The Murder of Jeanette DePalma

Richard Nixon was president. Watergate was front and center, and the Dallas Cowboys actually won Super Bowl 6, but nothing would prepare New Jersey for what was to come. Outside of an apartment complex on Wilson Road in Springfield, New Jersey, a decomposed human arm was found. The arm had been carried around by dog up to the apartments from Houdaille Quarry. The arm was soon traced to Jeannette DePalma. She had been reported missing back on August 7th, 1972, just four days after her 16th birthday.

Six weeks after she was reported missing, her body was found on top of a towering rock formation on September 19th, 1972, the same day they found her arm. Jeannette came from an Italian family who was very religious. She was one of five daughters of Salvatore and Florence DePalma. She also had three brothers. Her family lived on Clearview Road, a hilly upper-middle-class neighborhood. On a clear day, one can see the Manhattan skyline in the distance from these suburban streets. Nobody, for the life of them, could figure out why anybody would want to kill Jeannette.

In nearly half a century, no arrests have ever been made in this case. Since her death occurred during the Jesus movement of the early 1970s, it generated a lot of newspaper articles that speculated her death was connected to an occult killing. Without any concrete answers, theories have spilled in throughout the decades that range from a satanic ritual sacrifice to a coven of witches practicing black magic. This is why one man, Edward Salzano, has taken a personal interest in this case. But before we discuss what he had done, let’s talk about what they did after Jeannette was found.

On the day she went missing, Jeannette left her home, letting her mother know that she was going to hitchhike and take the train to a friend’s house before she went to work that afternoon. But she would never make it to her friend’s house. When Jeannette still hadn’t turned up that night, her parents filed a missing person report.

Six weeks later, they found her remains on top of a cliff inside the Quarry that was known by the locals as The Devil’s Teeth. While the descriptions of the crime scene vary, most of the stories do agree that makeshift wooden crosses and logs had surrounded Jeannette. From this point, the stories start to differ. Later, witnesses started reporting that they had seen occult objects, signs of witchcraft, and evidence of a ritual sacrifice. Some had said that the body had been found lying on a pentagram. Her body was identified through dental records because her body was too badly decomposed. In fact, the body was so decomposed; a regular autopsy could not be performed. They did take X-rays of her skull, and there was no evidence of any damage.

Samples of her clothing were packed up and sent to the FBI for analysis. According to the FBI, they tested her clothing, which included her underwear, slacks, and blouse, as well as soil from the scene, and compared everything to the hairs that were collected from her dresser and on her body. Their analysis found that were no “apparent foreign hairs” found on her clothing. They also didn’t find any drugs or poison in any of their samples. However, they did find stains on her slacks, blouse, bra, and underwear that “were too decomposed for conclusive blood and semen examinations.”

During the time of her death, there had been a lot of talk of Satanism, rituals, and witchcraft in Springfield. Many people suspected that Jeannette was targeted by witches or Satanists because of her involvement at her church, but the church was quick to speak up a claim that they had no big impact on Jeannette’s life. One person even suggested that she had killed herself because of all of the Satan stuff going on.

Authorities have rejected the idea that occult activity was to blame and that Jeannette had probably overdosed while partying in the woods with some of her friends. However, an autopsy ruled out the possibility that it was an overdose because no drugs were found in her system or at the crime scene. The coroner also found that there were no bone fractures, stab marks, or bullet wounds. Due to the fact that her body was badly decomposed, the police had a hard time figuring out what the exact cause of death was. For an undisclosed reason, the coroner ruled the cause of death as strangulation. They had also found an unusually high amount of lead in her body, but the police have not bothered to explain the reasons for this.

About two weeks after the discovery of her remains, many newspapers, including the New York Daily News and Star-Ledger, started to report that she could have been the victim of an occult sacrifice that had been carried out by a coven of witches of Satanists. This coverage was spurred by reports that her remains have been found surrounded by strange objects, and by the theories of the DePalma family’s Evangelical pastor, James Tate of the Assemblies of God Evangel Church. These rumors are surrounding this case set off panic in many of the Union County communities, which were still recovering from the shock of the John List murders that had taken place on ten months earlier.

There were newspaper reports that stated several animal sacrifices had taken place around the Watchung Reservation, which was only around two miles away from where Jeannette was found. At around the same time, in a park, the police had found “burning candles, a bowl of blood, and feathers and pigeons with their necks snapped.”

On October 3rd, 1972, an Associated Press article reported that law enforcement officials might have brought a witch to the site. Reverend James Tate of the Assemblies of God Evangel stated that “I never did hear if the witch found anything, but I know she was there in the scene.”

Early on in their investigation, and anonymous tip came in that a homeless man known as Red had been living at a campsite in the woods and fled when Jeannette was reported missing. While this looked like a promising lead, a guilt person running away, the Union County Prosecutor’s Office would eventually decide that Red was not involved in her murder, and was never arrested.

Donald Schwedt was one of the police officers on the scene. In fact, he was the one who found her. His story is one with a lot less witchcraft and a lot more regular ole murder. He said that she was lying on top of a big mound in the Quarry. He said that she was just lying there with tan pants and a navy-blue shirt one. He never bought into the reports trying to link the death to Satanism or an occult sacrifice.

He thinks that this rumor got started after one of the other police officers climbed and noticed that there were some rocks around her head. That officer would make the comment that it looked like Satan stuff.

Schwerdt’s theory of what happened, from the way that she had been positioned, was that she was doing drugs and OD’ed, but no evidence of drugs was reported. He said that she had flip-flops and believed somebody else had to be with her due to how hard it was even to get up the hill where she was lying. He also said that the police knew that some of the kids who Jeannette hung out with were addicts. He had hoped, along with other officers, that one of those kids would finally come forward and say, “Hey, I was there. I know what happened,” but nobody did.

Not long after Jeannette was found, she was soon forgotten. Her murder has only been brought back up due to Weird New Jersey’s coverage of the unsolved case. The magazine had received several anonymous letters in regards to Jeannette’s death. Mark Moran, the editor and co-found, started to investigate the case and wrote about some of the purportedly suspicious details, which included the allegation that the police had destroyed or lost the cast file.

Now, I honestly thought that the police would be like, “No, no, we still have the file. It hasn’t gone anywhere.” Instead, they said that the file was lost because of flooding caused by Hurricane Floyd in 1999. Actually, what I read said the hurricane was in 1995, but Hurricane Floyd hit the east coast in 1999, not 95. It may have been a slip of the tongue. Others allege that they still have a copy on file. Moran, along with Jesse P. Pollack, wrote the book Death on the Devil’s Teeth: The Strange Murder That Shocked Suburban New Jersey. During their research for the book, they discovered several instances of possible cover-ups, previously unknown suspects, and connections to other unsolved murders.

These two men didn’t leave a stone unturned. According to what they discovered, even the two officers who were on the scene couldn’t agree on what they saw there. One of the officers agreed that there were cross and other occult symbols at the crime scene, and they had believed that some sort of occult thing had happened. But the other officer, who was there at the same time, said that nothing of the like was there to indicate anything occult in nature.

Some people also suggested that John List had something to do with it, due to the similarities in the case, but there was no proof that they were connected. But all of these conflicting theories go as deep as the Union County Prosecutor’s Office. This is where the lost case file comes into play. Moran was trying to get information from the original case file when a representative told him that they couldn’t have it since the case was still active. However, later on, they said that the case had been lost.

That’s when the police said that the files had been lost during Hurricane Floyd, but, as Moran explains, a detective was placed in charge of cold cases back in 1984. This detective wanted to familiarize himself with the case information but said that the case file and all of the records were missing. That was more than ten years before Hurricane Floyd.

But these guys haven’t been the only ones invested in doing more work than the police have done on this case. Remember, Ed Salzano? He is a private investigator and had requested that a DNA test be performed on the clothes of Jeannette DePalma. He decided to sue the prosecutor’s office because he had gone to them with documents from Jeannette’s nephew, John Bancey, who had given him before his death. When he asked for them to do a DNA test on her clothes, they told Salzano no. That’s when he sued. Unfortunately, in September 2019, Superior Court Judge Karen Cassidy dismissed the lawsuit. Cassidy said that Salzano had no standing to bring the lawsuit because he didn’t have a legal relationship to DePalma, her estate, or anybody who would have a stake in the case’s outcome.

Salzano has begged the prosecutor’s office to reopen the case to come forward with new information. He has stated that “From the people I have interviewed and met in town, there are those who seem to know what happened but are still too afraid to come forward.” Salzano grew up nearby, and while he doesn’t know exactly how Jeannette died, he does believe suspicious characters were involved.

He said that, during the time of her death, a lot of evil stuff was happening, and people were getting caught up in it. It was during the time that LSD was being introduced to the area. He doesn’t believe she was doing drugs, but that some unfortunate things happened, and she ended up getting mixed up with some bad people, and they killed her.

Moran believes he has uncovered three plausible theories. Salzano wants to have a DNA analysis performed on her clothing. Not a lot of information is out there about her family, and it’s not clear what they have done to try and help the case. Most of the information out there comes from anonymous tips, Ed Salzano, and Weird New Jersey. I’m sure her family would love to know what happened to her, but they also don’t seem to be on the front lines trying to find some answers. Unfortunately, nobody will likely ever know what really happened to Jeannette DePalma. It’s is just another unfortunate unsolved murder where the deceased will never be able to rest.

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