“I can still picture it in my mind all these years later, that moment when they opened the curtain,” said Nancy Pryor. “When I saw the body, she had been gone a couple of days and had been beaten. They only showed me her face and my first reaction was, ‘That’s not her.’ But having seen her jewelry and in those few minutes they give you, I did realize it was her.”
Nancy was 19 years old when she was called upon to identify the body of her younger sister Mary Ann, age 17 when she was murdered along with her friend Lorraine Kelly, 16. The year was 1974, and the killer has still not been identified.
After the Hudson Reporter ran an article on the murders last month, the paper was contacted by Nancy Pryor and by Jesse Pollack, a New Jersey author who has researched the murder for an upcoming book. Each had thoughts on what may have taken place 41 years ago.
The girls disappear
“I was home with her that day,” said Nancy. “My parents were out and she said she was going to the mall with Lorraine, I think around 2 or so, early afternoon. She said she’d be home in a couple of hours. No big deal. We took the bus to the mall hundreds of times. We could get the bus right up the street to the Garden State Plaza.”
Nancy went out later that day and returned to her home on Second Avenue around 10 p.m. to find her mother frantic. Mary Ann hadn’t come home. “We were good kids. We had to be home at a certain time. We had to call if we were going to be five minutes late.”
“These killings only happen when he’s out of the hospital. When he was in, the killings stopped.” –Jesse Pollack
“A few days later, the way we heard it was on the radio,” she recalled. “We had the news on constantly. We were sitting in the kitchen and they said on the radio two bodies were found, two girls, and we said, ‘That can’t be.’ Then shortly after, a knock came at the door.”
The bodies of Mary Ann and Lorraine were found on Aug. 14, five days after they disappeared, in Montvale, New Jersey, in a wooded region behind Rolling Ridge Road. The bodies were badly decomposed and showed signs of having been beaten, sexually assaulted, and strangled. Nancy recognized the gold necklace her sister wore bearing a small cross.
The incident shook up the town. Stories in the papers incorrectly referred to the girls as runaways. Police theorized they had been picked up hitchhiking and murdered by the driver, and a strict ban on hitchhiking was instituted.
“The police really had nothing to go on, so they kept saying hitchhiking,” said Nancy. “It made it look like [the police] were doing something. I can only speak for my sister. She was afraid to hitchhike. My sister was cautious. I don’t think they were hitching. It never sat right with me.”
Nancy has her own thoughts on what might have transpired on Aug. 9, 1974. “My theory is someone came along that Lorraine knew from her brother or sister and she said, ‘It’s okay, I know this person,’ and they offered them a ride and reluctantly my sister went along.”
Despite reports at the time that the two murdered girls were best friends, Nancy said otherwise. Lorraine was more of an acquaintance, a “backup friend,” whom Mary Ann called upon while her best friend Diane was away and Mary Ann wanted to go to the mall.
“I never really took to her like Mary Ann’s other friends,” said Nancy. “I just never could get close to Lorraine. She lived with a sister and a brother, older.” They three Kelly siblings lived alone in a house on 71st Street. Their parents were both deceased.
“Lorraine knew a lot of people. She worked for the town, knew the mayor,” said Nancy. “If someone came along and said, ‘You want a ride?’ Lorraine would say, ‘Okay, let’s go.’ It was somebody known to one or both of them.”
Nancy felt stonewalled over the years, unable to get straight information from the local authorities. Files were supposedly lost. Her photos of her sister were taken by detectives and never returned. She began to feel there was more to the story that she was not being told. Was it possible that someone politically connected was involved in the murders and it was being covered up?
“I believe there was more than one person involved in this,” she said. “North Bergen back then was very corrupt, everybody kept going to jail in town hall.”
Now widowed and living in South Jersey, Nancy still follows up periodically with the prosecutor’s office in Bergen County, where the bodies were found, to see if there are any developments. Earlier this month she was told by a new detective that it is still an active, open case and the file is sitting right in his office.
“The answers are in North Bergen, something political,” Nancy said. “I have no proof, but this is just my feeling from everything I learned.”
Jesse Pollack, 27, thinks otherwise. Growing up in Union County, he was fascinated by the Sept. 1972 murder of Jeanette DePalma, found in a remote section of the Houdaille Quarry in Springfield.
“She was found on this cliff inside the quarry that got this weird nickname of ‘The Devil’s Teeth’ because they would dump the waste rock there and the locals would say, ‘This looks like an inverted skull.’”
The body was found face-down and badly decomposed. Death was likely from strangulation. The killer was not identified.
Intrigued by the case – and spurred on by a number of anonymous letters sent to Weird N.J. magazine, for which he has written for more than 10 years, suggesting links to black magic, witchcraft, and Satanism – Pollack and co-writer Mark Moran began researching and discovered curious parallels to other unsolved murders from the same time period.
“We got a tip from a relative of one of these other victims,” he recalled. “They said you’d better take a look at this because the M.O.s are very similar.”
First they came across the death of Joan Kramer of South Orange, found in late August 1972, strangled and left face-down in a wooded area. Then they heard about the Pryor and Kelly murders in 1974.
“All were young, attractive brunettes with the same hairstyle, long straight, shoulder length, parted in middle,” he said. “All were between 16 and 24, average height, all thin, Caucasian, all supposedly picked up hitchhiking. All were killed by obstruction to the airway, all found dead arranged face down in wooded area. All had something taken as a souvenir.”
And there was more to link the deaths. “They were never buried. That’s his ritual. Other serial killers you find the bodies are concealed, but with this one these bodies are left out to be found. These bodies are positioned with things around them, things in them, things taken from them. He is leaving a message. He wants these girls to be found.”
Pollack pointed out that the local police departments at the time were not well coordinated with one another, so murders even in neighboring towns might not be recognized as related.
“The term ‘serial killer’ was not even coined yet,” he said. “They were called ‘mass murderers.’”
And he believes it was a serial killer that murdered Mary Ann Pryor and Lorraine Kelly.
“It’s not very often you hear about a serial killer picking up two victims at once,” he admitted. “Ted Bundy killed two girls in one day but didn’t pick them up at the same time. But it’s definitely possible that one person, especially a big person with a gun, could easily subdue girls who were a foot shorter and weighed a fraction of what he did. Whoever killed them took them to a different location and did whatever he did over the course of a couple of days.”
In fact, Pollack has a theory about who the killer might be. He has identified an individual who was charged with a murder at the time and acquitted. Pollack alleges that the trial was undermined by a lying witness and the suspect was not only guilty of that crime, but the other similar murders and possibly even an earlier strangulation murder in 1966.
Pollack and Moran have written a book, “Death on the Devil’s Teeth,” naming their suspect and describing their theory, complete with extensive details about the crimes. The book will be available soon from The History Press.
“Either one person committed all these crimes,” he concluded, “or the other option, which is a lot scarier, is that you have multiple killers operating in the same area at the same time with the same M.O.”
Art Schwartz may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.