Transcript of Episode 1: Hide and Seek
Note: episode transcripts are radio scripts - please keep that in mind as you come across notations and errors in the text. Click here for the audio version of the episode.
You know those 80’s movies where a bunch of kids wander the neighborhood on bicycles and stumble into a mystery? This story starts kinda like that.
[J.Morgan] “Growing up, there was probably a good two-or-three-dozen kids that lived in the park and we just roamed the place like we owned the place.
That’s Jesse Morgan. In the movie version of this story, he’d probably be the leader of the group. The scrappy one. The Corey Feldman.
[J.Morgan] “The way that trailer parks work, I mean there’s a lot of people that come in and go out. I mean, I was one of the few kids that moved in when I was 2 and moved out when I was 18.”
In the summer of 1985 Jesse was 11 years old. It was the year the Nintendo came to North America. New Coke hit the shelves and Calvin & Hobbes started running in newspapers. That year Jesse and his friends came up with a game -- MUSIC OUT It was basically hide-and-seek, except the seeker rode around on a four-wheeler.
[J.Morgan] “All the kids would hide, and the last one that got found would be able to ride the four-wheeler. We played all summer long.”
The trailer park where Jesse grew up - it’s in a town so small that half of it’s Main St. is technically in another village. And right next to the trailer park - covering more than half the entire town - is fifteen square miles of tall red pines and swampy, tangled forest. Bear Brook State Park.
[J.Morgan] “We were able to roam because we weren’t in a city. My parents weren’t worried so much about me because they just figured I was over there or over there. You know, there was only many places to go when we were kids.”
One day, in the middle of this game, something strange happened.
Jesse was riding the four-wheeler. His friends, Scott and Keith, were supposed to be hiding. And then one of them gave himself away by yelling out.
[J.Morgan] “I believe it was Keith had said that he found a barrel [mux start] that was just out in the woods, you know, there was a barrel out there. [mux start] And so the three of us got on the four-wheeler and I drove out to where the barrel was.”
The barrel was a blue 55-gallon steel drum. It was covered up with a lid… but whoever closed it hadn’t gotten a tight seal. Something was squeezing through, underneath the top. It was a plastic bag.
[J.Morgan] “Scott and Keith both got off the four-wheeler. And Keith was like trying to pull the top of the barrel off. And when he got the edge of the tarp off, we got hit with, like, this smell of rotten milk.”
The kids weren’t really sure what to make of this. So, they did the only thing a group of 11 year old boys could think to do -- they kicked the barrel over.
[J.Morgan] “When we knocked the barrel over the top came open a little more. We didn’t see into it or anything, but we saw, like, something white was starting to drizzle out of the top of the barrel. And again, I’m thinking it is rotten milk.”
And then...they left. They rode away on the four-wheeler without ever looking inside the barrel.
[J.Morgan] “That was it. That was...we left.”
This… is the moment where the story stops being like an 80s movie. Jesse and his friends walked away from the mystery. Had they looked inside the barrel, what they would have found… were two bodies. Heavily decomposed, partially dismembered.
This moment in the woods is the first in a case where every convention about how true crime stories usually unfold is upended. Where everything about how a murder investigation is supposed to work, happens in reverse. Where each break in the case seems to raise more questions than it answers. It’s the first clue that this story is not going to go the way you think it is.
[Strelzin] “This is a guy who was able to pick his targets and get what he wanted. And that says that is someone of terrifying intelligence.”
This is the story of a serial killer police would come to know as the Chameleon.
[Elaine] “ I’m sure she fought... I have to believe that she fought.”
The story of victims. Some of them well-remembered, some of them nameless.
[Ronda] “What grandmother let this happen, or what neighbor, or what bus driver -- I mean, where were all of you?”
And it’s the story of a frustrating investigation that after decades of failure led to a forensic breakthrough that has forever changed the science of solving murders.
[Jensen] “I mean this is the biggest step forward for solving crimes since the discovery of DNA itself.”
This is Bear Brook. I’m Jason Moon.
*** Allenstown ***
I am not a crime reporter. Or I wasn’t, until I discovered this story.
I first learned about the Bear Brook murders in late 2015 when I was assigned to cover a press conference about the case. I had only been living in New Hampshire for about 6 months. I didn’t know anything about the case.
At the time I was more concerned with covering the New Hampshire presidential primary. The week before, I was being crushed by a throng of other reporters while trying to follow Hillary Clinton down a hallway.
Aside from the primary, New Hampshire is pretty quiet. There isn’t the same urgency to news that there is in other places. It’s the sort of state where a rogue bear can, and has, dominated a news cycle.
So when I learned that in 1985, bodies were discovered only 20 minutes or so from the NHPR newsroom -- and that police still hadn’t identified them -- thirty years later-- it stuck with me. How is that possible? With all the DNA testing, and modern forensic techniques - how could they not even know who the victims are?
After the news conference, I filed a short story for the newsroom and went back to my usual beat. But I never forgot about the Bear Brook case… It became a kind of side project - something to look into when I wasn’t sitting at a town hall meeting, or covering the state legislature. And one of the first things I wanted to learn more about was the town where the bodies were found. The town where Jesse Morgan, who found the barrel as kid, grew up. A town with a population just shy of 4300. Allenstown, New Hampshire.
[A.Morgan] “We were only going to be there a few years, and then he started the business and then life went on and before you know it…”
That’s Jesse’s parents, Ann and Kevin Morgan. They moved to Allenstown in the 1970’s. Into a trailer park there called Bear Brook Gardens.
The Morgans have been married a long time. They’re not quite finishing each other’s sentences, but they do have a way of saying their own sentences at the same time.
[K.Morgan] “I mean the only secrets would be behind the walls of - in the homes. But you know, to socialize…”
[A.Morgan] “And you heard things...”
[K.Morgan] “...and we used to have neighborhood parties…”
[A.Morgan] “...you heard things...”
[K.Morgan] “...the neighborhood was always invited, and I would say we partied a little more than I would like my kids to.”
[A.Morgan] “...we um, we heard things that would go around the park.”
In Bear Brook Gardens, the Morgans were the center of gravity for the community. They threw the big barbecues, had all the neighborhood kids over for sleepovers.
[K.Morgan] “We were all just friends. And we helped each other. I can remember helping people cut wood. On a hard winter -- there were winters ten below up there, it was nothing in the winter. And none of the cars in the neighborhood would start. Except maybe one car and that one car would go around and start all our cars so we could get up and go to work. You know, we were all just young families, we didn’t have money [laughs].”
The Morgans don’t live in Allenstown anymore, but they remember it fondly. I think in their minds they picture it like a postcard of country living.
But that’s not exactly how everyone remembers it. Ron Montplaisir was a police officer in Allenstown for 23 years.
[Montplaisir] “It was [laughs] to describe it…on a warm Saturday afternoon, people would start drinking about ten o’clock in the morning.”
Ron wears a beanie. He’s got a big laugh that he covers with one hand.
After retiring in 2002 he opened a cleaning supply shop about 20 minutes from Allenstown. We spoke standing behind the counter of that shop, surrounded by vacuum cleaner parts and bottles of cleaning spray.
Montplaisir enjoys talking about his days on the force. He liked being a cop.
[Montplaisir] “I think every kid in the neighborhood either wanted to be a police officer or a firefighter.”
And he liked Allenstown -- even if wasn’t a model community.
[Montplaisir] “You talk about noise complaints, the country music was blaring [laughs]. Not that I don’t like country music. I do like country music. But as the alcohol flew, the music got louder and louder and the calls started to come in.”
When the calls did come in, Montplaisir answered many of them on his own. Back then, there was usually only one officer on patrol in Allenstown at any given time. One cop for 20 square miles.
[Montplaisir] “That’s a lot of area of patrolling and there’s only one patrolman on and it’s real, real hard to cover everything.”
That was particularly true when it came to the state park.
Bear Brook State Park. It covers more than half of Allenstown. The trailer park where Ann, Kevin, and Jesse Morgan lived hugs the Northern edge of the state park - If you walked out the Morgan’s back door in a straight line, it would be more than five miles before you saw another house.
It’s hard to capture just how dense and tangled the park is. There are some areas of Bear Brook that are easy to get to: a fly-fishing pond, an archery station, a spiderweb of mountain-biking trails. But most of the 15 square miles is thick and marshy. Aside from a couple of viewless hills, much of the park is flat -- so you never have a good idea where you are or where you’ve been. And it’s wild, even for New Hampshire. Officer Montplaisir says his old police chief used to take him out into the park, just for the fun of it.
[Montplaisir] “He used to take me to catch rattlesnakes, timber rattlesnakes. And I never believed that there were rattlesnakes in New Hampshire and sure enough he goes ‘come on we’re going to go catch some rattlesnakes’ and I’m like ‘we are?’ and sure as heck we come back with a couple of timber rattlers.” [fade under]
What he’s trying to say… is this place is big.
*** The Discovery ***
Officer Ron Montplaisir had been on the force in Allenstown for about 5 years, dealing mostly with drunk drivers, domestic disputes and noise complaints. Small town cop stuff. Until 1985.
[Montplaisir] “I was on duty. I was the officer that received the call.”
[JM] “Oh, so you were the first one –”
[Montplaisir] “I was the first one on the scene.”
The call was from a hunter. Montplaisir drove out to meet him at the edge of the woods.
[Montplaisir] “And I met him and he said ‘I think you need to go up on the hill and take a look in the barrel. I think there’s a body up there.’”
Montplaisir remembers that the hunter looked pale. He told him to stay behind with the squad car while he headed out into the woods alone.
[Montplaisir] “I...knowing the area, I knew that a lot of people disposed of their pets back there. Thinking nothing of it, eh it’s probably an animal. It was hunting season, somebody maybe had gotten a deer and brought the carcass out there…”
He struck out through the woods - first along a path, and then eventually bushwhacking a bit through the scrub.
[Montplaisir] “The barrel was on the ground. And there was a bag and when I opened the bag, the decomposed face was looking right at me…. I couldn’t believe that there was a decomposed body looking me right in the face. I can picture it right now. I can picture exactly what that face – how it looked…”
[silence in woods]
It was November, 1985. A few months after Jesse Morgan and his friends had kicked over the barrel. Now Officer Montplaisir was looking at that same barrel. But unlike the kids, he knew what was really inside.
Allenstown police officer Ron Montplaisir found himself alone in the woods, confronted by the face of the human remains he had just discovered. The weight of the situation started pressing down on him.
[Montplaisir] “You know this is major; this isn’t somebody parking in the fire lane. You got bodies, you got people.”
Ron says his training from the police academy suddenly kicked in. He knew what to do.
[Montplaisir] “I’m like secure the area.”
He began staking out the perimeter of a crime scene. But aside from the barrell, there wasn’t much else to see. Trees. And how exactly do you stake out a perimeter in a forest this big? How far do you stretch the police tape? Montplaisir radioed for backup. He was the only patrolman on duty, so Allenstown officers must’ve been called in from their homes… And even then the cops turned to local residents for help.
[K.Morgan] “I think I was still in bed. And I heard a knock on the door and it was the police, and he said: Kevin ‘we need to deputize you to keep the press out. And he told me that they found bodies up at the pit.”
As Kevin Morgan put on his boots to go help the police, his wife Ann was suddenly reminded of something their son Jesse had told her a few months earlier -- about a game of hide-and-seek and a barrel they had found in the woods.
[A.Morgan] “It just came to me, you know: ‘the smell,’ ‘it came out like milk,’ he said.
How long was the barrel lying there? How many times had people walked right by… never realizing what was out there?
[A.Morgan] “And I just knew that, that was the one.”
*** The Early Investigation ***
The barrel contained two bodies. One was a woman, the other a young girl. Investigators haven’t released photos of the remains, so I haven’t seen them. The details they have released, though, are grim. The remains were almost entirely skeletal, they were nude, they were dismembered - apparently to fit inside the barrel, and they were wrapped in plastic tied together with electrical wire.
Their skulls revealed that they were both killed by blows to the head with a blunt instrument.
Based on the level of decomposition, investigators guessed the bodies had been in the barrel for anywhere from several months to a few years.
Investigators often say that in a missing persons case, the first 48 hours are the most important. That’s because if you don’t find the person by then, your odds of ever finding them are really small.
In a murder case, the first priority is to identify the victims. Most victims know their killers. But to know who the victim knew, you have to know who the victim is. And just like in a missing persons case, if investigators don’t get this part figured out, their odds of success are really small.
New Hampshire state police took the lead in the Bear Brook investigation. And they immediately began by trying to ID the victims. Their working theory was that, given their ages, the victims were likely a mother and daughter. So they start searching for missing persons report that matched.
Meanwhile, the Allenstown PD started canvassing the town. Montplaisir says that’s usually how crimes in Allenstown were solved. With all those neighborhood barbeques, not to mention all the drinking, gossip had a way of getting around. And he had his ways of getting it out of people.
[Montplaisir] “We used to call it ‘let’s go fishing’. You know, you make a motor vehicle stop and you knew somebody that may know some information about a crime. And my line was ‘you know any good fishing spots?’ And they knew what I was talking about – we weren’t actually going fishing. But that meant the difference between, back in those days, between receiving a warning and receiving a summons, or just helping me out. And there was always somebody who knew a good fishing spot -- always.”
Whether it was a murder or a petty theft, this is how policework went in Allenstown in 1985. No high-tech forensics team. No criminal psychologists coming up with a suspect profile. Just a few patrol officers like Montplaisir rattling the bushes, hoping something would fall out. Only, nothing did.
[Montplaisir] “And that was the first thing that threw me off. It was strange, because everybody knew everything over there.”
Meanwhile, state police were having their own issues. They couldn’t find any reports of a missing mother and daughter. Not in New Hampshire, not in neighboring states, not anywhere. Whoever these people were, it seemed no one was looking for them.
As the months started to roll by, police tried lots of ways to get any sort of a foothold in the case. They checked the records of every elementary school in the state for some trace of the child victim. They examined five years of campground records at Bear Brook State Park. They sent out nationwide bulletins to law enforcement agencies with descriptions of the victims. They looked for matches to the adult victim in FBI databases of dental records. None of it worked.
One corporal in the New Hampshire state police called it the most frustrating case of his life.
In 1986, several months after the barrel was discovered, composite sketches of the victims were made. The artist didn’t have a lot to go on -- just their hair and bone structure, so there was a lot of room for interpretation.
However inaccurate they may be, the sketches do manage to give the victims some measure of identity. Since no one knew what they looked like in life, seeing the drawings was kind of like seeing them for the first time.
The adult victim looks tired. Her face is long, her cheeks a little gaunt. A shadow falls across her face. Detectives estimated she was in her mid-to-late twenties when she died. She was between 5-foot-2 and 5-foot-8. She had wavy light brown hair.
The girl is drawn in profile. She has a small upturned nose. She wears a ponytail of dirty blond hair with bangs swept across her forehead. Detectives think she was somewhere around 9 or 10 years old when she was murdered.
When these sketches were released, calls started coming in. Investigators thought they might have something. But none of the tips panned out.
Back in Allenstown, all anybody could do was speculate. Theories about the victims and who killed them were all over the place, ranging from organized crime to runaways and carnival workers. Everyone had a guess.
[J.Morgan] “I can’t see them not being local. It could’ve been someone that lived up the street from me.”
[K.Morgan] “I always had it in my mind that it was a trucker living a double life.”
[Montplaisir] “Pure speculation, I mean I’m playing the Ouija board but it’s my gut feeling, you’re gonna find that within a 200, 250 mile radius of New Hampshire and I would say South.”
As the months turned to years, investigators started to run out of ideas. To some, it seemed their best hope was to simply wait for the killer, or someone who knew them, to come forward on their own.
In 1987, less than two years after the barrel was found, state police decided to release the victim’s bodies so they could be buried.
Officer Ron Montplaisir’s chief --the one who had shown him the rattlesnakes in the state park-- organized the funeral. He told a local reporter at the time, “just because we don’t know their names doesn’t mean they don’t deserve the same respect we do.”
Parishioners of St. Jean the Baptiste Church in Allenstown pooled their money and paid for a gravesite at the church cemetery. A Catholic priest and a Methodist minister led a burial ceremony where the bodies were laid to rest in a single steel casket. Just a handful of town officials and reporters were there to see it.
[Montplaisir] “Every time I used to patrol and go by that tombstone, the wheels kept turning… Was I on patrol that night when these bodies were dumped? And all the officers would think that – when did this happen? How did I miss this? You start second-guessing yourself.”
Burying the bodies seemed like the right thing to do, especially given that two years in, the case was going nowhere. But it also must have seemed like law enforcement had given up hope.
[A.Morgan] “I was disappointed. All of the sudden, the next thing I know, the town is getting together to put a headstone on these bodies. And – what the hell? Who are these people?”
For years, Jesse Morgan’s parents kept the sketches of the victims pinned to their fridge. Like a lot of people in Allenstown, they’d always thought of their town as a good place. Now they struggled to reconcile that idea with what happened.
[A.Morgan] “It was like two worlds. Like there was this evil world going on that we had no idea about and there was this good wholesome world that was going on with the families and the children.”
For Jesse Morgan, who, as a kid stumbled across the bodies without really knowing it -- the episode changed the woods of his childhood forever.
[J.Morgan] “I do remember going out myself, like on rainy days and walking around like out there, out where we never went, to see if I could find something. You know, like, is there more?”
Turns out. There was.
*** A Second Discovery ***
[music fade out]
In 2000, John Cody was a detective in the state police’s major crime unit. The unit handles most of the homicides in New Hampshire and Cody had worked a long time to make it there.
By that time, 15 years had passed since the barrel in Allenstown was discovered, and that mystery was just one on a long list of the state’s unsolved cases.
The way those cold cases were handled back then was pretty informal.
[Cody] “Basically what used to happen is, when you got assigned to the Major Crime Unit you would get assigned one or two or sometimes three cold cases. And when I picked up the Allenstown case, I didn’t know anything about this case.”
Cody was expected to work on the case, basically in his free time, whenever he wasn’t working an active case.
But Cody says the details of the Bear Brook murders just kept gnawing at him.
[Cody] “It’s the type of case where you start reading it – you know it’s sort of like getting into an engrossing book. You start to read the first chapter and you just want to go on to the second, which makes you go on to the third, etcetera.”
Cody decided to get a look at the evidence in person. He went to the evidence storage area, where he saw the blue barrel, the plastic, and the electrical wire. Clues that had been sitting idle for 15 years.
[Cody] “I’m a very visual person. So I decided one day, it was actually a Friday, I said I’m going to go out, I’m going to go see the area and try to get an idea of what it is I’m looking at through words.”
Cody drove out to Allenstown and walked into the woods. He brought the case file with him as a sort of map. First, he tried to find the area where Jesse Morgan and his friends had first found the barrel as kids.
He pictured the kids on the four-wheeler. The barrel in the brush.
[Cody] “I was walking through that and I had been out there for quite a while and then I kinda just widened my area a little bit. Almost like throwing a rock into a pond, you have those concentric rings that come out.”
Cody ventured further and further from the spot where the barrel was found. His eyes scanning the forest floor for anything that didn’t belong.
It was getting late in the afternoon, the sun was sinking behind the hills. The canopy of trees overhead in Bear Brook State Park made it even darker. Cody was thinking about how he might need to go back out to his car for his flashlight.
[Cody] “And that’s when I came across the barrel.”
A barrel was on its side next to a small boulder in some brush. Cody recognized it right away. He had been looking at barrel just like it in evidence storage a few days before. Dark blue. Fifty-five gallons.
Cody decided now was a good time to get the flashlight after all. He made his way back out to the edge of the woods, his mind racing the whole time.
[Cody] “You know, I think I was trying to talk myself out of it the whole way to the car, going ‘this is definitely not what I think it is.’”
When Cody returned with his flashlight, he shined it inside the barrel. All he could see was some kind of plastic.
[Cody] “I tore the plastic away and there was something white that was shining toward me – you know it kind of sticks out with the dark background, and when I looked at it I said this does not look good.”
It was a stunning discovery. One that raised a whole new set of questions -- some of them uncomfortable for police.
John Cody was standing just 300 feet from where the first barrel was found, a full fifteen years before.
Inside the second barrel were two more bodies.
Coming up on Bear Brook:
[TQ] “When you hear the phrase ‘a stone’s throw away,’ this is what they’re talking about.
[K.Morgan] “Why wasn’t that barrel found?”
[A.Morgan] “We don’t know.”
[K.Morgan] “I don’t under- to me that’s…
[A.Morgan] “It’s crazy.”
[Agait] “I want to thank everybody for coming today. We have some new testing results that we want to share with basically the world.”
[Ramos] “I opened the door and saw his face. I had a chill run down my back that I’ve never in my life ever had before.”
[Gruenheid] “Sometimes it’s that dumb luck that you just come across something and it just opens a door for you. And once you open the door it’s like ‘ahh’ the lights come on and you can see everything, you know what I mean? The jigsaw puzzle comes together.”
END OF EPISODE
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Bear Brook is reported and produced by me, Jason Moon.
Taylor Quimby is Senior Producer.
Editing help from Cori Princell, Todd Bookman, Lauren Chooljian, Sam Evans-Brown, Britta Green & Annie Ropeik.
The Executive Producer is Erika Janik.
Dan Barrick is NHPR’s News Director.
Director of Content is Maureen McMurray.
NHPR’s Digital Director is Rebecca Lavoie.
Photography and Video by Allie Gutierrez.
Graphics and interactives by Sara Plourde.
Original music for this show was composed by me, Jason Moon, and Taylor Quimby.
Additional music in this episode from Blue Dot Sessions, and Simple Minds.
To see a timeline of the Bear Brook investigation from 1985 until 2015 … go to our website: bear brook podcast dot org.
Bear Brook is a production of New Hampshire Public Radio.