CW: Some Discussion of Graphic Violence
Scroll to the bottom for a glossary of people in this story.
*Note: Starred names have been changed out of respect for their privacy.
Are you proud of your hometown?
I have mixed feelings about mine. Certainly, there are many things about Fall River, Massachusetts that I’d consider positive qualities. A flourishing Portuguese community graces us with excellent cuisine inspired by the Açores. We’re coastal, so there are beaches and a scenic waterfront to enjoy nearby. We have a large enough population to be considered a city, but small enough so that it doesn’t feel overwhelming. The cost of living is lower than most of Massachusetts. There are some really beautiful historical buildings, such as St. Anne’s Cathedral (which recently closed for budgetary reasons…).
The trouble is, Fall River has never quite recovered from the decline of manufacturing that has affected cities and towns across America over time. From around the mid-1800’s through the 1920’s, the city was a major industrial center, specifically for textile production. French-Canadian and Irish immigrants moved here in droves at this time to work in the mills. Interesting factoid: This is how writer Jack Kerouac’s family ended up in Lowell, and how my own family, a few generations back, ended up here.
Unfortunately, as we’ve seen in examples like Detroit, it doesn’t bode well for cities to put all their eggs in one basket. When competition arises, particularly global competition, wages drop, and people are going to be laid off. The industry stayed, hanging by a thread (no pun intended), for many years after those profitable days ended; my grandmother was a seamstress in one of those mills. Even my father had a job sweeping the used up bobbins from the huge looms in a mill when he was a kid, and worked in a fabric dye factory when I was a kid.
The price of prosperity for a small handful of mill owners was a ravaged landscape and choking pollution, along with exploitation and abject misery for the vast majority of workers. By the start of World War II, 80 percent of those mills were out of business because their machinery would no longer function competitively or they had moved south to escape the labor unions. In their wake, they left a plundered, depressed industrial ghost town.Scammell, p. 32
We’ve never really “bounced back,” or found a way to become prosperous, generally speaking.
Don’t get me wrong; it’s not the worst place to live, to be sure. It’s just in a state of stagnation. It’s not where you’re going to find much opportunity; it’s more of a place to live cheaply and, perhaps, work or go to school in a nearby city or town.
So, we have several housing projects, several high-rise apartment buildings, thousands of triple-decker apartment buildings, a community college, two hospitals, two methadone clinics, a devastating opioid epidemic, plenty of tanning salons, a truly staggering number of potholes, and a battleship named “Big Mamie” parked on the waterfront.
Oh, and we also have Lizzie Borden’s house.
Amid these features, there are the mills. Some of them have been repurposed into various businesses; my doctor’s office, for example, is in what once was a textile mill. Some of them have burned down or been demolished over the years. Some of them are just there, serving as empty monuments to the city’s glory days.
…In Fall River, industrial means immense, gray stone warehouses and factories, seemingly modeled on English prisons and some as long as several city blocks, deliberately devoid of any concession to the aesthetic sensibilities of their human occupants. In the late 1970’s, those stone buildings were the rotting heart of the city, and many of them stood empty. The energy of Fall River had moved elsewhere. A lot of that energy had left town forever.Scammell, p. 32
In 1978, one of the housing projects down by the waterfront, right up a hill from “Big Mamie” actually, was called Harbor Terrace (It is now called Heritage Heights). Like most projects, Harbor Terrace was made up of rows of identical box-like apartment buildings, occupied by economically disadvantaged people who needed this subsidized housing.
One occupant of this particular project was a woman by the name of *Melissa. Her apartment was a frequent gathering spot for a certain social circle; a rough crowd by most accounts. These were the people who frequented Bedford Street, the location of several bars that served as the prime zone for sex workers, pimps, and their customers to spend their time. Interestingly enough, the main police headquarters sat on this street as well, blocks away from apparently rampant criminal activity.
Melissa, a sex worker herself, was not one to be messed with.
She was very, very tough. One of the most savage fights [Detective] Silvia ever saw had ended with [Melissa] holding another girl’s hair in her fist and repeatedly smashing her face into the cement sidewalk.Scammell, p. 39
It is not surprising in the slightest that someone like Melissa would be prone to fighting; what is surprising is that she apparently served as the hostess for “rituals” and “devil worship,” especially during the colder months when participants did not want to meet out in the Freetown-Fall River State Forest, their usual locale for such activities. When they did meet out in the woods, they would allegedly gather around an altar, make animal sacrifices, and speak in “tongues” as they sought to invoke Satan’s power.
This apartment would be, in some ways, the origin point, or at least a ripe source of information, regarding a series of three murders that spurned horror stories in Fall River for years to come; ones far more outlandish than your typical street crime tales. Ones that I heard some version of throughout my childhood. The murders of Doreen Levesque, Barbara Raposa, and Karen Marsden, all supposedly offered up as human sacrifices to Satan.
As I got older, I came to realize that the general framework of this story has been told many times before. I bet you have a similar story originating in the town you grew up in, about the devil worshippers gathering out in the woods, sacrificing cats and spray painting pentagrams on things. They probably listened to Slayer and wore lots of black clothing, right?
Because of the seemingly ubiquitous nature of such tales, I assumed that some ordinary murders happened in my town “back in the day,” and that religious, superstitious people blew everything out of proportion, creating an urban legend of sorts. There are so many Catholic people in Fall River that any mention of devil worship would be bound to take on legend status, just as it has in so many other towns, especially throughout the 80’s and early 90’s. Just another case of “Satanic Panic,” an idea which will be explored further at later point in this series.
Then I did some research. To my surprise, I found that I may not have been entirely correct in that assumption.
Friday, March 13, 1981
In the Worcester County Superior Court (yes, MA residents pronounce this as Wuh-ster, and no one knows why) in Fitchburg, Massachusetts, Carl H. Drew was convicted of the first degree murder of Karen Marsden.
The alleged leader of a devil worship cult of pimps and prostitutes began serving his life term for the grisly, ritual slaying last year of a young prostitute who allegedly had sought to leave the group.Herald News, UPI, p. 1
She had actually been murdered in Bristol County, near the city of Fall River where they both lived, to be exact. Drew’s trial had to be moved so that he could get a fair trial amid the local media circus surrounding Karen’s murder.
Karen was a 20 year old mother of one from Fall River. In all likelihood, she was the reason that I heard this story so much growing up – she and her family were loosely connected to my parents. Karen spent her time with a tough crowd, but she was thought to be different than most of those people; softer. Like so many others, then and now, Karen struggled with addiction. And also like many others, her addiction had apparently led her to occasional sex work to support her habit. This is how she came to be associated with dangerous people.
Due to those previously mentioned loose connections, I reached out to Karen’s family before starting this series. I wanted to let them know that I was writing it, first of all. If I were in their position, I feel that I’d want to know rather than potentially stumbling across something unexpectedly in the future. I also wanted to see if they had anything they would like to say about Karen herself. They respectfully declined to speak about her or anything to do with the case; they have been burned by the media before and have chosen to avoid speaking with them (I never considered myself “the media,” but I can see how it’s the same thing from their perspective). I completely understand their position and do not begrudge their choice in the slightest; I would probably choose the same, in all honesty.
Because of this, I don’t have access to an abundance of information about Karen personally, especially when it comes to the time before her involvement with the Bedford Street crowd that we will come to learn of throughout this series. In fact, this is the case for all three victims that will be discussed. The time before all of this is, I think, the “meat” of who these people really were; they were living tough lives, but people can pull themselves out of that if they are given the chance. Sadly, these three people were not. I will do my best to share every bit that I can about them, because I know it is important to recognize the humanity and individuality of three young women whose lives were cut short.
I have been able to ascertain some things about Karen. As I said before, by most accounts, she did not seem to be cut from the same cloth as the group of people that she had become involved with. She certainly had a moral compass that still functioned within her; she frequently mentioned her faith in God and her desire to be good. She had a young son who lived with a foster family. It seems that she realized she was not in a position or state of mind to provide a good environment for her son, and she was trying to do the right thing by having him live with a nice family. She was not absent from his life, visiting very frequently and retaining their relationship as mother and son. She lived with her grandmother, who she dearly loved, and, though she was living a rough lifestyle, always checked in with daily.
Her deep love for her family seemed to be her main source of anxiety when it came to the ire of, and potential reprisals from, Carl Drew.
Carl Drew, the man thought to be the ringleader of the crimes under discussion, was 26 years old at the time of his conviction. He was a pimp known to spend most of his time at Charlie’s and Pier 14, two bars on Bedford street in Fall River, the main street for prostitution at that time. Apparently, the city once known as a textile giant had switched to the “world’s oldest profession” as its most prominent business;
Prostitution was not just a casual embarrassment in New Bedford [a neighboring city] and Fall River; it was a major industry that drew on a labor pool extending as far away as New York, New Jersey, and even Florida.Scammell, p. 28
Drew had also been a member of the Sidewinders biker club. I’ve spoken to people connected to this group who knew him; there was really nothing remarkable about him to speak of, it seems. He was a fairly quiet sort of person. Supposedly, the club had kicked him out eventually because of his prolific pimping career and all that goes along with that.
Robin Murphy was a 17 year old Fall River native who was already serving time by the day of Drew’s conviction. She had received a deal in exchange for testifying against him: second degree murder with the possibility of parole. A pretty great deal considering the contents of her testimony and her admitted role in Marsden’s murder. Her testimony of what had occurred detailed grotesque violence that I will summarize here; for a more detailed account, see Scammell (in the references below) pp. 275 to 280. If anyone who knew Karen Marsden is reading this, please consider just skipping it if it will cause you pain.
Robin Murphy’s Trial Testimony
According to Robin Murphy, she had helped to lure Karen Marsden into a car where she, Carl Drew, a woman named *Charlene, and a man named *Colin, drove down dirt roads into a wooded area in the neighboring town of Westport. Murphy and Drew taunted Karen that “Satan” was about to “have his toll.” That she hadn’t “kept her mouth shut,” she had talked to the cops, and now she was going to pay.
On Drew’s orders, Karen was then beaten by Murphy, who would drag her in a choke hold deeper into the woods. Drew tore off most of Karen’s clothing, and instructed Murphy, Colin, and Charlene to throw rocks at her; a “stoning” of sorts. He then used a hunting knife to cut between her fingers, through her hand, and down to the wrist joint, severing her hand completely from her arm.
He ordered Murphy to perform a sex act on Karen, stopping her after a short time, saying “You lezzies make me sick.” He then instructed Murphy to cut her throat, which she did. From his position behind Karen, he wrapped his arms tightly around her neck and chest, like a chokehold mixed with a bearhug, yanking with all his might, and finally using his knife to completely decapitate her.
At this point, he kicked her head around in the woods, just as if he were playing soccer. Colin and Charlene returned to the car. Murphy and Drew remained by the body, and Drew carved a large x across Marsden’s torso. Drew began to chant in some unknown language; he was, apparently, offering Marsden’s soul to Satan. He then drew an X on Murphy’s forehead with Marsden’s blood, saying “Now you are one of us.”
On their drive back to Fall River, Drew stopped near another part of the woods, apparently tossing Marsden’s head, which he had stowed in the trunk, in a separate wooded location from where they left her body.
We have to go back in time a ways to understand how the situation escalated to this point. There are two other murders that happened prior to Karen Marsden’s, and they are related to one another. There are questions to be asked about the exact nature of how they are linked, but that will be discussed at a later time. First, let’s go back to the first murder.
October 13, 1979
On this day, the body of 17 year old Doreen Levesque was discovered by joggers beneath the bleachers on the track at Diman Regional, the local vocational high school. Doreen was from the nearby city of New Bedford, but was a sex worker known to work Bedford street; as previously noted, it seems that, at this time, it was the “happening” place to be to make money in that particular way, drawing sex workers and pimps from New Bedford and beyond.
Doreen’s parents told of the behavioral struggles they’d had with Doreen; she was a rebel, determined to go her own way. She tended to get into trouble at school and at home. She was, however, only 17; she didn’t get the chance to mature and choose a better path. Poetry that she had written and a “letter to Jesus” were read at her funeral service:
‘Dear Jesus,’ it said, ‘I hope I spelled your name right. Thank you for everything you’ve done for me and anything you might do…someday I would like to be with you in heaven…If I have trouble following you I would like for you to help me.’Scammell, p. 27
Levesque had been bludgeoned to death with a blunt object. She also appeared to have been stabbed in the back of the head. All of her clothing except her shirt had been removed, but, upon examination, no evidence of a sexual assault was found on her body. Her wrists and ankles had been tied with twine and fishing line. Scattered about the scene were several rocks with blood on them; this was the first indication that investigators perceived as possibly “ritualistic” features. The medical examiner suggested that more than one person was likely involved due to the apparent use of more than one weapon, and that “…the evidence pointed to the possibility of torture and death by stoning” (Scammell, 29).
In April of 1980, Robin Murphy would tell law enforcement and the district attorney that she was present during the murder of Doreen Levesque. She claimed that she had been in a car with Carl Drew and another man by the name of *Warren. Doreen was working Bedford street, but was “freelancing” – in other words, she didn’t have a pimp. Drew invited her to come smoke a joint with them, and she agreed. Robin said that Drew admonished Doreen about working Bedford Street on her own, and told her that she ought to work for him. This was not a sales pitch – it was a demand. The conversation culminated in Drew reaching back and slapping Doreen. Drew drove them to the south end of Fall River, repeating his “offer,” which Doreen continued to refuse. He pulled into the high school parking lot, then onto the grass near the bleachers. He and Warren picked up the struggling Doreen and dragged her beneath the bleachers, after which Robin claimed that she could not see what happened due to the darkness. She also claimed to be unable to hear any struggle or screaming (Scammell, 204-209).
In the beginning, the information about the potentially “ritualistic” method of Doreen’s murder by stoning was kept from the public, but the main Fall River PD investigators working the case had their interest piqued from the beginning. Detectives Alan Silvia, Tom Joaquim, and Paul Carey were somewhat insinuated into the rough social circles at Harbor Terrace, the formerly mentioned housing project. They liked to do what many in law enforcement do; they forged relationships with people on the streets, hoping to get better insights into criminal goings-on and to gather information.
One of the things they had heard through the grapevine was that there was some “cult” activity taking place in the projects.
The Underworld…Criminally and Spiritually
As I mentioned previously, one of the main hangouts for pimps and sex workers from Bedford street was the Harbor Terrace apartment belonging to Melissa. The detectives went there first to probe for information about Levesque’s murder, not only because it was a hot spot for pimps and sex workers, but because they knew, having been to her place before, that Melissa had a giant mural of Satan painted on her apartment wall.
At the beginning, they [the detectives] suspected that the mural was there not because it necessarily expressed Melissa’s religious convictions or even her tastes, but because she enjoyed the popularity and convenience of her apartment being the principal meeting place for the Bedford Street regulars, and the picture was a kind of tribal banner…Like the pictures of the devil tattooed on the skins of bikers and street people like Carl Drew, [it] seemed more to be a sophomoric, counterculture political statement than a manifesto of some dark faith…That early assumption was seriously shaken when they learned that one of the uses of [Melissa’s] apartment was as a gathering place for satanic meetings.Scammell, p. 39
In fact, it was Karen Marsden who told Detective Silvia about these meetings, at a party he and other officers were attending at Melissa’s apartment. They wondered if, perhaps, Melissa or any others in the social group could tell them anything about the alleged “cult” activity that went on at Harbor Terrace, and further, try to get a sense of what may have happened to Doreen Levesque.
Now, at this point, my assumption would be that Melissa would clam up, not wanting anything to do with cops, especially if she were involved in “satanic” activities – that sort of thing is generally frowned upon by the mainstream even today, but back then, in a heavily Catholic city, it would have been rather scandalous. But Melissa did the opposite – she invited them to stay for one of their gatherings at her place. Or perhaps she felt like she didn’t have a choice in the matter, since they were cops, after all. Either way, they ended up personally attending one of the meetings – we will get into what that was like in a later installment.
Throughout the time between Doreen Levesque’s death and Karen Marsden’s death, (between October 1979 and April 1980), Karen would regularly meet with both Fall River police and Massachusetts State police. Her state of mind was not good; she was increasingly frightened and on-edge. She was convinced that her days were numbered, and that Carl Drew was the one who would end them. She was petrified that he could hurt her son or others in her family; she claimed that he had threatened to do so before. Her close friend, Robin Murphy, was in attendance at some of these meetings, but was not forthcoming with police and seemed to disapprove of Karen’s chattiness.
The detectives would eventually come to find out that many of their meetings actually did not take place in Melissa’s apartment at Harbor Terrace, but out in the Freetown-Fall River State Forest, known to locals as “The Rez,” which abutted the city. Allegedly, “chanting” and attempts to invoke the presence of Satan would occur, just as it did at Melissa’s place. Unlike the meetings in the apartment, they would supposedly also sacrifice small animals, conducting crude rituals where animal blood would be poured over one’s head. This is also where Robin Murphy would bring Karen when she warned her that, if she told the police anything, she’d end up dead, her body dumped deep out in the woods.
It is widely known that, in the criminal world, talking with the police is not approved of. Karen knew this, of course, which perhaps explains why she would never tell police anything specific that they could use to make a case against Drew. She seemed to desperately want help, but, tragically, she was too frightened to take the steps necessary to get it.
Over and over they [detectives] reached out to make it clear they took her seriously. But Karen remained elusive. Barricaded by her fears, insulated by drugs, she was obviously begging for help but, for more reasons than Silvia understood, unable to accept that help when it was offered.Scammell, p. 86
By police accounts, she seemed to be very much a believer in Drew’s connection to the evil and satanic. She and at least some of her family were religious, partaking in various denominations of Christianity, but she also seemed to have a personality that was especially susceptible to occult-themed hokum. Regardless of whether Drew truly believed in Satan or simply used satanic iconography and language as an intimidation tactic, she deeply believed that Satan was real. This spiritually driven fear, in addition to the very down-to-earth fear of reprisal for “snitching,” would ultimately prevent Karen from disclosing much useful information (in terms of information that law enforcement could use in court). But she did let detectives know, repeatedly, that if anything should happen to her, that Carl Drew is who they ought to focus on.
To Be Continued…
Battleship Cove, Fall River, MA
Delano, J., photographer. (1941) Mills in Fall River, Massachusetts. Bristol County Fall River. Massachusetts United States, 1941. Jan. [Photograph] Retrieved from the Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/2017793280/.
Fitchburg, Mass (UPI) (March 14, 1981) Drew guilty, sentenced to life. The Herald News. p. 1
Hine, L. W., photographer. (1916) Spinner. Location: Fall River, Massachusetts / Lewis W. Hine. Fall River. Massachusetts United States, 1916. between June 12 and. [Photograph] Retrieved from the Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/2018675610/.
Laskey, M. (2016) Sex, Satanism, and Sacrificial Slaughter: The Fall River Cult Murders, 1979-1980. Retrieved from https://www.cvltnation.com/sex-satanism-sacrificial-slaughter-fall-river-cult-murders-1979-80/
Rhines, F. (March 13, 1981) Drew case nears end. The Herald News. p. 1
Scammell, H. (1991) Mortal Remains: A True Story of Ritual Murder. Harper Collins, NY.