Unlocking Secrets: The 40-Year-Old Murder of Theresa Corley

Updated on March 25, 2020
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Kym L. Pasqualini is the founder and former CEO of Nation's Missing Children Organization and National Center for Missing Adults.

Theresa Corley was brutally murdered on December 6, 1978, in the small town of Bellingham, Massachusetts.
Theresa Corley was brutally murdered on December 6, 1978, in the small town of Bellingham, Massachusetts.

The brutal Bellingham murder of Theresa Corley has baffled the police and haunted a family for four decades.

Theresa Corley, 19, was missing for nearly three days on December 6, 1978, and was later found nude in a ditch. Her body was found by a passerby alongside Route 495 in Bellingham, Massachusetts. Her jeans and jacket were scattered around her body by her killer. Her cause of death was determined to be strangulation, possibly by a ligature.

“There were no drag marks on her body that we could see that she was dragged into the woods, so obviously she was carried there by either one or two individuals and placed on the ground,” Massachusetts State Police Lieutenant Kevin Shay told New England’s Unsolved.

Theresa Corley was last seen alive on December 6, 1978, with friends at the Train Stop bar, in Franklin, Massachusetts.
Theresa Corley was last seen alive on December 6, 1978, with friends at the Train Stop bar, in Franklin, Massachusetts.

The Night Theresa Vanished

According to police, on the night of her murder, Theresa and her friends were celebrating her boyfriend’s birthday and had been at the Train Stop lounge on Depot Street in Franklin. A night of drinking was followed by an argument with her boyfriend and Theresa stormed out of the bar. She asked a friend for a ride, but the friend didn’t want to leave. Witnesses say three young men who saw Theresa hitchhiking offered her a ride to her home about five miles away. Instead, she was picked up by the men and sexually assaulted.

Theresa, who was intoxicated, agreed to go with the three men to another party at Presidential Arms Apartments in Franklin. Police suspect that one of the men began sexually assaulting Theresa inside the apartment and the other two tried to join in. However, Theresa was able to fight back and escape the apartment that she was taken to. She left the apartment wearing one of her own shoes and a shoe belonging to one of the men.

She was seen hitchhiking at approximately 4:25 a.m., along Route 140. Two truck drivers picked her up, and the second dropped her off at the Bellingham police station. The driver told police she was clearly mumbling her words and very intoxicated. The driver also said she told him she was sexually assaulted. The truck driver said, “She was mad as fire.”

At 5:30 a.m., Theresa was last seen hitchhiking near a Dairy Queen toward her home on North Main Street, less than a mile away. Around 7:00 a.m., Theresa’s sister Linda Peterson, received a call from their mother. “My mom knew Theresa would never stay out all night without calling her,” said Linda. “She was very upset and knew that something was wrong.”

Linda told New England’s Unsolved that they were from the city and, in that day, there was no public transportation in Bellingham, so hitchhiking was a popular method of transportation. “She had no fear, she really had no fear,” Linda said.

Bellingham was a quiet, welcoming town for the Corley family when they moved in, but over the years, it has become a place that holds secrets that have come to haunt Theresa’s sisters.

The Day Theresa Was Found

For nearly 40 years, Theresa’s case has remained a puzzle with many pieces missing.

On the day Theresa’s body was found, police received a call from a man who said he was on his way home and stopped on the side of the freeway to relieve himself. He identified himself as John Burlington, a businessman from Connecticut. However, the man didn’t call 911 when he saw the lifeless nude body of Theresa lying in the woods, he called the general police department’s number. After relentlessly searching for the man who called, police say there is not a John Burlington, and there never was.

Lieutenant Shay remains skeptical. “It seems kind of unusual because that area along 495 unless you were from the area, you wouldn’t know that track of land was actually Bellingham.”

The location along Route 495 where Theresa Corley’s body was discovered is marked by a wooden cross in Bellingham, Massachusetts.
The location along Route 495 where Theresa Corley’s body was discovered is marked by a wooden cross in Bellingham, Massachusetts.

Later the same day, a man walked into Bellingham Police Department and drew suspicion when he asked if it was Theresa Corley’s body they found along 495. The dispatcher was concerned because he said he never gave that call out over the air.

How would the individual know there was a body found alongside the highway?

Unfortunately, the police didn't detain the man. Police now think the man who said he was John Burlington was the same man who walked into the police station, but they have never been able to find him again.

Theresa Corley, murdered in 1978, was exhumed during 2016 for forensic testing.
Theresa Corley, murdered in 1978, was exhumed during 2016 for forensic testing.

Theresa's Body Exhumed

Cases like Theresa Corley’s test the limits of our technology in criminal investigations and push investigators to find new ways to answer aging questions.

Theresa’s body was exhumed during 2016, and a chemist collected nine and a half fingernails to use for DNA testing that they hoped would identify Theresa’s killer.

A forensic DNA expert from Boston University says, “What happens to DNA over time is it becomes degraded and if you want to visualize that, think of going to a fabric store buying a spool of thread and unraveling the entire spool, that’s a Chromosome,” says Robin Cotton. “Over time you go in, and every week, you take a pair of scissors and make five cuts and over 39 years that’s a lot of cuts.”

Current DNA techniques require a certain size DNA strand, and if the strands are too short you have to utilize another DNA testing method. Each time you test a fingernail for DNA you lose some of the physical evidence. “Routine methods that are good to use on a DNA sample that may only be a few years old, rather than decades-old, would not be suitable for 39-year-old DNA,” said Cotton.

Though the exhumation did not produce a sample of DNA, Theresa’s jeans did. This gave the family hope that her case might finally be solved. A small amount of semen found on her jeans produced a YSTR profile of an unidentified male. However, when the sample was sent to the FBI’s Combined DNA Index System, Theresa’s family’s hopes were dashed. The DNA did not yield a complete profile after all.

A Friend's Legacy

Bob Ward, one of Theresa’s friends from childhood, worked with her at Star Market, a local grocery store in Bellingham. He says he has watched the case throughout the years. He describes Theresa as a “cool kid” who was pretty, bubbly, and friendly. “She was somebody you look forward to seeing, someone who makes you feel good.”

New England’s Unsolved is part of Boston 25 News and was created by Bob Ward, who now works for the media company.

“It was difficult to accept someone like Theresa Corley, who was so friendly, so upbeat, so positive, could be murdered and it just shocked us all,” said Ward. “It has always bothered me.”

When Fox 25 approached Ward and asked him to come up with a new segment for the news, he created New England’s Unsolved and profiled four cases, one of them being Theresa’s. His work to keep the story alive has continued over the years. “I wanted to find out what happened to Theresa Corley, so I made it my business to start New England’s Unsolved with Theresa’s case,” said Ward.

Clear Channel Outdoor Boston donated a billboard in 2018, to help police solve the cold case murder of Theresa Corley.
Clear Channel Outdoor Boston donated a billboard in 2018, to help police solve the cold case murder of Theresa Corley.

In 2018, to further help revive the case, Clear Channel Outdoor Boston donated digital billboard space on Route 140 in Franklin.

In similar cases, digital billboards have proven to be an effective tool for law enforcement to generate new leads. “Clear Channel Outdoor has a long and proud history of assisting law enforcement and public safety agencies,” said Stephen Ross, president of Clear Channel Outdoor Boston Division. “Our hope is these billboards compel someone out there to come forward with information that helps bring justice to Theresa and peace to her family.”

Theresa's Sisters push for Information

Theresa’s mother passed away without ever knowing what happened to her daughter but that has fueled Theresa’s sisters to seek new leads and information.

“I want definite names. I think at this point in time, these men, have gone on. They’ve had families and probably have grandchildren at this stage,” Linda said. “They have to look within themselves and I think they’ve got to be a little nervous because I think we are coming for them.”

Linda isn’t alone. We’ve always wanted to do the right thing by her,” Geri Houde, another one of Theresa’s sisters told Boston 25 News. “The people out there that thought we forgot what happened to Theresa, will realize we haven’t forgotten about her.”

To the majority, 37 years would seem like a lifetime; but for Theresa’s sisters, it seems like yesterday. When posed with the question if it would be easier to put this heartbreaking case to rest her sister Linda said, “That would be walking away from her. I just can’t do that.”

Theresa Corley is buried at a Saint Mary’s Cemetery in Milford, Massachusetts, along with her mother.
Theresa Corley is buried at a Saint Mary’s Cemetery in Milford, Massachusetts, along with her mother.

During 1978, Theresa Corley, the seventh of nine children, was buried at St. Mary’s Cemetery in Milford in her prom dress. Her mother was buried beside her in 1999.

The family is offering a $25,000 reward for information that leads to the arrest and conviction of the men involved in Theresa’s murder.

If you have any information, please contact the Bellingham Police Department at 508-657-2863 or email detectives at detectives@bellinghamma.org. You may also contact the Franklin Police Department at 508-440-2780 or tips@franklinpolice.com.

© 2019 Kym L Pasqualini

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    • kymp profile imageAUTHOR

      Kym L Pasqualini 

      3 months ago from Carefree, AZ

      Thank you so much! I was just having a conversation with a friend about the hitchhiking I did as a young teen and how lucky I am to be alive. The families are an inspiration to me. I have worked in this field close to 30 years, and I am still in awe of the strength, courage, and resilience these families have. Be well Paula and thanks again.

    • fpherj48 profile image

      Suzie 

      3 months ago from Carson City

      Kym....Like so many cold case murders, this is a very sad mystery that unless solved, will haunt loved ones left behind. That there are people who continue to search and investigate with hope and determination, is amazing. Every piece of additional information and/or test results can be so vital.

      This particular story is clearly a strong admonishment against the dangerous activity of "hitchhiking!" Excellent article, Kym.

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