters after the press conference. “The amount of people that would have been involved in this case that are still alive is quite astounding.”

A crowd of former Burlington police officers, chiefs and city officials attended the press conference on Tuesday, including former Sen. Patrick Leahy, who was the Chittenden County State’s Attorney at the time of Curran’s murder.

Leahy told reporters that he had hoped this day would come.

“I must admit after 20, 30, 40 years I figured it never would,” he said. “I’ve been in war zones, and crime scenes over the years as state’s attorney. Nothing I remember as well as this one.”

Have questions, comments or tips?Send us a message.

Liam is Vermont Public’s public safety reporter, focusing on law enforcement, courts and the prison system.

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