Cigarette butt helps police unmask man who murdered teacher in 1971
A cigarette butt found near the body of a murdered teacher in her apartment nearly 52 years ago has helped police identify a man they say killed her.
Rita Curran was found dead after being strangled at her home in Vermont, Burlington, in July 1971.
The case had remained unsolved but DNA evidence collected from a cigarette butt at the scene has led police to say an upstairs neighbour named William DeRoos killed her within a 70-minute window.
The suspect, who was 31 at the time, is said to have left his apartment for a “cool down walk” after an argument with his wife.
After he returned he told his wife of two weeks not to say that he had been out.
In 2019, Police Detective Lt James Trieb and a team of officers and technicians began working the case as though it had just happened.
The cigarette butt that was found near Ms Curran’s body was a key piece of evidence.
In 2014, previous investigators had sent the butt and other evidence off for DNA analysis.
The test did compile a DNA profile of whoever had smoked the cigarette, but it did not match any samples in DNA databases compiled by law enforcement.
The detectives who picked up the case in 2019 contracted with a DNA testing company and the samples were compared with genetic material submitted to commercial DNA testing companies by members of the public.
In August 2022, Burlington detectives were told the sample, which had been traced through relatives on both sides of DeRoos’s family, was pointing at him, even though he had no DNA profile on record.
Detectives then determined DeRoos and his wife Michelle had been living upstairs at the time of Ms Curran’s death.
They had spoken with investigators after Ms Curran’s death, but at the time they said they had not seen or heard anything.
DeRoos and his wife, who no longer uses the surname, left Vermont shortly after Ms Curran’s death.
Their marriage ended after DeRoos went to Thailand and became a monk.
DeRoos married again after moving back to the United States.
He died of a drug overdose in San Francisco in 1986, police said.
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In a recent interview, DeRoos’s ex-wife, who lived with him in Burlington and now lives in Eugene, Oregon, told investigators she had lied by saying her husband didn’t leave their apartment that night.
Burlington detectives later interviewed a subsequent wife who told them DeRoos was known for sudden outbursts of violence.
Lt Trieb said during a Tuesday morning news conference: “We’re all confident that William DeRoos is responsible for the aggravated murder of Rita Curran, but because he died in a hotel room of a drug overdose he will not be held accountable for his actions, but this case will be closed.”
Ms Curran’s parents died without learning who had killed their daughter, but the victim’s brother and sister attended the event held at Burlington police headquarters.
“I don’t think so much about the guy who did this as I do about Rita, my parents and what they went through,” Ms Curran’s brother Tom said during the event.
“I pray to Rita and I pray to my parents.”