Serial Killers and a Tragic Cold Case

Greater forensic sophistication can assist with unsolved cases long past.

Posted Mar 09, 2020

Fifty-one years ago, on Memorial Day weekend in 1969, Elizabeth Perry and Susan Davis were killed just outside Ocean City, New Jersey. Many suspects have been proposed, with Ted Bundy the leading favorite, but a meticulously researched book shows that other suspects are worth consideration.

A decade ago, I read The Origins of Infamy by Christian Barth, a novel that featured Bundy's time in Philadelphia in 1969 and his fictional participation in this double homicide. The experience of writing it spurred Barth to more fully research the case. He's discovered quite a lot, including information never before revealed.

Now he's written The Garden State Parkway Murders as a nonfiction account. The book shows painstaking scrutiny and a willingness to track down many different people to get their stories. He even adds more to the Bundy narrative.

But he also offers rich details about other suspects. According to the publisher's press release, Barth used "interviews with retired New Jersey State Police detectives, law enforcement officials from other jurisdictions, federal agents, possible witnesses, victim family members, as well as information gathered from FBI case files, letters, journals, libraries, newspaper articles, and university archives."

The girls' brief Ocean City trip had been recreational. The 19-year-olds had just graduated from a junior college and wanted some sun and fun. As their vacation came to an end, they decided to get an early start going back. They ate breakfast at the Somers Point Diner before heading north on the Garden State Parkway. When they didn't make it home, their concerned parents notified authorities.

A state trooper had already found their abandoned blue Chevrolet convertible on the side of the road and hauled it away. It took three days to locate the bodies, which lay 200 yards from the road in a wooded thicket, under leaves. Both had been bludgeoned and stabbed, and one was tied to a tree.

Davis was nude, with her clothes piled nearby. Perry was clothed, but her underwear was missing. Money remained in their purses, and their suitcases were untouched. Despite an intensive investigation, the case went unsolved.

That era, which Barth vividly depicts, had seen the rise of random murders. In fact, reading how some killers who were suspects in this case crossed the same paths and resided in the same prisons is quite surprising.

Besides Bundy, Barth's list includes Gerald Stano (from whom Bundy might have picked up details when they were on Florida's death row together) and Michigan's "Coed Killer" John Norman Collins. Barth reports on the investigation of Mark Thomas, a notorious white supremacist with ties to domestic terrorist groups, and Ronnie Walden, who tried to hang himself before New Jersey police arrived to question him. A couple of suspects seem more feasible as the killer than Ted Bundy.

Barth points out that Bundy never specifically admitted to these murders, although he confessed to more than 30 others and hinted to a psychologist that he might have been involved. Still, it's not his MO, he denied any connection on his last day alive, and his aunt told Barth he had an alibi for that weekend. He'd certainly visited Ocean City a number of times, and in 1969 was already fantasizing about grabbing young women to rape and kill. In the context of Bundy's known mind games and contradictions, it's hard to definitively land on him as the killer.

Extensive victimology, compassionately rendered, shows more about the girls than some of their relatives realized. They might have picked up a hitchhiker; they'd done it before, and there's a good suspect in this category.

Or perhaps they stopped to help someone who'd laid a trap, or maybe a dirty cop pulled them over. It's even possible, given the mobility of the times, that their killer never made it onto anyone's suspect list. The mystery continues, but Barth provides quite a lot of material for those amateur sleuths who've focused on this double homicide.

Readers will find an abundance of details about each serious investigation, and some will likely be as disturbed as I was that investigators dismissed several suspects simply because they'd passed a polygraph. To be fair, they had many suspects to work through, but some reasons for eliminating certain men seem naïve even for that decade.

Barth ably puts readers into the mindset of a dogged journalist. I especially appreciated his decision to verify information rather than borrow summaries from other true-crime authors. For example, his interviews with people who knew Bundy's grandfather provide a fuller picture of the man who's been too easily blamed for Bundy's warped development. We also get more about Bundy's childhood associations with the New Jersey beaches.

A disappointment is the lack of an index. Its absence hinders this book from serving crime historians, but it's otherwise a compelling and enlightening read. It seems possible that gathering so many facts about this tragic case in one place might inspire someone to come forward with additional facts.  

References

Barth, C. (2020). The Garden State Parkway Murders: A Cold Case Mystery. Wild Blue Press.