Brenda Jean LaCombe (19) went missing on May 16, 1982 from Lowell, Massachusetts. Around 1245am on May 16, she left her grandmother’s house in the Francis Gatehouse Mill Apartment Complex, Lowell, Mass.
On June 4, 1982, a jogger found her remains behind a stone wall on the side of Littleton County road off Interstate 495 in Harvard, Mass.
As her body was decomposed, Brenda was identified by her dental records. She had been badly beaten. Her body was partially naked.
Due to the decomposition, the official cause of death was never established but her death was ruled unnatural. Nobody was ever arrested in her murder. At the time of her death, DNA was in its infancy. This is the Case of the Month for October 2019.
Brenda Jean LaCombe was the mother of Wayne Matthew LaCombe who was 8 or 9 months old when he lost her. Brenda’s family and friends knew immediately that something was wrong. Brenda would never leave baby Matthew alone. Her sister Barbara Kearns is quoted in the papers stating that Brenda “would have called first.”
Baby Matthew had an appointment the next day. I have not found what kind of appointment but I suspect it was a well-baby check-up. As Brenda didn’t show up, the family was contacted. I am not sure who exactly reported her missing and how Matthew’s legal guardianship was later resolved as his father isn’t mentioned in the papers.
Kearns told various newspapers that Brenda left her grandmother’s and had plans to stop by her boyfriend who lived close by. In the papers I read that he is either an ex-boyfriend or he was her boyfriend. Anyway, he told police that she never showed up. Was he eliminated as a suspect? Not accusing but merely ticking off the checklist.
According to her family, Brenda had no obvious reasons to be in or near Harvard. Police thought that her remains had been out there for three weeks or longer. Her clothes had been shredded and her remains were scattered. All this was most likely done by animals. I have not found any information about traces or items found at the crime scene. Hopefully all her clothes were properly preserved so we can check them for DNA with the M-Vac. Did she carry a purse?
At grandma’s place
How and at what time Brenda ended up at her grandmother’s is confusing. Some articles just said that she was there, others mention that on May 15, 1982, Brenda abruptly ended a double date. The only other person known in the public domain of that foursome is her sister but it isn’t clear which one. Why Brenda wanted to leave that double date isn’t clear either.
According to the papers, the others in that double date dropped her off at her grandmother’s apartment. However, in another paper it says that “on the day she disappeared, LaCombe was supposed to go on a double date with her sister, who was in a scandalous affair with a married man. Instead of going to the drive-in, LaCombe asked to be dropped off at The Francis Gatehouse Elderly Housing Project on Moody Street in Lowell where she spent the evening with her grandmother, Lillian McAneney.” Lillian P McAneney (born Dec 17, 1902) passed away in 1987.
Why does it matter whether she ended a double date or was supposed to go? The timeline is off.
If she didn’t want to go to the drive-in in the first place she could have ended up at her grandmother’s apartment at another time than if she abruptly ended a double date already in progress. So at what time exactly did Brenda arrive at grandma’s? Did anyone see her being dropped off and walking inside? Are all the people from the double date cleared as suspects?
The papers say that Brenda and her grandmother played cards and enjoyed each other’s company. Around 1230 am, Brenda received several phone calls. That is key to the investigation.
Who called Brenda? How did they know that she was at her grandmother’s? How did they have the grandmother’s phone number? What was discussed? I have not been able to find any statements from the grandmother so I don’t know if she overheard Brenda say anything at all. But Brenda left her grandma around 1245am on May 16, 1982 and was never seen again. I assume that the grandmother’s phone records have been checked.
According to the papers, Brenda left around 1245am supposedly to see her ex-boyfriend (in some papers he is not an ex but the boyfriend as mentioned above) who lived in Lowell. Did he live in walking distance to grandma? Was there a bus stop? Did he pick her up? There are no details in the papers explaining this angle. There’s just the mention that he claimed that she never showed up at his place.
Widening circles of potential suspects
Brenda is described as an energetic, caring person who loved to party. There were rumors that she used illegal drugs, was involved in prostitution, and may have been a topless dancer at a strip club. The only reason why I mention these rumors is to show that there are various networks to investigate as the person Brenda spoke to on the phone may not have been a friend but a casual acquaintance.
Kearns said that Brenda “was rumored to be a topless dancer at a local bar and had been arrested for drugs and prostitution.” This again shows the widening circles of suspect pools.
The authorities think that after Brenda left her grandmother’s apartment on Moody Street, Lowell, she could have met someone (maybe the person who called), could have been hitchhiking, maybe accepted a ride from someone she knew or, that she could have been abducted. Police have reason to believe that Brenda was murdered outside of Lowell.
I found in the public domain the remarks that a few months before Brenda died, she and an unidentified friend witnessed a possible arson. At the time, there were a few arson cases on West Third Street in Lowell. Understandably, authorities would be keen to learn more and were eager to hear from witnesses. Brenda apparently had told her family that she felt pressured by police who wanted her to testify. If this is all true, it opens up another circle of potential people to consider as suspects.
As DNA was in its infancy at the time that Brenda’s remains were found, her family wishes to exhume her body, examine it, and possibly retrieve DNA. They hope of course for DNA that will find a match in CODIS or that through familial DNA a (partial) match can be found.
Her family believes that Brenda was kidnapped, raped, and then murdered. If she fought with her assailant she may have his tissue under her fingernails however, that tissue may have deteriorated now.
Brenda’s clothes are crucial here. If we examine her clothes we might be able to find touch DNA. The investigation is hindered by loss of reports. Kearns “was told that some of the police files were apparently lost.”
Kearns has been actively supporting other murder victim families with unsolved cases. The idea to exhume Brenda Jean LaCombe for DNA testing came from the Theresa Corley case. In the Corley case, her family raised money for the exhumation. The Norfolk County District Attorney’s Office paid for the lab. The test results in that case are still pending.
At the time of writing, Kearns said in the papers that she has not received a reaction from the DA’s office. Her own research has led to new leads, she says, but wisely declines to elaborate so she doesn’t hinder the investigation. If you wish to support Brenda’s family check here.
A friend of LaCombe’s, Judith Ann Chartier (Aug 12, 1964 – missing June 5, 1982) disappeared June 5, 1982. She was at a party in Bilerica, Mass. Judith (17) was last seen driving a dark purple 1970’s model Dodge Dart. Neither Judith nor her car were ever found. Kearns believes that this is not a coincidence. However, there is no evidence that the cases are connected but it cannot be ruled out either. Chartier’s case remains unsolved.
Brenda’s case crossed county lines. It stared in Lowell, Middlesex County, but the ultimate crime scene was in Harvard, Worcester County. Therefore, the Worcester County District Attorney’s Office leads the investigation. If you have any information about Brenda Jean LaCombe and her case please call the Worcester County DA’s office at (508) 755-8601.
In the series “Case of the Month” I highlight old cold cases. These posts are not an in-depth analysis and of course, often more information can be found online and in newspaper archives.
The goal of these posts is to get the cases back in the spotlights, to get people talking again, and if anything to make sure that we do not forget the victims. Just because their cases are unsolved does not mean that we can forget about them.
If you have any thoughts about this case I encourage you to post them on your own social media platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, etc. Every time that we mention Brenda Jean LaCombe’s name online we enhance her digital footprint.
We must make sure that she keeps her web presence if we ever wish to find answers in her case. You can help by linking to or sharing this post.
Thank you for remembering Brenda Jean LaCombe with us.