It was August 7, 1972. A Jonathan Dayton High school student, 16-year-old Jeannette DePalma, told her mother she was heading out and planned to take a train to a friend’s house. It began to grow later into the night and Jeannette’s mother became worried because her daughter had not called or returned home. As it would turn out, DePalma never made it to her friend’s home that day either. After authorities were alerted, DePalma was listed as a missing person within the Springfield, NJ police department.
On September 19, 1972, a person walking with their dog near Springfield’s Houdaille Quarry discovered DePalma’s body after the dog came running back with a piece of decomposed forearm. At this point in the case the lines begin to blur between fact and fiction. Witnesses who claimed to have seen Jeannette’s body high up on the ridge, referred to by locals as “The Devil’s Teeth,” said that her body was surrounded by various occult or possibly Satanic items.
The nature of these items depends on who you talk to. Some say the body was found in the center of a pentagram and dead animal remains were festooned around the corpse, along with other wild and exaggerated claims that were denied by investigators. The only consistency within the far out claims of the locals was that a coffin-shaped perimeter had been constructed around the body using fallen tree branches and other forest debris, along with several crosses fashioned out of sticks.
The town of Springfield was buzzing with talks of the DePalma case, ruled to be a homicide by local police. Many were quick to believe that paranormal or occult forces were at work and DePalma had been an innocent sacrifice to some evil entity or another.
The autopsy and other publicly known details of the case didn’t help put to rest any of the rumors either. A medical examiner could not determine the exact cause of death for DePalma, but for unknown reasons suspected it to have been the result of strangulation. A toxicology report also showed that a high amount of lead was present in DePalma’s system, but there’s no logical explanation to account for that either.
Two weeks after DePalma’s body was found, local papers added fuel to the rumors by publishing articles confirming her death was a result of black magic and witchcraft. These are copies of the articles both the Sun Star and another local paper published:
The only person to confirm these claims was Rev. James Tate. Law enforcement involved in the investigations declined to comment on the ongoing case.
Through unconfirmed sources it has been alleged that DePalma was close with Rev. James Tate, regularly attending church services and working with him in a program designed to assist drug addicted teens through the First Assemblies of God Church in Elizabeth, NJ. The source further alleges that DePalma once found herself caught in the web of addiction, but had turned to God and her faith to lead her down the right path and later became involved in Tate’s program in order to help other teens struggling with similar problems.
While rumors of a coven of teenage murderers was becoming the commonly accepted explanation for DePalma’s death around town, detectives believed they had found one solid lead in the case. A homeless man was reported to have been camping out within the quarry area where Jeannette’s body had been discovered. Identified only as “Red,” the man was taken in for police questioning, but was later cleared as a suspect.
With no further leads, wild inconsistencies within the stories collected from acquaintances of the DePalmas, and the media sensationalism surrounding her death, the case went cold. The files on DePalma were eventually sealed and many later lost or destroyed by the Springfield Police Department. The case would be long forgotten until sometime in the late 1990s, when the magazine Weird NJ was asked to take a look at the case.
The publication’s editor and co-founder, Mark Moran, discovered a number of suspicious details involved in the investigation of DePalma’s death. Most notably he found it odd that many locals wanted no involvement in the case and many declined to be interviewed, including Springfield’s police department. Those who did agree to comment anonymously confirmed that there was some occult overtones in the case and most believed there to be a cover-up by the local police. Since the case’s reemergence after Weird NJ‘s coverage of the story, several interesting theories have been made on DePalma’s mysterious death.
Some have concluded that Jeannette DePalma’s death may have been the work of a serial killer. Desperate to sweep the evidence under the rug in order to avoid the impact the truth would have on the town, investigators may have hid other details within the case pointing to this theory.
The Hudson Reporter newspaper ran the story on the slaying of two young girls in 1974, roughly the same age of Jeannette DePalma when she had gone missing two years prior. The girls had been beaten, sexually assaulted, and strangled before their bodies were dumped in the wooded area of Montvale, NJ. Pointing out the similarities between the cases, including the facts that Montvale is approximately a 45 minute drive from where DePalma’s body had been discovered, all three bodies were dumped in a wooded area, all 3 had been strangled (at least suspected in DePalma’s case), and to date no killer has been indicated in any of the crimes; it would appear that the cases are somehow related.
The newspaper’s reporter, Art Schwartz, was also able to interview author Jesse P. Pollack who led him to another unsolved murder. This time out of South Orange, NJ, a 24-year-old graduate student at Columbia University was found strangled and left in a ditch after leaving a party located five minutes from her home. However, one inconsistency that remains in the case of this woman, Joan Kramer’s, death is that several days after she went missing a person began calling the Kramer residence asking for ransom money.
While the article does make some interesting correlations between the crimes, they gloss over some pretty key facts that set the cases apart. Kramer’s murder can almost automatically be ruled out in connection to the other cases, as the only details that are consistent with the other crimes are the cause of death and the body being dumped in an open area. DePalma’s body was found with crosses and a coffin-like perimeter surrounding her remains. If these other unsolved cases were the work of a serial killer, one should not be privy to the consideration that the other bodies would be found in a similar fashion, almost like a calling card for the killer. Although there are similar facts surrounding both the DePalma case and the case of the two murdered girls in Montvale, it has never been confirmed nor speculated that there had been any sexual assault involved in the DePalma case.
Rev. James Tate
There have been many who have speculated that the Rev. James Tate, the man who was quick to point to Satanic involvement in DePalma’s death, presided over the DePalma family’s church, and allegedly worked closely with DePalma through a drug rehabilitation program, may have been involved in the murder.
One user on a post regarding the case on the Topix message board writes:
Although Rev. Tate was not employed at the church located near the quarry DePalma’s body was discovered, it this writer’s belief that he should still be considered a person of interest involving this case. His eagerness to immediately run to the media and spout claims of a murderous coven in the area seems highly suspicious, as if he were attempting to detract attention from the real culprits in this tragic murder.
Another user, this time on a post in the /r/UnresolvedMysteries subreddit, also believes Rev. Tate should be considered a person of interest. The poster shares this information regarding topics discussed in an interview with the author of an upcoming novel covering the case:
Perhaps Rev. Tate seemed so “spooked” by the author’s interview because he knew more than he was letting on about the crime?
In addition to the two widely accepted theories among those interested in the case, other theories have also emerged involving the possibilities of either a drug overdose, based on the allegations that DePalma had prior involvement with drugs, and suicide. With the damage or destruction of the police files regarding the case, sadly, we may never know what actually happened to Jeannette DePalma.
While much of this story is based on nothing more than rumors and the speculations of amateur internet detectives, the take away is that somewhere right now someone knows what happened that day to Jeanette DePalma. Whether it was a serial killer, Rev. Tate, the Springfield police department, a friend, or a neighbor that killed DePalma, there’s information about this case that is being withheld. It is for that reason, and for that reason alone, that the tragic murder of a 16-year-old girl will never truly find closure.