Prosecutors say William Devin Howell killed seven people, burying them all in his "garden" behind a Subway restaurant in New Britain.
William Devin Howell, accused of seven Connecticut murders. Photo via New Britain Police
Something kept calling Chief James Wardwell back to the woods.
In August 2007, a hunter found what appeared to be a human skull discarded in the dense, swampy foliage behind a nondescript shopping plaza in New Britain, Connecticut. The discovery, in a post-industrial city with a large immigrant population, led local police to partial remains belonging to three missing people. "I kept on going back, bringing back our investigators to search again and again," recalls Wardwell, who at the time was running the detective bureau for the New Britain Police Department. "We were never satisfied that all the remains were found."
The New Britain cops did not relent, bringing in a special cadaver dog from the feds last spring. Police systematically excavated the land, going down several feet below the surface across some three-fourths of an acre, and they eventually discovered remains belonging to four more people. Cops, already believing this was the work of a serial killer, put up a $150,000 reward to help find the perp, the largest sum in Connecticut state history for a criminal investigation.
But the state already had its man in custody.
That same week in August 2007, a drifter from Hampton, Virginia, named William Devin Howell was sentenced to 15 years in prison after pleading guilty to manslaughter charges over the death of a 33-year-old woman named Nilsa Arizmendi. Despite the plea, Howell denied responsibility for the death, suggesting he was forced into a deal. At the last minute, in fact, Howell tried, unsuccessfully, to withdraw his guilty plea.
"I offer my sincerest condolences. I know they feel I murdered their daughter. I didn't murder Nilsa," Howell told the judge during the sentencing, according to the New Britain Herald.
Arizmendi's blood was found inside his van, according to police, but the body wasn't discovered until it turned up last spring behind the shopping plaza.
She was last seen getting into a van in July 2003, during a six-month period in which six other people vanished in and around New Britain. It took another decade for cops to put the pieces together, with the other missing dead eventually identified as Melanie Ruth Camilini, Diane Cusack, Marilyn Mendez Gonzalez, Joyvaline Martinez, Mary Jane Menard, and Danny Lee Whistnant. The victims varied in age, but police say all led troubled lives that in some cases were defined by drugs and prostitution. Cops suggested they were most likely lulled in under a ruse by a man promising a quick fix.
For years, police eyed Howell, now 45, for the murders, formally charging him in September. If he is convicted of the six additional killings, Howell will become the state's most prolific serial killer ever, surpassing Michael Ross, who was executed in 2005 for killing eight women: six in Connecticut and two in New York.
It's unclear why Howell would have picked an unremarkable swath of land behind a dance studio and a Subway franchise for his "garden," as he allegedly referred to it in prison. (Wardwell declined to theorize what motivated the killings, citing a pending case.) In 1995, a young woman was found shot in the head in the same wooded spot, but police suggested that case is unrelated to this one. Meanwhile, according to court records, while serving out his initial manslaughter sentence, Howell told an inmate that he dreamed about his seven victims and the plot where they were buried. He also allegedly described himself as a "sick ripper" who had a "monster inside of him that just came out."
A burly man who did odd jobs like cutting grass in New Britain, Howell lived out of a van he allegedly dubbed the "murder mobile."
After killing one of the victims, which he apparently referred to as his "baby," Howell slept next to the body, wrapped in plastic, because, he allegedly said, it was too cold for a burial at that precise moment. According to court records, an inmate claimed Howell admitted to raping his victims, and that during one sex act involving a victim, he discovered the person was a man and killed him. Howell allegedly took a hammer to another victim, cutting off her fingers.
The investigation was made easier when blood and DNA matching the missing were found in Howell's van, a 1985 Ford Econoline, according to Wardwell. Howell faces nine total counts of murder, including capital felony murder charges, though Connecticut has abolished the death penalty; if convicted during trial, the maximum punishment would be life in prison without the possibility of parole.
As Wardwell puts it, "Certainly this has been the biggest investigation in the department's history."
And it might not end at the city limits.
Authorities in Florida recently looked into Howell as a suspect for the unsolved 1991 murder of 21-year-old April Marie Stone, whose body was found off the side of a dirt road outside of Orlando. At the time, Howell, who was living nearby, had recently pleaded guilty to soliciting prostitution after he offered an undercover $15 for oral sex.
Through tears and broken English, Maria Matos sat outside New Britain Superior Court in December as she recalled her daughter, Joyvaline Martinez.
"Very nice... athletic," Matos said. "She liked wrestling and running."
Joy, a standout runner in high school, had apparently fallen into drug problems around the time she disappeared. Her sister Sandra knew something was up when Joy didn't show up to celebrate her own 24th birthday on October 26, 2003, according to the New Britain Herald. (Joy always celebrated with her mother, whose birthday is around the same time.) Sandra last saw her sister about two weeks before that, when she was heading to their mother's to pick up some clothing.
A few years later, when Sandra saw that remains had been found behind that shopping plaza, she reached out to police and told them one of the unidentified corpses might be her sister, the Herald reported. But due to a backed-up state lab, it wasn't until years later, in 2013, that Joy was identified. The night before Howell's arrest, Sandra said she dreamed about her sister, who told her, "It was OK."
Shackled to a chair and appearing via video conference, Howell was courteous and employed a thick Southern drawl during a December court appearance. "The state has to prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt, and in this country, you're innocent until proven guilty," William Paetzold, Howell's defense attorney, told VICE in a brief statement.
This week, Howell will decide whether to pursue a probable cause hearing for the murder charges, a sort of mini-trial where the state must meet a low burden of proof in order to proceed. (Howell's attorney said he doesn't know if his client will waive the hearing.) The case probably won't actually go to trial until sometime in 2018, thanks to what local prosecutor Brian Preleski called "the largest quantity of discovery [evidence] I've ever had" at Howell's last hearing.
For now, there's a "No Trespassing" sign on the wooded property where Howell is said to have buried his secrets. Only the families of the victims are allowed in.
"They searched for their loved ones for so many years," Wardwell says. "We were happy we brought them some closure. It's sad it had to be this final word."
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