Cold Case File – Who Really Killed Bernice Martin and Why

Bernice Martin

On March 8, 1987, fire fighters were called to the Mayfair Gardens Elderly Housing Complex, Manchester, Connecticut. They found Mrs. Bernice Martin, 88 years old, barely breathing, and badly beaten. She died later that evening in the hospital.

To many the case is closed. Convicted for her murder is her granddaughter’s former husband, Richard A. Lapointe. To others, Richard Lapointe is innocent and wrongfully convicted. It is the opinion of the writer, that this mentally retarded man with Dandy Walker Syndrome was set up by police. He has been incarcerated now for more than 20 years.

A New Trial

On March 25, 2009, the Connecticut Appellate Court finally granted Lapointe a new trial.

The Connecticut Appellate Court found that the lower court erred in dismissing Lapointe’s claims. For example, a pubic hair, found on the victim’s sweater, was never tested for DNA while criminalistics reports indicated that the pubic hair did not belong to either Mrs. Martin or Lapointe. The defense team fought for years to get gloves found at the crime scene tested for DNA. The results do not match Lapointe’s DNA. Moreover, the victim’s head hair was found on the gloves. Finally, Lapointe’s confessions contradict both the crime scene and the autopsy.

Let’s Start At The Beginning

Let us go back to that evening in March 1987. Nathalie Howard, the daughter of Bernice Martin, tried to reach her mother by phone but there was no answer. She decided to call Karen, her niece and, at that time, wife to Richard Lapointe. Karen sent Richard to check on her grandmother, Bernice Martin.

When Richard arrived at Mrs. Martin’s apartment, he found the apartment completely dark. The door was warm and since he did not know what to do, he went to one of the neighbors he knew, Mrs. Jeannette King. There, he called Karen.

Shortly after 8:00 pm, while Lapointe was on the phone with Karen, Mrs. Paulette DeRocco drove down North Main Street by the Mayfair Gardens Elderly Housing Complex when a man coming from the driveway leading to the senior housing complex, ran directly in front of her car. She almost struck him and swerved to avoid hitting him.

Her Statement Verbatim:

I almost struck this man when he ran out in front of me. I had a red light at the intersections of North Main and Main Streets so I stopped. I then saw this man continue to run southeast and ran behind a brick building, 150 No. Main St. That driveway that this man had come from was the same one I saw the State Police Crime Van parked at the very next day on my way to work. When I swerved to miss this man with my car he never even looked up or turned around.

This man was a white male about 35-40 years old, about 5’10-5’11, black hair that was straight and looked a mess, like he needed a haircut. Med build not fat or skinny. He was wearing navy blue pants (dark), a chamois type shirt that had the tails hanging out which was dark navy blue, long-sleeved, black shoes not sneakers, and I didn’t see him carrying anything in his hands. I saw his face from the side and I don’t recall any facial hair.”

The jury was never made aware of this evidence and police did not follow-up on this information! 

Meanwhile, Karen sent Richard back to the apartment. The fact that the apartment was dark sounded strange to Karen since her grandma is “a night owl.” Back in front of Mrs. Martin’s apartment door, Richard now noticed smoke. He went back to Mrs. King and there he called 911. He waited with Mrs. King for the fire department to arrive. Richard’s 911 call was logged in at 8:27 pm. All that time he was in full view of Mrs. King and he did not have the family dog with him. Remember this!

The Crime Scene

The fire department found the front door locked but the glass sliding door in the back was open. The curtain that should have been on the sliding door was on the floor. A pried open latch on the rear screen door was clearly the point of entry. Bernice Martin was lying near the entrance of the bedroom, naked, except for some shredded clothing on her upper body. There was a piece of red fabric tied to a piece of bluish gray fabric tightly knotted with Boy Scout knots around her neck and arms. She had 10 less severe stab wounds in the back, and 1 three-inch deep stab wound in the abdomen.

All Mrs. Martin’s wounds were suffered premortem, i.e., while she was still alive. During the autopsy, the medical examiner concluded that Bernice Martin had been strangled with a blunt object. There was also evidence of sexual assault; however, a blunt object caused the vaginal trauma. No semen was found in her body. The blunt weapon was never found. It could have been a household item that has always been overlooked.

The assault had started in the bedroom. Semen and blood were found on the bed. A knife blade was found in the bedding. It later tested negative for blood. What may have been a charred handle of the knife was found in the living room. It also tested negative for blood. However, it was never conclusively established whether the knife blade was part of the murder weapon or not.

A pair of men’s gloves was found in the bedroom. The left glove was found on the left side of the bed above the bloodstain. The right glove was found to the left of the bed on the floor. The gloves did not to belong to Lapointe. They are obviously too big for him and they did not belong to Bernice Martin either.

The attacker had set several fires. One was set on the living room couch, one near the refrigerator door handle, and one near a kitchen drawer handle. Unfortunately, no fingerprints were found. Police did take a partial print from the handle of the glass sliding door of a neighboring apartment, where someone had cut the screen door the night before.

The Investigation

The Manchester Police, led by Detective Michael Ludlow, rounded up about 38 suspects but they failed to solve the crime. Forensic test results on the blood and semen samples were inconclusive. The case was dormant until in June 1989, Detective Paul Lombardo was assigned to review the case. The Bernice Martin murder was only his second homicide investigation. He had been a detective for less than two years.

Det. Lombardo immediately focused on Richard Lapointe. Police had interviewed Lapointe in 1987 since he had discovered the fire and called 911. Lombardo asked Lapointe to provide a saliva sample for comparisons. Lapointe cooperated without understanding exactly why. He was under the impression that he was helping the police.

On July 4, 1989, Lapointe went to police headquarters as requested. There, he waived his Miranda Rights and was accused of murdering Bernice Martin. Without legal counsel, Detectives Paul Lombardo and others interrogated this retarded man for 9½ hours. There are no electronic recordings of these 9½ hours. We do have notes made by police during these hours.

To make sure they would get results, police had fabricated props. The interrogation took place in a room called the Bernice Martin Homicide Task Force room.

The room was filled with charts, posters with make-believe DNA schedules, genetic markers and RH factors, crime scene pictures, and among the names of the detectives listed as working on the case, were Gannon & Friday, from the television series “Dragnet.”

After 9½ exhausting hours without a lawyer, Lapointe signed three confessions. He was then free to go although police had accused him of murder.

“While Lapointe was questioned at headquarters, Det. Morrissey, secretly wearing a wire, questioned his wife Karen. The wiretap recording was kept hidden from the defense.”

Karen Lapointe has cerebral palsy with limited intellectual capacities. She later told the defense that they threatened to take their son Sean away from her, if she did not cooperate.

The tape proved later on that Det. Morrissey lied to Karen. He said that police had DNA to prove Lapointe’s guilt. He had also claimed that Lapointe had cut his hand while in the apartment, that Mrs. Martin’s neighbors had heard screams, and had seen Lapointe carrying something inside the apartment. The recording confirms that the detective threatened she would lose her son if she did not give in.

The Props

Karen did not give in and to this day, despite a divorce from Richard, stands by her statement.

On July 5, 1989, Lapointe was arrested for the murder of Bernice Martin. Unable to post $500,000 bond, he is jailed. He has been behind bars ever since.

Let us now look at the confessions that sealed Lapointe’s conviction.

The Confessions
Confession I (signed)

On March 8, 1987, I was responsible for Bernice Martin’s death and it was an accident. My mind went blank.

Confession II (signed)

I, Richard A. Lapointe, do hereby give the following statement to Detective Paul R. Lombardo of my own free will, free of any threats or promises; that on March 8, 1987, I went to visit Bernice Martin with my wife and son. We left the apartment in the late afternoon and went home. I left my home sometime after that to take the dog for a walk. I was at Bernice’s apartment with the dog. (Note that police did not find his dog there).

We were both there together and the time was right. I probably made a pass at her and she said no. So I hit her and I strangled herIf the evidence shows I was there, and that I killed her, then I killed her, but I don’t remember being there. I made a pass at Bernice because she was a nice person and I thought that I could get somewhere with her. She was like a grandmother to me that I never had.

Confession III (signed)

After being home awhile I left to walk the dog. I then walked back up to Bernice’s apartment (Remember that the police found Lapointe at King’s without a dog. They did not find a dog inside Mrs. Martin’s apartment or anywhere else) and she invited me in. We each had a cup of coffee, I think Bernice had tea and I sat on the couch. I remember having my matches and my smoking pipe in my jacket pocket.

After my coffee I went into the bathroom. When I came out Bernice was in the bedroom combing her hair. She was wearing a pink house coat type of outer wear with no bra. (Police did not find a pink house coat at the crime scene). I could see her breasts when she bent over. (Mrs. Martin was 88, known for her modesty, and was always properly dressed). I grabbed her with my hand around her waist area. When I did that she pushed me. I threw her on the bed and took off her underwear because I wanted to have intercourse with her (Mrs. Martin was wearing a blouse that was cut open!). I got my penis inside her for a few strokes and then pulled out and masturbated (Mrs. Martin was raped with a blunt object). I did cum on the bed spread when I was finished. I had already thrown her underwear on the right side of the bed (So after two years, he remembers this detail, or maybe he was coached or shown a crime scene photo?).

After the sex she said she was going to tell my wife Karen. I then went to the kitchen and got a steak knife with a hard plastic brown handle and stabbed Bernice in the stomach while she was laying on the couch. (There was no forensic evidence she was stabbed while on the couch. She was stabbed on the bed). The rest of the incident I do not recall although I admit to having strangled her. (He left out the three fires he supposedly set. Lapointe later explained that he strangled Mrs. Martin with his bare hands. The coroner’s report however, stated that Mrs. Martin suffered a compression strangulation caused by pressure with a blunt object to the right side of her neck. There were no contusions on the opposite sides of the neck to support manual strangulation. The police never checked the apartment for blunt objects that could have been used to either rape and/or strangle Bernice Martin.)

Confession IV (Not signed, text was found in Det. Lombardo’s notebook)

I probably made a pass at her and she said no. So I probably hit her. And I strangled her. If all the evidence shows I was there then it was me that did it. We were both there and the time was right. I went home to eat and Aunt Nat called then I went back to the house.

1: Ineffective Assistance of Counsel

Lapointe’s previous legal representation was ineffective in the sense that mistakes were made that led to Lapointe’s conviction.

His former attorneys never raised the issue that the prosecution did not disclose all evidence to them. Years later, when exculpatory evidence surfaced, they still did not raise the issue on appeal. The suppression by the prosecution of evidence favorable to an accused violates the right to due process where the evidence is material either to guilt or to punishment, irrespective of good or bad faith of the prosecution. (Brady v. Maryland, 373 US 83 (1963).

For example, the state did not disclose that Det. Ludlow’s notes held a statement about the duration of the fire “30-40 mins poss,” a period that would place Lapointe at home! Forensic pathologist Howard C. Adelman testified that he thought Bernice Martin died about 30 minutes before being discovered by the fire department. Again, if this is true, this places Lapointe at home thus confirming his alibi and Karen’s testimony. During cross-examination, Adelman acknowledged that he could not be sure of the burn time. However, the “burn time” should have been examined thoroughly, because it would decide whether Lapointe’s alibi holds.

In addition, on December 31, 1989, the prosecution finally handed over to the defense Det. Lombardo’s notebook. This notebook contained extensive notes taken during the 9½ hours of unrecorded interrogation. The prosecution had the duty to disclose this at the time of the trial. Lapointe’s attorneys did not raise this issue during appeals.

Mrs. Paulette DeRocco gave a statement to the police that should have been checked. The behaviour of the man she almost hit is suspicious. Why police never bothered to look into this, we do not know. We do know, that this was not questioned by Lapointe’s previous sets of lawyers. They never confronted police about their way of handling the investigation and the interrogation.

Last, his former trial lawyers allowed Lapointe to take the stand despite the fact that they knew he would get confused while testifying, would contradict himself, and that his confusion could be seen as denial or lying.

2: Forensic Evidence

There is no forensic evidence that ties Lapointe to the crime scene. Blood and semen that were found at the scene were tested for blood type, but no DNA test was done; therefore, the results will remain inconclusive. The blood group found matched Lapointe’s, but about 30% of the adult male population has blood type A. Tests done on the gloves that were found in the apartment found traces of DNA, but the DNA does not match Lapointe’s. The gloves contain the DNA of at least two people mixed together.

In 2007, Judge Fuger denied a motion to introduce these DNA results as evidence, stating, “It is too late in the hearings to introduce evidence that could support innocence.” He refused to look at the DNA reports favorable to Lapointe.

After just three days of testimony, he abruptly announced that he had heard enough. Three of the 16 pages of his ruling denying Lapointe a new trial, complain about Lapointe’s current attorneys wasting the court’s time. Their petition was “exceeding in extraneous detail yet lacking in key substance.” The Connecticut Appellate Court has now overturned this ruling.

3: Police Misconduct

As mentioned before, Paulette DeRocco’s testimony was never checked or investigated. Interestingly enough, a man who looked like her description was later found.


Police had fabricated props, and even listed Detectives Gannon & Friday, from the television series “Dragnet” on the task force list. The ordinary person would burst out with laughter at the sight of the names of the Dragnet Cops but to Lapointe, this was dead serious.

The way the props were set up suggests that the officers knew what the effect would be on Lapointe. It was intentionally made this way to persuade someone of his limited intelligence. They knew authority would intimidate him due to his character and his condition.

Det. Morrissey questioned Karen Lapointe while secretly wearing a wire. The wiretap and the recording were kept from the defense. Now years later, the defense plays the tape recordings to prove police misconduct that has not been brought up on appeal either.

Det. Morrissey told Karen Lapointe that the police had DNA evidence that would tie Richard to the crime scene, while in fact, they had none, but with the threat, they tried to elicit information from her.

Karen Lapointe stands by the statements she gave and by her ex-husband’s innocence. The statements she gave were taped, and on the tape, you can hear Karen being threatened and intimidated by police. On the tape, Karen is accused of withholding information and sounds increasingly distressed, as she cries she is not withholding evidence. Det. Morrissey can be heard claiming that “the case has come to a conclusion” and that “Lapointe had confessed.”

4: False Confessions and Mental Retardation

There are three psychologically different types of false confessions:

Voluntary false confessions the suspect confesses falsely without any police pressure.
Coerced-compliant false confessions the suspect confesses falsely due to coercive pressure during interrogations. The retraction starts as soon as the pressure is over.
Coerced-internalized false confessions during police interrogations, the suspect starts to believe they committed the crimes they are accused of, even though they have no actual memory of the event itself. The retraction only comes after the suspect is convinced again that they are innocent. This process may take years. This “memory distrust syndrome” starts with a suspect distrusting his or her own memory. They then start to rely on external sources of information.

According to Prof. Richard Ofshe, the primary mechanism is to induce sufficient self-doubt and confusion in a suspect’s mind and memory. The interrogator convinces the suspect that there is evidence he committed the crime, even though he has no recollection, and that there is a valid reason he cannot remember committing the crime!

How does this work?

A The interrogator keeps stating confidently that he believes the suspect is guilty.
B The suspect is isolated from people who can contradict or undermine the police’s opinion and such information is kept from the suspect.
C The interrogation is very long and emotionally draining.
D interrogator keeps repeating there is sufficient scientific evidence of guilt.
E The suspect is constantly reminded of his lack of memory and blackouts to undermine his confidence.
F The interrogator insists the suspect has to accept responsibility for their actions even though they have no recollections.
G The interrogator attempts to induce fear in the suspect’s mind about the potential consequences of repeated denials.

Other factors influencing the suspect could be a general trust in authority, a lack of self-confidence, or a heightened suggestibility.

When asked years later why he signed three confessions, Lapointe stated he signed so he could use the bathroom. Detectives also threatened that if he did not cooperate, he and his wife would be put in jail and “your son could be put on the – a ward of the state” Also, the prison psychologist at Somers said that Lapointe is very sensitive to authority. He would believe anything they tell him and would confess to anything.

Now combine this pressure with mental retardation.

The American Association on Mental Retardation’s 1992 definition on mental retardation is as follows: Significant sub average intellectual functioning existing concurrently with related limitations in two or more of the following applicable adaptive skill areas: communications, self-care, home living, social skills, community use, self-direction, health and safety, functional academics, leisure, and work. Mental retardation manifests before age eighteen.”

While we are on the subject, let us compare mental retardation with legal insanity since many people confuse the two.

Legal insanity is a mental illness that negates a person’s legal responsibilities or capacities. People with a mental illness experience interferences in their thinking processes and their emotional state of mind. Examples of mental illness are schizophrenia, depression, psychoses, post-traumatic stress disorders, etc.

Mental retardation is not an illness but a developmental disability resulting in limited cognitive and intellectual functioning that affects other aspects in the person’s development. People with mental retardation have limited capacities to learn. Retardation refers to a slow and/or limited intellectual and/or emotional development, combined with a low IQ. Retardation is a mitigating circumstance since both capacity and culpability are affected. Yet it could turn out to be an aggravating circumstance when jurors perceive the retardation as a risk/continuing threat to the community.

There are four levels of retardation:

Level:                                                   IQ:

mild                                                     50 – 55 to approx. 70

moderate                                            35 – 40 to approx. 50 – 55

severe                                                  20 – 25 to 35 – 40

profound                                            Below 20 or 25

At trial, the defendant must make a prima facie case of retardation. He needs to proof that the IQ test is below 70 and must show the qualified examiner’s testimony of retardation. Also, the retardation must have occurred before the age of 18 (date of onset). If the defendant is older than 18, the defense must show the retardation existed before the age of 18. The defense does not have to proof the cause of the retardation. After that, the burden shifts to the prosecution to refute this. However, unless the prosecution can prove the test false and the examiner unqualified, refuting the above is difficult but it can be done.

Who could have killed Mrs. Bernice Martin?

Three days after Bernice Martin’s murder, police arrested Frederick Rodney Merrill for sexually assaulting a 55-year-old woman, less than three miles away from Mrs. Martin’s apartment. Merrill had also been seen in a local pub near Mrs. Martin’s apartment complex. While Merrill was in jail for the assault on the 55-year-old woman, police tried to connect him to Mrs. Martin’s murder. Before they could, he escaped, and hid in a mill near Shakers Pines, Enfield, a town in Northern Connecticut near the Massachusetts border. He was caught but in August 1989, Merrill escaped again, this time from the maximum-security section of Somers Prison. He was found in Canada and jailed in Toronto for nine crimes, including sexual assaults. He escaped again, was recaptured, and was last incarcerated in the Canadian Federal Prison, in Quebec.

Merrill’s nickname is the Peanut Butter Bandit. He had once broken out of jail with a gun smuggled inside in a peanut butter jar, courtesy of his mother. Merrill is a career criminal with a history of burglaries, robberies, four prison escapes, and sexual assault charges. He was not only seen at the local pub the weekend Bernice Martin was murdered. He fits the description Paulette DeRocco gave to police.

Police dropped Merrill from the suspect list because of his blood type. The blood found at the scene was blood type A. Merrill’s is AB. However, it is not clear whether Merrill’s DNA has been compared to the two DNA strands that were found in the gloves. Considering that he fits the description Mrs. DeRocco gave police, a piece of information they never followed up on, and the DNA strands have not been identified yet, it might be a good idea to compare them to Merrill’s. Another question is why these two strands have not been run through the FBI’s DNA Database yet!


Whoever raped and murdered Bernice Martin was a raging, strong, and violent man. Lapointe is known for not being violent or strong at all. Whoever committed the crime set fire to places he touched. Lapointe is clumsy and not very intelligent. Would he have had the sense to remember all the places he touched?

The timeline the police wishes us to believe gives Lapointe 30 to 45 minutes to walk the family dog, take a 10 minute walk to Mrs. Martin’s apartment, drink coffee, rape her, bind her, stab her, set fire to the apartment, walk back in another 10 minutes, and sit and watch TV in the same clothes without Karen noticing any sweat or stains. Do you think this is possible?


Dandy-Walker Syndrome occurs with approx. 1 out of 25’000 babies. The majority is diagnosed within the first year. The baby’s head will be big and bulging with a soft spot. Normally, the skull of a baby closes around the age of five. If a cyst blocking normal closure applies pressure, the moving parts will deform. The baby will have weak neck muscles, poor head control, and spasticity. Older children will have difficulties walking or they have poor coordination. Seizures and delays in intellectual development are common.

A cystic enlargement of this area complicates a malfunctioning of the brain involving the maldevelopment of the cerebellum (hindbrain). The cyst lifts up, displaces the back part of the brain, and causes an internal obstruction of the normal flow of brain fluids. The patient has an abnormally developed brain, affecting amongst others the nervous system. Other malformations are cleft lips, cleft palates, cardiac malformation, orthopedic and respiratory problems, and urinary structural abnormalities.

Dandy-Walker syndrome is surgically treatable. It requires a shunt or bypass to insert a continuous drainage of the blocked fluids. However, the ordinary malformations of the brain cannot be corrected. These patients will always have problems with their coordination and balance. They have problems learning and will need special education.

Richard Lapointe has all the above-mentioned problems. He has a large head, is short, and weak. He was 15 when he was first operated but by then the damage was already done, irreparably. He had four operations. He never had special education or treatment. Lapointe now has the reading level of an elementary school child. He is hard of hearing in both ears, wears thick glasses, and is constantly dizzy. He is not athletic. If he stops walking too quickly, he gets dizzy. He cannot lift anything that is heavier than 50 pounds. By profession, he is a dishwasher. He gets by relying on others. Richard shows social behavior that is normal for Dandy-Walker Syndrome patients. He constantly stares at people, constantly repeats himself and others, repeatedly tells the same joke, has an attention span of max seven minutes, and he is very absent minded.

So you tell me – Who really murdered Bernice Martin?

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