Sunday, February 28, 1999

Deathbed tale leaves murder mystery

By Jim Patten
Eagle-Tribune Writer

LAWRENCE -- The Haverhill drifter and carnival worker who kidnapped and killed 13-year-old Michelle Wilson of Boxford in 1969 has died in prison.

But three weeks before he died of cancer at age 78, Charles E. Pierce made a chilling confession to police -- and left them with another mystery to solve.

Charles F. Pierce, a Haverhill carnival worker who killed Michelle Wilson, has died in prison after confessing to two other child murders.
He summoned police to his bedside at the state prison in Shirley and told them he killed two more children in the mid- to late 1950s in Lawrence.

So far, police have been unable to identify the victims.

Lawrence Police Detective Capt. Michael S. Molchan said records of missing persons do not go back that far. Retired officers who served in the 1950s could not recall any cases that matched Mr. Pierce's reports.

That leaves police trying to sort out whether Mr. Pierce's story represented the ramblings of a dying old man or a true deathbed confession of his guilt in the deaths of two children who vanished long ago.

"He was incoherent at times. He'd talk for a bit, then fall asleep. He was in and out of it," Capt. Molchan said. "We don't know how much to put into his story."

Police are appealing to the public to help solve the mystery.

"I need some old-timers who may remember these events," Capt. Molchan said.

"It is a very cold case. If anybody knows any news stories or boys missing from the middle 1950s to the early 1960s, please call," he said.

Mr. Pierce told Capt. Molchan and State Police Detective Sgt. Jack Garvin he picked up a young boy outside the Strand Theater in Lawrence, drove up Broadway toward George's Diner and took a left, burying the boy in a field off West Street which may now be occupied by a Massachusetts Electric Co. building.

The Strand Theater closed in 1956 and became the Astor Theater, which closed after two years, Capt. Molchan said. George's Diner was torn down in the late 1950s, Capt. Molchan said.

Capt. Molchan said Mr. Pierce, who travelled extensively with carnivals, also told them he buried a girl he abducted from Connecticut in the same field as the boy.

It was not clear whether he killed the girl in Connecticut and buried her here or killed and buried her here, but he gave enough details of that killing to interest Connecticut investigators, Capt. Molchan said.

Capt. Molchan said Mr. Pierce claimed to have killed the young girl first, and then the boy, during an eight-month period during the mid-1950s and buried them within 30 feet of each other in the field off West Street, Capt. Molchan said.

"He told us he wanted to clear his conscience," Capt. Molchan said.

But "a day or two later Connecticut (police) went there and he said he fabricated the whole thing," Capt. Molchan said.

But according to newspaper accounts, Mr. Pierce had a history of confessing to these crimes, then recanting.

During his trial in the Michelle Wilson case, he attempted to have his taped confession thrown out, claiming he had read about the killing in the newspapers -- only to plead guilty before the case went to a jury.

Mr. Pierce has previously been linked to the slaying of a 7-year-old girl abducted in Tolland, Conn., and the murder of a girl in Sturbridge, near the Connecticut line.

But the Tolland girl was slain in 1973 and the Sturbridge girl in 1976, almost 20 years after Mr. Pierce told the Lawrence officers that he buried a Connecticut girl in their city.

"We are asking people with knowledge to call us. We don't know if he was making up stories. We do know Charles Pierce was questioned in the disappearance of the Connecticut girl," Capt. Molchan said.

Michelle Wilson, whose family had moved to Boxford six weeks before her death on Nov. 22, 1969, was returning to her Baldpate Road home when Mr. Pierce abducted her in his station wagon.

The discovery of her bicycle 1,500 feet from the family home touched off a massive search. Her body was found 19 hours later on Mill Road.

Mr. Pierce was arrested for the Michelle Wilson killing 10 years later in a Florida prison, where he was about to begin serving 10 years for sexual assaults on three boys in a Tampa suburb.

Florida authorities agreed to let him to return to Massachusetts.

Mr. Pierce was connected to the case by statements he made to another inmate and the medical staff at the Florida prison.

Mr. Pierce pleaded guilty on June 9, 1980, interrupting his trial after his taped confession was played to the jury.

Boxford Police Chief Gordon Russell said Mr. Pierce was allowed to plead guilty to second-degree murder because he had been diagnosed with cancer and it was assumed he would die in prison -- as he did, but almost 20 years later.

A second-degree murder conviction allows the possibility of parole. Had he been convicted of first-degree murder, he would not have been eligible for parole.

Mr. Pierce came up for parole in August, 1997, but, nearly blind and in a wheelchair, he waived his right to a hearing.

This report was prepared by police reporter Jim Patten. If you have questions, comments or material to add on this subject, please feel free to contact him by phone at 685-1000, by mail at Box 100, Lawrence, MA 01842, or by e-mail at

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