Learning from the dead
To understand how 11 women in New Bedford could go missing initially with little public outcry, you need to understand how it all happened.
It was 1988, before social media, before everyone had a mini-computer in their hand, before so many families were touched by the horror of opiate addiction, before there was a uniform database of the missing. The women went missing one by one. Some were reported missing right away. Some were never reported missing. The first women went missing in the spring, the last in September. No one was found until July. There was no "ah ha!" moment when the first women vanished. At the time, there was always people reported missing to New Bedford police, the names and descriptions on a clipboard strung to the Record Room wall. Sometimes the missing came home within days, sometimes within weeks. Some wanted to vanish for a time but would then return. Those with problems, such as drug addiction, might go into rehab and not tell their families or leave the area or just stay away from loved ones. They always returned. That was the experience of police at the time. People returned home.
That changed in 1988.
The first two women who went missing weren't from New Bedford. Rochelle Dopierala Clifford was from Falmouth but was staying in New Bedford and Debra Medeiros was from Fall River and staying with her boyfriend in New Bedford. They were not on that clipboard in the police department record room. Others later would be on that clipboard in the months that ensued as frantic families made calls and searched the streets
It wasn't until July that remains were found of two women, weeks and miles apart, along area highways.
It wasn't until the near end of summer and start of fall that it was clear there was likely a serial killer in the area. By that time, the killer apparently stopped.
Things have changed in the three decades since the New Bedford Highway Serial Killer stalked the area. Alerts about missing persons are posted on local community Facebook pages. Police departments examine missing person reports carefully and quickly. No one assumes someone "just left" anymore. And people understand opiate addiction and the toll it takes on an individual, families and a community better today. It is no longer the problem faced by "others," although it never really was. Heroin addiction was always that hidden issue in a community, from a city to leafy suburb. Today, people look openly for solutions instead of hiding in shame.
The lessons of 1988 are harsh and hard learned. Be kind. Be understanding. Be watchful. Do not judge. Do not keep deadly secrets.
As we approach yet another July anniversary of the first two dead to be found, remember the families left behind, the two women who have yet to be found and all of those still struggling in our communities.
If you know who the killer is or have any evidence, please contact the Bristol County District Attorney's Cold Case office in New Bedford, Massachusetts.