South Portland, Maine is your classic New England small town. The historic city is famous for its working waterfront, where fish, like any good New England town, runs the economy. If you were to take a stroll down the waterfront, you’d come into contact with various fishpackers, fishmongers, truckers, buyers, and sellers everywhere you turned.
48-year-old resident Pearl Bruns was one such fishpacker, and a creature of habit. She got her daily lotto, she was a regular at the local VFW, and she frequently spent time with her family. But on August 13th, 1991, after failing to appear at a family event, Pearl’s daughter, Elaine Woodward, reported her missing.
Detective Linda Barker was assigned to the investigation. After talking with Woodward and hearing her concerns, she decided to make a visit to Pearl’s home.
Upon searching the residence, Barker found that Pearl’s personal belongings, such as jewelry and clothing, were all still there, including her beloved Cadillac. There was no evidence that Pearl had gone anywhere.
Untouched personal items weren’t the only thing Barker came across in her investigation. In Pearl’s bedroom was a banged up, partially packed suitcase. Upon closer inspection, Barker spotted blood on the suitcase. She believed that this was high-velocity impact blood spatter consistent with a striking blow to the head.
Continuing her search, Barker found traces of blood in the bathroom, in the hallway, in the kitchen, and leading her outside to the cellar. There she found traces of blood on the cellar steps. She followed them down into the cellar, where she found dirt that had been disturbed.
She called for backup. And backup arrived. With shovels.
Detectives dug and dug, but were unable to recover anything. They had hit a dead end.
Barker, like any good detective, immediately became suspicious of the most likely suspect, her husband, Bill Bruns.
Bill was Pearl’s fourth husband, Pearl his sixth wife. The two met at the VFW and became “lucky in love.” They married and moved in together, but not all was bliss. The two were known to fight about money and Pearl’s drinking.
Bill stated to Barker that he had a fight with Pearl on the night of August 11 when he left to pick up Chinese food. When he returned, he stated that Pearl was gone. He figured that she had gone to the VFW or somewhere. He never reported her missing.
Despite her suspicions, Barker’s superiors gave little focus on Bill as a suspect. Their theory was that Pearl ran off with one of her ex-husbands. Police ran with the theory, and the case ran cold.
It wasn’t until September 28, 1991, that a hiker found Pearl’s purse along a trail in New Hampshire, 200 miles away. Inside was her driver’s license, her pocketbook with cash, and blood spatter. Police now considered Pearl’s case to be a homicide, and they set out to search her home once more.
On the second search, a dog was brought in by deputy medical examiner Edward David, M.D. It wasn’t long before the dog, as trained, laid on a space he believed a body was buried. Once again, police dug. And, once again, nothing was recovered.
Not wanting to let this one slip through, police issued another warrant, this time, using luminol to aid their search. The chemical, once used, revealed a bloodbath. There was blood on the carpet, bloody footprints, and a bloody trail leading to the cellar.
The blood trail stops, in the shape of a body about Pearl’s height.
Bill is brought in by detectives Patrick Lehan and Mike Harriman for an interrogation. They confronted Bill with their knowledge of the blood all over the house, and that they knew he was involved. Bill, however, stuck to his story. He came home, and Pearl was gone.
He didn’t see any blood, he told detectives.
13 months after Pearl’s disappearance, the Bruns residence is searched once more. This time, with a focus on the cellar, and with a new forensic tool: Ground Penetrating Radar. Geophysicist Scott Calkin takes a reading on the Bruns cellar and finds an anomaly. He had found consistent reflectors along the basement floor, except for one blank space.
The blank space on the reading can mean one of two things: a disturbance in the soil, or something buried underneath that’s absorbing the radar energy. Either way, in order to learn what the anomaly was, they’d have to dig.
So, on September 11, 1992, for a third time, police dug for Pearl’s body. After a couple of shovelfuls, police hit an object; a head wrapped in a garbage bag.
On the body was a watch monogrammed with Pearl’s name and shoes Pearl was last seen wearing.
Pearl had been found. She had been struck in the head three times by a fist and bled to death.
The evidence was damning. Detective Lehan went upstairs from the cellar, still smelling the stench of Pearl’s decomposing body, to retrieve Bill.
Bill was sitting at his kitchen table, eating spaghetti when police entered the room.
“You’ll never guess what we found downstairs,” Lehan says to Bill.
“I don’t know. What?” Bill asks, unperturbed.
“We found Pearl. She’s downstairs. Can you believe that?”
“How did she get down there?”
“I haven’t the foggiest. But you know what, you’re under arrest.”
“Murder? That’s a pretty strong word.”
“Bill, that’s a pretty strong smell.”
Bill, unfazed by the still lingering stink of his dead wife’s corpse, insisted on finishing his spaghetti before leaving with the cops. They didn’t grant his request. Instead, they hauled him off to jail and charged him with the murder of his wife.
Police believe that Bill and Pearl were in an argument that became physical. He hit Pearl a few times and knocked her out where she then bled to death. He wrapped her up in plastic bags, dragged her to the cellar, and buried her.
Bill ultimately pleaded guilty to manslaughter and was sentenced to 15 years.
It was later learned, through medical records, that Pearl had been recently diagnosed with terminal cancer and had less than six months to live.