UPDATED: Who Killed Jeannette DePalma?
In this all-but-forgotten unsolved case from 1972, the body of a teenage girl was discovered atop a cliff, high above an abandoned quarry in the town of Springfield. The corpse was found thanks to a dog that brought home a badly decomposed human forearm to its master. The deceased would later be identified as Jeannette DePalma, a local teenager who had been missing for six weeks. Before long, witchcraft, satanism and police conspiracies would all become suspects in the bizarre case.
In late 1997, Weird NJ received a letter from a fan named Billy Martin. The short letter, entitled “In the Watchung Mountains”, read:
“There was an alleged ritual sacrifice, I think, in the Houdaille Quarry near Springfield. A local dog brought a body part home to its master which led to an investigation. I don’t know if it is true or just a local myth…”
In a pre-Google era, the editors at Weird NJ struggled to find additional corroborating information regarding this incident. Eventually it was decided to print Martin’s letter in Weird NJ #9, released in October of that year. The letter’s appearance ignited a small firestorm among Weird NJ readers who had grown up in Union County during the 1970s. Replies began to flood the Weird NJ office, one of which finally put a name to the victim:
“Her name was Jeannette DePalma and she was found on an altar…”
As time went on, more facts became clear—Jeannette had been hitching in Springfield Township one afternoon in August 1972, vanished, and was later found dead in the woods surrounding the Houdaille Quarry after a dog had brought her arm back home to the Baltusrol Gardens apartment complex on nearby Wilson Road. When the editors of Weird NJ began their own investigation into Jeannette’s unexplained death, they were immediately met with resistance from the local police, who claimed that all files and evidence relating to the DePalma case had been destroyed during flooding from Hurricane Floyd in 1999.
Today, we finally know that to be untrue.
After a decade of working with Weird NJ correspondent Jesse P. Pollack, who co-authored with Mark Moran the definitive book on the DePalma case, 2015’s Death on the Devil’s Teeth, and Jeannette’s nephew Ray, Weird NJ has finally obtained copies of Jeannette’s case file from the Union County Prosecutor’s Office. After years of denials from previous acting prosecutors, Pollack was able to consult with former UCPO Director of Communications Mark Spivey in 2019 to submit a detailed file request under the New Jersey Open Public Records Act and the Freedom of Information Act.
After nearly two years of delays due to COVID-19 and personnel changes, the UCPO finally released the bulk of Jeannette DePalma’s case file to Pollack in February 2021, including crime scene photos that had been previously described by some New Jersey police officials as “missing.”
While Jeannette’s remains have been compassionately redacted from the photographs, the picture they paint is very clear. After a careful review of these photographs, Weird NJ feels confident that there was no “occult activity” involved in Jeannette’s death. The alleged “crosses made from sticks and twigs” and “halo of stones” that were supposedly found placed around Jeannette’s body are completely absent from the crime scene photos. Also absent are any “animal sacrifices” that were long rumored by whispering Union County residents to be near the remains. The closest object resembling a cross found near the remains are two rotten tree branches that had obviously fallen in that spot a long time before Jeannette had come to rest there. No “arrows carved in trees” or an “altar” of any sort are seen in the photographs either. This, of course, makes what the press said about these photos in 1972 all the more confusing.
An article that appeared in the September 29, 1972 edition of the Elizabeth Daily Journal entitled “Girl Sacrificed in Witch Rite?” made the following claim:
“Investigation into the death of 16-year-old Jeannette DePalma is focusing on elements of black witchcraft and Satan worship. A review of death scene photos, according to reports, is leading authorities to believe the girl’s death may have been in the nature of a sacrifice. Pieces of wood, at first thought to be at the scene by chance, are now seen as symbols. One searcher said two pieces of wood were crossed on the ground over her head. More wood framed the body ‘like a coffin.’ Another person who was there said, ‘I guess if you were looking for signs, they were there.’”
This article was the first publication to link Jeannette DePalma’s death with witchcraft and Satanism, but even a casual glance at the crime scene diagram drawn by UCPO Investigator Glenn Owens shows these supposed “signs” of “black magic and Satan worship” are tenuous, at best. The “two pieces of wood crossed on the ground over her head” were actually parallel to Jeannette’s body, with her right arm resting on the vertically parallel log, and the other horizontal log lying just beyond her head. Both logs were much larger than Jeannette’s entire body.
The reports of logs framing Jeannette’s body “like a coffin” are an exaggeration at best. As Owens’ diagram shows, the branches fell in a way that roughly resembles an open rectangle (and not a “trapezoid” as other newspapers reported in 1972) but considering this was a densely overgrown patch of woods, it’s probably safe to say that the Houdaille Quarry was filled with countless other branches that also fell into common shapes.
The overgrowth itself is another revelation, as well. For years, Weird NJ has been told time and time again by retired Springfield PD investigators that the spot where Jeannette’s body was found was a “party spot” and that she likely overdosed there while partying with several other teenagers, all of whom presumably fled out of fear of prosecution instead of rendering her medical aid. The death scene photos tell an entirely different story. The spot where Jeannette’s body was discovered is much more overgrown than ever previously described to us, with countless large plants and bushes surrounding the remains. No evidence of a “party” or any other social gathering is noted in the accompanying evidence reports or seen in the multitude of photographs released in February 2021.
What is noted in these reports, however, are the contents of Jeannette’s purse—and the revelation that it was apparently never recovered, despite previous accounts given to us by the responding officers on that day. Approximately eight feet south of Jeannette’s remains were the contents of her purse, apparently dumped out into one small pile. Listed in the evidence reports and shown in corresponding photos are a pack of Marcal tissues, a Vicks inhaler, a small compact, lipstick, a comb, a key on a ring, a “clear vial with an unknown substance” resembling a Coricidin bottle (Jeannette’s mother, Florence DePalma, told the press that her daughter had a mild cold on the day she vanished), and a small eye shadow box.
What is absent, however, is Jeannette’s purse itself, along with any money or a wallet. If Jeannette was murdered, it is now apparent that her killer took her purse and her cross necklace, possibly as souvenirs. The cross necklace was widely reported by her family to have been missing from her body and corroborated by the reports released in February 2021.
Obviously, this release is monumental for Jeannette’s family, friends, and readers who have been following this case for decades. Many questions have now been answered. It is almost certain that there was no occult element to Jeannette’s death. We now know that her purse was never recovered. But, as with most revelations with this case, more questions have arisen.
Why were her cross necklace and purse stolen from her body?
How did anyone inside the Springfield Police Department or the Union County Prosecutor’s Office sincerely believe there was an occult element to this case while looking at the crime scene photos?
Why did so many police officials insist for almost half a century that Jeannette’s case file and evidence had been destroyed in 1999 by flooding caused by Hurricane Floyd?
Weird NJ made a commitment to continue looking into this tragic case back in 2004, and we’re not about to stop. We will continue to do our best to bring answers and justice to Jeannette, her family, and their memory.
To all of you who have assisted us on this journey over the past quarter century, we sincerely thank you.
If you have any information about Jeannette DePalma or her mysterious death, please contact the Union County Prosecutor’s Office at (908) 527-4500 or you can reach us at firstname.lastname@example.org. All requests for anonymity will be honored by us.
Jeannette Christine DePalma
1956 – 1972
Witchcraft and Satanists Implicated in 1972 Mystery
In issue #22 of Weird NJ magazine we examined an all-but-forgotten unsolved murder case from 1972 in which the body of a teenage girl was discovered atop a cliff, high above an abandoned quarry in the town of Springfield (Union County). Admittedly, at the time we didn’t know many details about the case, other than the fact that the corpse was found thanks to a dog that had brought home a badly decomposed human forearm to its master. The arm, and the corpse, would later be identified as having belonged to Jeannette DePalma, a local teenager who had been missing for six weeks. The details that had first drawn us to the sad story of Jeannette were the lingering rumors around the towns of Union County that the disappearance and subsequent murder had ritualistic overtones.
The remote hilltop location where the body was discovered was said to have been strewn with cult related symbols and the body of the young girl was rumored to have been placed on a makeshift altar in the woods. The various versions of the Jeannette DePalma story that we had heard either blamed a coven of witches or a local group of Satanists for her death. The strange thing that we discovered in our investigation of the case was that after thirty years most people who remembered the crime were still too frightened to speak with us about it. Everyone we questioned about the murder seemed to recall the same scant and gruesome details, but nobody wanted to go on record or have their name published in our article––including the Springfield Police Department!
The general consensus of the people we questioned in regard to Jeannette’s murder seemed unanimous in agreement on certain points: that it was in some way cult related, that there was a police cover-up of the facts in the case, and that Jeannette’s killers were still most likely at large.
But could the death of Jeannette DePalma really be attributed to some evil force operating the quiet neighborhoods of suburban Union County in the early 1970s, or had time and the rumor mill merely distorted the facts of the case and sensationalized the crime? This is that question that we pondered, yet could not answer in our original article. After the publication of that article we would receive several new leads in the case. Some were vague or contradictory, some were cryptic, and others were downright creepy.
Some of the tips were cautionary, while others seemed to have a sinister undercurrent. Most of the leads came to us in the mail in plain white envelopes without any return address. Some of the letters were typed, others were handwritten––all were anonymous. They came to us from all over the state, judging by the postmarks. Some were from people who still lived in the area where the murder occurred, while others came from people who had moved away years ago but still remembered the case with horror.
Location where Jeannette DePalma’s body was found as it looks today. (Photo by Mark Moran)
Not an Altar, but Logs Around Her Body
This is in regards to the story of Jeannette DePalma. When her body was found, it was not on an altar. There were logs around her body. She needs to be put at rest finally. I am sure something out there or someone must be able to give you some more about the case. Maybe she did herself in, because at that time there was a lot of Satan stuff going on in the Reservation. Sorry I can’t give you my name, for more reasons than one. –Anonymous
“The Witches” Planned the Killing
I was a young teenager when the discovery of Jeannette DePalma happened, and lived in the next town. About two years prior, there was much talk in my school about a cult in the surrounding area. They were known as The Witches. They must have let it be known in the area that they planned to kill a child on or about Halloween, either by kidnapping and sacrificing them or by poison. I remember being anxious about this because I went trick-or-treating in those days. I didn’t read the newspapers, but I was well aware of the dog that brought home the girl’s arm. The story was well known, as I lived within three miles of the quarry. –Anonymous
Arrows Point the Way
Apparently my Mom knew Jeannette, because Jeannette worked at a clothing store in Summit named Sealfons. They were about the same age, which should have been around 13 or 14. My mother and some of her friends used to hang out and camp in the Quarry. That is, until they found out about the murder. My uncle, who was a Summit cop, came to warn my mother against going there any longer. From what I was told these details were never released to the public.
When the dog brought the arm home and the search for the body started, they found arrows carved in the trees that would led you to the body. The location was high up on a cliff. All around her body were dead animals tied to trees with string and some in jars. Shortly thereafter there were reports of animals being mutilated and hung in the same fashion in the Watchung Reservation, which is also very close to the scene of the crime. The Watchung Reservation or the “Res” has been reported to be the center of devil worship activity for years. –Anonymous
I Saw the Sacrifices
I, too, forgot about the death of Jeannette DePalma. But I can never forget all the weird stuff that happened in Summit, Mountainside, Springfield, and for me, the majority of it in the Watchung Reservation. Now that I think back on it, It would make sense that Springfield would cover up the murder so as to not tarnish the reputation of the town. I know that the sacrifice that my friends saw was never reported or was in the newspaper. But I remember, and I sure as hell know they do too! –Anonymous
Just Can’t Forget Jeannette
I knew Jeannette Depalma very well and my friend went out with her. We used to go to church with her. She was a religious girl, but I think her parents forced her go to church. She was kind of, a little bit of a wild girl. We all went up to the house and helped look for her and spoke with her parents. I don’t think my friend, who was quite in love with her, ever recovered from it.
I was very surprised that they (the police) don’t have anything in the archives about her. It’s funny, my wife read the story and she says “Don’t even get involved. It’s a satanic thing.” It was all the talk of Union County for two weeks, then boom––it was gone. It left the papers very quickly. That is very spooky in itself. In the past thirty years I think I’ve only thought about that girl twice. And I felt a little ashamed of myself. And then I read the Weird NJ article, and I said “Holy cow, everyone forgot about Jeannette DePalma!” That poor girl. –Rich
The preceding article is an excerpt from Weird NJ magazine, “Your Travel Guide to New Jersey’s Local Legends and Best Kept Secrets,” which is available on newsstands throughout the state and on the web at www.WeirdNJ.com. All contents ©Weird NJ and may not be reproduced by any means without permission.
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