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Indictment by Innuendo: Serial Murder Suspects Known But Never Named

July 27, 1990

BOSTON (AP) _ Two years after investigators in New Bedford began tracking leads in the serial killings of at least nine women, attorney Kenneth Ponte’s name has been printed in many places, but not on an arrest warrant.

He blames the prosecutor for floating his name.

″He’s ruined my career as a lawyer. He’s ruined my life,″ Ponte, 40, said Thursday in an interview from Florida.

″When I walk up or down any street little kids call me murderer.″

Those statements chafe Bristol County District Attorney Ronald Pina, whose office has never publicly identified a suspect in the deaths.

″It’s irritating because it’s easy to say it’s the district attorney’s fault,″ Pina’s spokesman, Jim Martin, said recently.

Ponte is neither the first, nor the only, victim of innuendo.

The guilt of four different men has been widely speculated upon since the case heated up in the fall 1988; however, none has been charged.

Today, only Ponte’s name still shows up regularly in headlines. At last count, he said, 254 newspaper articles had linked his name with the case.

″He’s been painted for a long period of time with the brush of being the suspected serial killer and that ... will never rub off,″ said Edward F. Harrington, an attorney for a ″suspect″ who fell out of vogue months ago.

Jonathan Klarfeld, director of Boston University’s print journalism program, finds fault with law enforcement authorities for floating such stories.

″If there’s fault on the part of the media, it’s in letting themselves be used in this way,″ he said.

Ponte knew several of the victims - all drug users, some prostitutes. Their bodies turned up along highways in southeastern Massachusetts between July 1988 and April 1989.

Though convicted long ago on charges including narcotics and breaking and entering, Ponte received a pardon from Gov. Francis Sargent in 1975, legally clearing his slate.

″If (Pina) thinks I did something and he thinks he has evidence, then charge me and let me come into court,″ Ponte said Thursday. ″But to harass me and indict me by publication for two years? I’ve been punished more than most people who have been convicted of serious crimes.″

Harrington said his client, like Ponte, has not been the same since his name was dragged into the investigation. Anthony DeGrazia was arrested on rape and assault and battery charges at the height of the investigation in May 1989.

″Almost overnight after his interview with the DA’s office, he was put in the limelight as being the latest suspect in the highway serial killings,″ Harrington said. ″He couldn’t raise his head above his shoulders because people were pointing him out on the street.″

Martin said the district attorney’s office has been chagrined to watch the parade of alleged suspects trotted out.

″For a while, in a not-so-funny joke, it became ’the suspect of the week,‴ he acknowledged.

But don’t lay the blame with the district attorney, Martin said, adding:

″I don’t fault the media for doing their job ... what does become a problem is when the reporting oversteps the line and becomes the investigation.″

Ponte moved to Port Richey, Fla., in 1988 and was arrested there June 12 for allegedly assaulting a woman. He was released two weeks ago on personal recognizance because prosecutors produced no evidence against him.

After his release, Ponte wanted to return to New Bedford to stay with his 65-year-old mother.

He wanted to clear his name, but a bizarre twist stopped him short.

Ponte said his mother unwittingly bought a house next door to Pina last year. When the district attorney heard of Ponte’s plans, he obtained a restraining order based on secret grand jury testimony presented to a judge.

A witness claimed Ponte told her he intended to kill the district attorney, his wife and daughter. The witness later disputed the characterization of her testimony.

But Ponte suggested that Pina, who’s up for re-election this year, sought the order for reasons other than concern for his family’s safety.

″The first rule of any politician is to get re-elected,″ Ponte said. ″If he drops me as a suspect, he’s admitting to the public that he’s wasted their money. He’s got to hang this on somebody.″

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