When it comes to Massachusetts cold cases, most Bay Staters have heard of Molly Bish. Many are at least somewhat familiar with the murder of 10-year-old Holly Piirainen, who was killed in 1993, seven years before Bish vanished from her lifeguard post at Comins Pond.
Few, however, remember Deborah Ann Quimby, who disappeared on May 3, 1977 as she rode her bike to her grandparents’ campsite on Vinton Pond in Townsend. Even fewer have heard of the brutal murder of Judith Vieweg just days after she began teaching a new set of fourth graders at Townsend’s Spaulding Memorial School in 1973.
Debbie was among the group of fourth Graders entering Spaulding that year. Because records were vandalized and no longer exist, it is impossible to verify whether she was Judith’s student for those 4 days in early September.
However, Vieweg, 31, was one of three teachers responsible for all fourth grade students. If she didn’t have Debbie in class, it is still likely she would have known her from previous years, according to several former townspeople I spoke with for this article.
Nearly half a century has passed, but Vieweg’s death remains unsolved and no suspect has ever been named in her murder. A neighbor discovered her fully clothed body on Sunday morning, September 9, in the woods behind her home on Main Street. It had been concealed by rocks and brush in an apparent attempt to prevent discovery.
The Fitchburg State graduate, who was a talented artist, had been stabbed repeatedly through the heart and lungs. “Judy” was described as a teacher beloved by everyone, especially her students, and there were no signs of sexual assault or robbery. According to police, “Kids loved her.”
Likewise, Debbie’s disappearance remains a mystery 44 years later. The freckled Pop Warner cheerleader simply vanished. No sign of her, or her bike, has ever been found.
Townsend, which borders New Hampshire, is a quaint New England town. Its common boasts the typical steepled church and is surrounded by charming old buildings. Around the corner is an ice cream shop and further along Main Street is the sprawling town hall. About half a mile down the road is Spaulding Memorial, which opened in 1932 for grades 1–12 and still operates as an elementary school.
Over the years there has been little crime in town and only a handful of murders. In fact, Vieweg’s death and Debbie’s disappearance are the only major cases that remain unsolved in the town’s history. It’s the kind of place people move to raise their kids.
Could the cases be related?
After poring over 80 years of newspapers, Townsend Historical Society documents, and other public records, I found several odd correlations that may suggest a link between the two events.
Aside from the possibility that Debbie may have entered Judy’s classroom as her student just days before the murder, here are four possible connections between the two cases:
1. Vieweg’s car and purse were discovered on the same road Debbie was last seen on before she vanished
Judy’s car was found immersed in water in the sand pits off Turnpike Road on September 10, 1973, the morning after a neighbor located her body in the woods.
A gravel pit worker discovered the 1969 vehicle, along with Judy’s purse, when he arrived for work at Robichaud Sand Pits on Monday. Massachusetts State Police crime lab crews dusted both for fingerprints and brought evidence to Boston for analysis.
Just as Judy’s killer attempted to conceal her body, it appears he — or she — also tried to hide her car and handbag. This bears some similarity to the disappearance of Debbie and her bike, which was never located.Four years later Debbie rode her brown 10-speed Takara bike over the crest on Turnpike Road and headed West. A friend rode with her part way then waved goodbye as the eighth grader faded from sight.
Four years later Debbie rode her brown 10-speed Takara bike over the crest on Turnpike Road and headed West. A friend rode with her part way then waved goodbye as the eighth grader faded from sight.
Debbie’s grandfather’s campsite has always been reported to be about 4 miles away from her home on Smith Street. Google Maps shows that her route would have been about 5 miles from the property and would have taken her about half an hour. Her grandparents’ home on West Elm Street was about 3 miles from Smith Street via Turnpike Road.
While the first part of the route to the Vinton Pond property passes by quite a few houses, the final stretch is eerily isolated, even in 2021. Her grandfather’s site was near a Girl Scout camp that now features a smattering of faded picnic tables and a lone boarded up cottage.
Police have told the press that Debbie had left a map in her locker asking a friend to meet her at the campsite. The note said she was upset and wanted to talk to her about something. Debbie apparently never gave the map to the friend. Just how far she got on that final ride is unknown.
While some have speculated Debbie had another destination in mind that day, the map and note to her friend, along with a second note to her mother, gives no indication she had other plans. The note to her mother, Anne Quimby, stated she had to deal with “some issues” and would phone later in the day:
“She was going to be in touch with her mother and she never called.” — former Townsend Police Chief Erving Marshall, Jr.
In that pre-mobile era, how a 13-year-old would phone home from a campsite is unclear. Maybe the site had a house, electricity and phone service. Or maybe Debbie planned to call from another location on her way home, perhaps from a pay phone or a friend’s house.
Later reports that she told two boys she was running away have been discounted.
Did Debbie intend to meet someone? Was she running away? Did she plan to harm herself? Or did she really just want to spend some time alone so she could think about “issues”? Is it possible not one person along the 5-mile route saw Debbie as she rode away forever that sunny day?
Whatever the case, both Judy’s car and Debbie (and her bike) were last seen on the same road.
2. The trails behind Vieweg’s house also lead to Turnpike Road
One thing that struck me as I traced Debbie’s final route was the proximity of the key locations in the two cases. Not only was Judy’s car found on Turnpike Road, but the trails behind the teacher’s house also lead there.
In a strange twist, I noticed a “For Sale” sign in front of Vieweg’s house as I recently drove by on my way toward Vinton Pond. Before I could stop myself I pulled into the driveway to take a few shots of the last place she was known to be alive. As I walked the deserted grounds, I noticed a trail running from the edge of the yard into the woods.
I followed the winding path and soon stumbled across train tracks, a rusted blue car, some dilapidated chicken wire fence and the remnants of a stone chimney. I realized that by following the trail further I would reach Turnpike Road fairly quickly.
When I emerged from the woods behind Judy’s house, I was surprised — and a little unnerved — to find a realtor waiting for me. Though I doubt the thin blonde believed I was interested in buying the place, she asked if I wanted to see it and I couldn’t say no. Our footsteps echoed as we walked from one empty room to another.
The realtor explained the vacated house had gone on the market that very day and I was the first person to see it up close. As much as I celebrate logic, I found it hard not to believe this coincidence was meant to be. Of all the rooms, I found myself drawn to a sitting area at the back of the residence. Four large windows ran across the wall and as I gazed out at the darkening trees, I tried to imagine Judy’s final hours.
She was wearing jeans and a light coat when she was found on Sunday. In early reports, police described her as a “naturalist.” Had she gone out that weekend morning to do some exploring on the trail I had just returned from? Or was it possible she ventured outside the night before? Did she hear the killer in the woods and leave to investigate?
If so, why would he viciously stab Judy in the woods then return to the driveway, take her car keys/purse, and drive off? Clearly, she wouldn’t have brought her purse and keys with her for an early morning nature walk behind her home. Nor would she have brought them if she went to investigate a disturbance on Saturday evening or Sunday morning.
Arguably, leaving Judy’s car in the driveway would delay any investigation into her whereabouts. Anyone driving down Main Street would think she was home on her day off. If a neighbor knocked on her door and she didn’t answer, they would simply assume she’d either gone out with friends or taken a walk.
Furthermore, wouldn’t taking her purse and car imply her murderer knew she lived alone? But what about her dog? If Judy’s killer went back after the murder to move her car, wouldn’t he have worried her dog would bark, thus alerting neighbors?
Add to this problem the fact that it was early morning on a day almost everyone in town was home. If the murder occurred on Sunday, that is.
Could Judy’s murder have happened in her car on Saturday night, possibly at another location? In other words, did the murder happen when she was out with her killer and he drove the car to the gravel pits to destroy evidence? Did he hide her body with the intention of returning to the scene later to bury her somewhere she would never be discovered? Or did an altercation occur on her property with someone she knew? Had that person ever been in her car?
The questions are endless. Then there’s the most disturbing theory of all: is it possible that the killer learned from his mistakes and make changes when he murdered Debbie four years later?
I realized as the realtor ushered me through the front door that I hadn’t even asked the selling price for the house. I hadn’t looked in a single closet or asked to see the basement. I hadn’t asked about utilities or taxes or any of the things buyers want to know. So many thoughts were racing through my mind that I’d forgotten to act my part.
3. Vieweg was murdered not far from the pond mentioned in an anonymous letter
Equally strange is the proximity of Judy’s house, as well as the location of her immersed car on Turnpike Road, to Walker Pond.
In 2002 — 25 years after Debbie’s disappearance — police received an anonymous letter instructing them to search the pond for her remains. The handwritten letter, addressed to the “Chief of Police” was about three quarters of a page and the writer did not claim responsibility for the disappearance.
When a sonar search proved fruitless in May 2003, a second letter telling police to look more closely at a specific section of the pond arrived in November. The handwriting resembled the writing in the first letter.
One letter was postmarked from Worcester, MA, the other was from Manchester, NH, In 2004, police drained much of the pond in hopes of finding remains. Again, nothing.
Later, authorities learned that an anonymous writer had sent similar handwritten letters to two other cold case victims’ family members in 2000 and 2001, which prompted the FBI to get involved. The first letter, which was full of misspellings, centered on a 1987 case from Pennsylvania. The second, which was also full of mistakes, focused on a 1984 disappearance in Florida.
Both letters were postmarked from New Hampshire: one from Bedford and another from Manchester. Both instructed family members to search for the bodies near water. Police no longer believe the three cases are related. It would also seem the same person wrote all four letters.
Was it all just an elaborate hoax?
Whatever the answer to that question is, Walker Pond lies extremely close to the former gravel pit where Judy’s killer submerged her car and is about a half mile from her home.
After going to enormous trouble to drain the pond and conduct an extensive search with trained dogs, police found no evidence of Debbie’s remains or her bike. Interestingly, her case was the only disappearance of the three in which the writer sent a follow-up letter.
The still-anonymous writer never sent another letter about an unsolved cold case. Whether that was because he — or she — was more familiar with Debbie’s disappearance is yet another unknown.
4. Vieweg worked with Debbie’s grandfather for years
At the time of Judy’s murder, John Verne Quimby, 65, had retired from teaching but was still actively involved in the community as chairman of the North Middlesex Regional School Committee.
After holding a moment of silence at a school committee meeting in the days following Vieweg’s death, Quimby said he and his colleagues were “upset, disturbed and provoked by this dastardly act.”
A Townsend Times report from that same month also mentions that “A Townsend young person was found hanging in the back yard” but no additional information refers to the death. Whether it is related or not is impossible to determine at this point.
Previously, Quimby — who was born in Andover, New Hampshire — served as Spaulding Memorial School principal for 20 years. After graduating from Boston University, he began teaching math and coaching at Hillsboro High School in New Hampshire.
U.S. census records confirm that he worked and coached there as late as April 1940. However, a signed and witnessed draft card lists “John Verne Quimby” as “unemployed” in late October 1940. Two autumns later, the married man would move to Massachusetts to start a family and begin his long career in Townsend.
Quimby, known as “Verne,” retired as principal when the town regionalized its school system. In 1966, Spaulding began to serve students only in grades 1–6. For the next seven years, Quimby continued to work as a science, math and physical education teacher until 1969. In addition to his post-retirement stint as school committee chairman, he served as a town assessor for many years.
Judy began teaching fourth grade at Spaulding in 1964, when she was 22 years old, and worked there continuously until her death at 31. In addition, she taught classes at the Fitchburg Art Museum. Both before and after her death, the museum hosted showings of her paintings. She never married or had children before she died. Her yearbook quote reads: “In quietness and confidence shall be your strength.”
During this time, she served as an officer for the Spaulding Teachers’ Association with Quimby (see 1969 officers’ photo above). For at least two years, Quimby and Vieweg were in charge of tickets together for Spaulding’s annual music festival.
Judy did not move to town immediately after she was hired. Property records shows that she bought her Main Street house in May 1970.
Previous to his roles as principal, teacher and school committee chair, Quimby served as Townsend’s varsity baseball and basketball coach. Despite the “full support” of the school committee, he stepped down from those positions after Lunenburg Police Chief Grover Barney, Jr., filed assault and battery charges against the popular, successful coach in February 1949.
The charges state that Quimby punched a fan during a “heated debate” at a Lunenburg-Townsend basketball game; he had meant to punch the referee but hit a spectator instead.
Quimby died in 1991 at 84. According to his obituary, private funeral services were held on an unspecified date “at the convenience of the family.”
Rumors of Pregnancy
From the time she disappeared to the present, rumors that Debbie was pregnant at the time of her disappearance have persisted, despite a lack of evidence.
Even the original news story in The Fitchburg Sentinel — which did not appear until 13 days after Debbie went missing — described her as “mature appearing.” Another short article appeared three weeks later and a brief third interview with police appeared in The Sentinel on page 18 on July 27, 1977:
“The very mature looking girl could pass for 17.”
Debbie, who was 5'1 and weighed 125 pounds, had brown eyes and medium-length brown hair. The earliest press reports allege she was wearing jeans and a royal blue cheering jacket with her name on the sleeve when she vanished.
According to first Sentinel article, which appeared on the lower half of the paper’s front page, May 16 was the day police publicly announced Debbie was missing.
The report goes on to say that State and many local police departments, as well as seven New Hampshire police departments, had been searching extensively for the girl but none had found any sign of her. Volunteers also helped search for Debbie that spring.
Anne Quimby never had much use for the press but she did give a rare interview to WBZ in 2004. Not surprisingly, she didn’t talk about a “mature-looking” teenager but a wonderful child:
“I just remember a warm, fun-loving little girl who has missed out on so much.”
Previous to Sartell, Chief Erving Marshall, Jr. oversaw the Quimby and Vieweg investigations for many years. He was responsible for draining Walker Pond in an effort to solve the case. His father, Erving Marshall, Sr. took over as police chief the same month that Vieweg was slain.
Marshall, Sr., a 1941 graduate of Townsend High School who lived down the street from Vieweg at 476 Main Street, served as chief from 1973 until his retirement.
During the months surrounding Vieweg’s death, four other women in nearby towns were also found stabbed to death. Both state and local police investigated the murders but could not identify motives in the cases, nor could they find the murder weapons or establish that any of the women had been sexually assaulted. They ultimately came to believe none of the cases were connected.
In the ensuing year, Fitchburg Police Lieutenant Henry Tommaso described the cases as “bizarre” and commented on the lack of assistance from ordinary citizens:
“When we’ve gone to scene we’ve never gotten any cooperation from the public.”
At this point, there are few answers in either case.
Could Debbie have in fact been meeting someone that day? Did she intend to speak to her grandfather, or possibly her grandmother? As a former principal, teacher, coach, assessor and school committee chairman, Verne Quimby knew just about everybody in town.
If the pregnancy rumors were true, is it possible she planned to reveal the father’s name to him so he could take action against the man? Or could she have sought out her grandmother as a confidant? Is it possible she committed suicide in a way that prevented her from ever being discovered?
Debbie’s father Jake, who died in 2006, believed she may have been on her way to meet someone she knew that day. Unfortunately, he passed away without finding closure.
Without Debbie’s remains, it is impossible to determine whether the young girl was indeed pregnant. But there is another possibility — one that has had stunning results in many high-profile cases in recent years.
If the two cases are related, DNA preserved from Judy’s body could be the key to solving both. Even if Debbie’s case is not connected with Vieweg’s, any foreign DNA found on Judy’s body — or in her car or her purse — could match with familial DNA in an ancestry database. Such a match would be a major break in the Vieweg murder.
In 2006, Worcester District Attorney John J. Conte said DNA remained a viable possibility in several Massachusetts cold cases, including Vieweg’s:
“The amazing thing about DNA is, it’s very durable,” he said. “It leaves us some hope in some of these cases.”
Conte has since been replaced by D.A. Joseph Early but the DNA evidence gathered from Vieweg’s murder site, her body, her car and her purse may well be in the care of authorities. Because of the savage nature of her murder and the fact that she was struck in the chest with a knife, it seems likely she would have fought back. If so, chances are good that law enforcement has her murderer’s DNA.
Judy Vieweg may have been silenced but perhaps — nearly half a century later — quietness can still be her strength.
If you have any information about either case, please contact the Massachusetts State Police Unresolved Case Unit at (508) 820–2121 or email me using the contact info on my profile.
Much thanks to Taber Morrell, site administrator of the Townsend Historical Society for his help researching this case, as well as to the employees at the Townsend Town Hall and library.
This story is based on articles dating back to the early 1940s that appear in The Fitchburg Sentinel, The Boston Globe, The Townsend Times, The Lowell Sun, The Worcester Telegram, The Nashoba Valley Voice and other newspapers. It also makes use of Ancestry.com’s extensive databases, including high school yearbooks, college yearbooks, public family trees, obituaries, marriage certificates, census results, and other resources. Last but not least, I relied on public property records dating back approximately 50 years.