Case closed: Cigarette butt leads police to killer in 1971 Burlington murder

Police say the case is now closed on Burlington’s oldest unsolved murder. Tuesday, they named the killer in a case that has spanned half a century.
Published: Feb. 21, 2023 at 8:53 AM EST|Updated: Feb. 21, 2023 at 7:50 PM EST
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BURLINGTON, Vt. (WCAX) - Police say the case is now closed on Burlington’s oldest unsolved murder. Tuesday, they named the killer in a case that has spanned half a century.

Police identified the killer of Rita Curran as William DeRoos. DeRoos lived in the same apartment building as Curran.

William DeRoos
William DeRoos(Courtesy: Burlington Police)

It was a day Rita Curran’s family feared would never come. Hers was one of more than 50 unsolved murders in Vermont. But that’s no longer the case.

“We were a couple years apart,” Mary Curran Campbell said.

Curran Campbell shared a love of music with her big sister, Rita. Mary was into tap dancing. Rita was a talented singer who, by all accounts, was kind, smart, hardworking, and a beloved second-grade teacher in Milton.

“She was very dedicated,” Mary said.

Rita’s future looked bright until July 20, 1971.

“I don’t know what she would have been like,” her sister said. “I don’t have that image because she’s always 24 years old to me.”

Rita Curran
Rita Curran(Courtesy: Curran Family)

In a crime that rocked the Queen City, Rita Curran was brutally beaten, sexually assaulted and strangled inside her bedroom at an apartment on Brooks Avenue in Burlington.

The gruesome murder shattered the neighborhood’s sense of security at the time and triggered one of Vermont’s most notorious unsolved mysteries: Who killed Rita Curran? It was a question her family thought may never be answered.

“The years rolled into decades,” Mary Curran Campbell said. “Even though we might not ever give up hope, we really felt at this point the person was probably dead. We’d never know who did it.”

But Tuesday, police revealed a major development in the cold case.

“We are all confident that William DeRoos is responsible for the aggravated murder of Rita Curran,” Burlington Police Lt. Det. Jim Trieb said at a press conference Tuesday.

Police identified Rita Curran’s killer as DeRoos, a neighbor who lived in the same building in an upstairs apartment he shared with his wife. He was 31 at the time. He didn’t know Rita. She’d only moved from her parents’ home into her apartment a couple of weeks before.

Police say DeRoos got in through an unlocked door and found Curran alone in her night clothes ready for bed. Her roommates were out for late-night dinner and drinks.

Police say evidence shows Rita Curran fought for her life.

“The amount of evidence was just staggering. This was the most-investigated case the Burlington Police Department ever had,” Burlington Police Cpl. Tom Chenette said.

Detectives at the Burlington Police Department were assigned to the Curran case over the decades but it wasn’t until about three years ago that the BPD put a large team of investigators and crime ID technicians on it, basically a CSI unit.

“Really it was the enormity of the case that needed the team approach,” Chenette said.

DeRoos had been questioned by police the day Curran’s body was found, but they say he convinced his then-wife to provide an alibi. That wife-- interviewed 50 years later-- admitted she lied to police. In fact, DeRoos had gone for a walk to cool down at the time of the murder after the couple got into a fight. But investigators are convinced DeRoos’ wife didn’t know her husband murdered Curran.

“I think she was coerced,” Chenette said.

They also say DeRoos had a history of violence and manipulating women, choking his second wife unconscious and stabbing one of her friends randomly.

But the key piece of evidence needed to pinpoint the killer was right in front of investigators all along-- a cigarette butt discarded at the scene but kept all these years. It cracked the case.

“The cigarette dropped there and burned out on the floor next to her body,” Trieb said.

Given his violent past and proximity to the murder, DeRoos’ name had been added to the suspect list. They tracked down a half-brother in Alabama to get a DNA sample.

“It’s able to detect things we wouldn’t have been able to back in the day,” said Amy Czuhanich, a Burlington Police criminal ID tech.

Through advanced testing, they determined without a doubt the cigarette came from DeRoos.

“They were able to develop a DNA profile off it off the filter that would have touched his mouth,” Czuhanich said.

Further testing of other evidence, like Curran’s clothing, also determined DeRoos’ DNA was likely on that, too.

Curran’s murder gained national attention when at one point, infamous serial killer Ted Bundy was investigated as a possible suspect. But he was quickly dismissed as the likely killer.

“We were numb,” Mary Curran Campbell said. “Fifty-one-and-a-half years and it’s the guy upstairs.”

She says their close-knit family is what got them through the decades of dead ends, heartbreak and waiting. And now, the answer to the biggest question of all brings some peace.

“I had only 22 years and it’s been 50. My children never knew her. My grandchildren never knew her,” Curran Campbell said. “They’re the ones. And people say, ‘How’d you get through it? How did you get through it?’ I got a lot of rocks holding me up.”

But William DeRoos will not face justice. He died of a drug overdose in a California motel in 1986.

There’s no evidence linking DeRoos to other murders in Vermont, but his DNA is now in a national database.

In addition to thanking the Burlington Police Department, the Curran family also thanked Season of Justice, an organization that helps with funding for cold cases. The group gave money to the BPD to assist with testing. A GoFundMe site is set up for people who would like to donate.

Click here to read the Supplementary Investigation Report.

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