A Fiendish Murder: The Rhode Island Cold Case You Never Heard Of
Joseph Curry was out for a Saturday afternoon walk beside the Ten Mile River near his home in Pawtucket, when, along a path known to locals as “Lover’s Lane,” he saw what looked like a strange gray boulder among the bushes.
But when Mr. Curry strolled over to investigate, he didn’t find a boulder; instead he found the blood-soaked body of Rita Bouchard, a 17-year-old mill worker from North Providence.
Her throat had been slashed from ear to ear, and she had been stabbed 30 times in the back, breast and neck.
The date was February 1, 1947. It was four days before the full moon.
A Fiendish Murder
“A fiendish murder,” said Dr. Albert Gaudet, the medical examiner who told reporters at Pawtucket’s Memorial Hospital morgue that Rita Bouchard had not been raped. There were no signs of struggle on the spot, and her clothes — a blue print dress, brown and white saddle shoes and yellow bobby socks — were not disarranged. Her glasses and a handbag containing $40 were missing, but a gold wristwatch on her left arm still ticked. Some 100 yards from the riverbank, she was found lying on her light gray coat in a lonely, thicket-enclosed clearing behind the Notre Dame cemetery; and though 13 wounds were counted on the girl’s mutilated back — including two deep gashes between her shoulder blades — only three holes were found in the back of her coat. A tree near the body bore freshly inflicted “hatchet marks”, as if placed there by the killer as a guide in locating the spot at which he left his victim’s body.
When asked whether the murder had been committed in the clearing or whether the girl’s body had been carried there, Dr. Gaudet said “It’s a wide open question.”
The Pawtucket police force was immediately plunged into the investigation. Because the city’s Police Chief was vacationing in Florida, Chief Inspector Wilfred Wadsworth took over the case. Under his direction, almost the entire detective division was assigned to investigate the girl’s every step.
Police found that the quiet, brown-haired girl had left work at the Rhode Island Fabrics Company early on January 31st. Although she usually worked from 3 until 11pm, that afternoon she had complained of feeling ill and left the plant at 5 o’clock, saying she was going to see a doctor and then visit her mother; a patient at the state tuberculosis sanitorium at Wallum Lake where her father died eight years earlier.
But Rita did not see her doctor and she did not go to Wallum Lake. Nor did she return to her room at the home of her aunt on Mineral Spring Avenue, where she had been living with her brothers and sister — all of them wards of the state, on visit from the State Home and School. When she failed to appear at the residence that Friday night, her family assumed she had gone to spend the night with a girl friend. Neither Rita’s uncle nor her aunt had any inkling of her death until a description of the murder victim came over a radio news broadcast Saturday afternoon. They called the police immediately.
Trail Went Cold
Between Friday evening and Saturday morning, seventeen hours were missing from Rita’s life. During that time, she spent the night somewhere before traveling to the banks of the river where she met a horrible death.
So, where had she been?
A bus driver said he drove a girl resembling Rita to a cafeteria near the Main Street bridge at 5:40 p.m. Friday.
Another bus driver who knew the murdered girl said he saw her get into a car in downtown Pawtucket about 6 p.m.
With little information to go on, police tried to fill the void. They questioned girl friends, men who had dated Rita, and residents near the factory and the crime scene . They even questioned Rita’s uncle, her sister, and her two closest friends from the neighborhood, Theresa and Raymond Patenaude, in an effort to establish new clues as to the identity of her assailant — but despite their best efforts, the trail went cold.
As the investigation entered its second week, Pawtucket police remained without a tangible clue in the brutal slaying of Rita Bouchard. Still missing were the handbag containing $40, and the eyeglasses which her aunt said Rita always wore. They were also still looking for the murder weapon, which medical examiner Gaudet believed was a stiletto-like knife.
Though police followed up on a tip from Rita’s aunt that the girl had confided in her that she feared a man she had been dating, and many times expressed the idea she would die a violent death, they could find no link to her known boyfriends. Their only theory was that a woman might have stabbed the girl in a frenzy of jealousy over a common paramour.
Stymied, Inspector Wadsworth publicly appealed to anyone with worthwhile information to notify police at once; but the request brought forth only a volley of crank telephone calls and letters.
A Break In The Case
On the 18th day after the murder, there was at last a break in the case. While walking with friends by Slater Park near an entrance to the heavily wooded Ten Mile River reservation, an eight-year-old boy was kicking the grass at the edge of a sidewalk by the corner of Armistice Boulevard and Parkside Avenue — the far end of the “Lovers Lane,” less than a half mile from the crime scene — when his foot suddenly came in contact with an object. It was a knife; its blade, eight and a quarter inches long, was stained red on both sides.
When the weapon was surrendered to authorities, Dr. Gaudet proclaimed that the double-edged blade fitted the three puncture holes in Rita’s coat.
With the investigation revived, Inspector Wadsworth vowed to make every effort to trace the weapon as speedily as possible; and though for several weeks it was the most — in fact the only — solid lead discovered in the case, it led nowhere.
Then, by twist of fate, nearly two months after the murder a 17-year-old Pawtucket youth arrested on an unrelated charge spun a fantastic story for police.
“Alright, I’ll Tell You The Story”
Eugene Raymond Patenaude was born in 1929 at his parents’ home in Pawtucket. His birth and childhood were uneventful, excepting an episode of rheumatic fever when he was 14 years old. As a child he was pleasant, agreeable, quiet and independent. He started school at six or seven and remained until he was fifteen when he flatly refused to go back. He could not read or write, with the exception of his name.
Described as being usually reserved, as a teenager Raymond was rather nervous, impulsive and restless; characteristics, it was claimed, that were aggravated at the full of the moon. It was then that he became irritable and impatient, and complained of headaches on the side of his head and forehead.
Raymond didn’t bother much with people, but was neat about himself, and liked to help around the house. He had a great desire and habit of riding around in taxicabs, and his father — a twice-married, fifty year old street cleaner — felt that he spent too much money in this respect.
Though his father denied it, when Raymond was sixteen years old he was sentenced to nine months at the Sockanosset School for Boys on charges of stealing cars and committing “immoral acts,” with boys and girls, on numerous occasions. Upon his discharge from the reformatory in September of 1946, it was noted by doctors that he had become particularly restless.
After his release, Raymond spent much of his time at home in Pawtucket’s Prospect Heights, just a few blocks from Slater Park. Otherwise, he worked regularly in mills, and at the Rhode Island Fabrics Company as a dishwasher, until taking a leave of absence in the middle of January, 1947.
By the early springtime of that same year, Raymond was once again in police custody, this time charged with “carnal knowledge” of an 8-year-old boy. Recognized as being one of the two friends solicited by police early in the Bouchard murder investigation, Patenaude was immediately put under intense questioning; and though he at first insisted that he had been in downtown Pawtucket between 7 and 10 p.m. on the Friday before the murder, after 72 hours of relentless interrogation led by Inspector Wadsworth, the youth finally broke, saying: “Alright, I’ll tell you the story.”
Mind Went Blank
On the Friday afternoon before Rita’s body was found, Raymond Patenaude went to the Rhode Island Fabrics Company on School Street to ask the foreman if it would be alright to come back to work on Monday after being out for a leave of absence. He left at about 3:15.
He then went to downtown Pawtucket, where he entered the Capitol Theater at about 4 p.m. At about 7 p.m., he said, by coincidence Rita came into the theater and sat down next to him. They talked for five minutes and then left the theater and walked up Main Street to Collyer Park at the junction of Main and Mineral Spring Avenue, where they sat down on a bench.
They had been there only a few minutes when a car with yellow registration plates drove up and the driver addressed Rita by name. She went over and spoke to the man, then called to Raymond to come over to the car, and finally persuaded him to get inside.
With Raymond in the back seat and Rita in the front with the driver, they drove to the entrance of Slater Park on Armistice Boulevard. Raymond told them he wanted to go back downtown, so they drove him back and dropped him at the Capitol Theater. As he got out, the driver asked Rita, “Do you want to go home or go back to the park?”
Raymond told police he thought Rita replied she wanted to go back to the park. When they drove away, he got a cup of coffee and then, having been out on dates with Rita before, started to worry about the girl. And so, shortly after 8 p.m., he hopped a trackless trolley and went back to the Slater Park entrance where he found Rita, alone, sitting on a bench, and crying.
He asked her, “What’s the matter?” and — according to Raymond— she slapped his face, and got up to walk way. Persistent, Raymond followed her to a nearby bus stop, and asked her again, “What’s the matter?” and this time, his story ran, she slapped his face and kicked him twice in the groin.
And then, he said, his “mind went blank.”
When Raymond came to, he was lying on the ground in the woods with a girl’s body beside him. After asking twice, “Is that you, Rita?” he saw a knife on the ground, got up, and, following a path out of the woods by moonlight, he took the trolley and bus back to his home, arriving there shortly after 10 p.m.
When pressed as to why he hadn’t revealed this story to police at the start of the investigation, Raymond insisted that he had not lied; it wasn’t until a week later, he said, the he had a dream in which the incidents he now described to police came back to him, whereafter he woke up and realized that what had happened “was real.”
“Maybe I Did It”
After listening patiently to the recital of the boy’s story, detectives and Inspector Wadsworth took him in a police car to Collyer Park and asked him to point out the park bench on which he and Rita were supposed to have been sitting.
Patenaude pointed out a bench. ”Now, where did the car come from?” the Inspector asked.
“From over there,” Patenaude replied, indicating North Providence.
“OK,” Wadsworth said, “now you lead the way and tell us where you went.”
Patenaude then directed the driver of the police car to go down Park Place, swing onto Main Street, thence to Walcott Street, North Bend Street, and finally onto Armistice Boulevard.
At the entrance to Slater Park he was asked to point out which bench they sat on. He pointed one out.
”Now, after you got kicked by Rita, how did you enter the woods?” he was asked.
“I don’t know,” Patenaude replied, “I only remember waking up beside Rita and I can’t stand dead bodies so I walked away.”
The police then led the boy from Armistice Boulevard into the woods at the entrance of the Lover’s Lane where Patenaude said he emerged that night. Foot by foot, he led them nearly to the place where the body was found; but when asked to point out the exact spot, he said, “I don’t remember, there were a lot of trees around.”
At last they took him to the clearing and asked him point blank if he had murdered Rita.
“I don’t remember,” he said. “Maybe I did it.”
“Packed With Inconsistencies”
Disconcerting though Raymond Patenaude’s story may have been, police were nevertheless confounded, finding the tale “packed with inconsistencies.”
His description of the knife, for instance, did not answer the description of the blood-stained dagger found at the corner of Armistice and Parkside weeks earlier, nor could he account for Rita’s missing pocketbook and glasses — neither of which had been found.
His recollection of the crime scene was equally suspect. At the clearing in the woods, when asked how Rita’s body lay on the ground, Patenaude indicated her head was pointed toward the river, when actually it was at a right angle to the river when discovered by police. Furthermore, the spot where her body was found was marshy, and on the afternoon of February first, the mud was at least two inches deep. With this fact in mind, Inspector Wadsworth asked the youth that since he had been lying down in the mud he must have soiled his clothes. “Oh, I only had a couple of leaves on the front of my coat,” Patenaude replied casually.
Another puzzling factor for investigators was that Rita had no mud on her shoes corresponding to the mud surrounding the place where her body was found, and so they had ruled out that she walked even a short distance in the woods. Patenaude — undeveloped for his age — weighed only 90 pounds. If she rode near the spot in an automobile, then was carried several hundred feet in the marshy underbrush, a man much stronger than he must be sought, they contended.
But among the most glaring discrepancies, assuming that it was Rita’s body the youth claimed he found at his side, was the fact that Dr. Gaudet placed the time of death no earlier than 6 a.m. Saturday morning; at least eight hours after Patenaude said he woke up in the woods. And, when Rita’s body was found at 2:40 p.m. Saturday afternoon, there was no knife anywhere to be found.
It was not unusual, police later pointed out to reporters, for innocent persons to claim guilt for sensational crimes. “They like the publicity,” Chief Mills said. And so, unable to corroborate any part of the youth’s account, the Pawtucket police wholly rejected his story, believing that he clearly “needed mental care”.
On the very same night of his bizarre confession, Raymond Patenaude was therefore committed to a psychiatric hospital for observation.
On March 20, 1947, at age seventeen, Raymond Patenaude was admitted to the Charles V. Chapin Hospital in Providence where he was received by Dr. Sidney Goldstein — directing psychiatrist, and former assistant superintendent of the Exeter School for the Feeble-Minded.
According to the doctor’s notes, on entry Raymond was observed to be neat, cooperative, and somewhat effeminate in manner. His speech was normal, and responses were not unusual. He was calm and not disturbed by being held in a mental ward.
His course in the hospital was characterized at first by being quiet, retiring, cooperative and helpful about the ward. Occasionally he complained of headaches. During the last two weeks of his stay, however, he became rather irritable, showing feelings of hostility toward some of the medical staff. He refused to obey the nurses, and was reluctant to go through the occupational therapy shop, giving his reason that he thought his old rheumatic fever was beginning to flare up again.
By the third week, Raymond became somewhat superior in his attitude toward the other patients, and expressed the idea that he was being held as a prisoner.
Finally, after being studied at length by various members of the hospital’s staff, Raymond’s case was discussed in conference before a visiting panel of doctors, including Dr. Joseph Ladd, superintendent of the Exeter School. All were of the same opinion as Dr. Ladd; that Raymond was suffering from mental deficiency; that he was a clinical “moron” and defective delinquent, with a psychopathic personality. But, as they could neither prove nor disprove his statements to police, under Dr. Goldstein’s care he was at last discharged from the hospital, and remanded to the custody of the Juvenile Court to determine the outcome of his disposition on the original morals charge that brought him to the attention of authorities more than a month earlier.
Still a Free Man
And there, so suddenly and inexplicably as it began, the story ended. No further leads were ever given the police; no more clues were found, and no other suspects were ever brought forward.
Shortly after Rita’s death, her aunt and uncle were evicted from their North Providence home, and Rita’s brothers and sister were placed out into foster homes and institutions. Following Raymond’s final sentence at the Sockanosset School, to which he was committed on the carnal knowledge charge, next to nothing is known of his life but for his marriage to a young Exeter School inmate some time after his release in 1951.
In 1956, nine years after the murder, The Providence Journal published a follow-up story on the unsolved crime with what would prove to be the final word in the case, concluding that, “The murderer of Rita Bouchard, if he lives, is still a free man.”
Taken To The Grave
Today, nearly three quarters of a century since the murder, little is left to remind us of Rita’s short life.
The State Home and School, where she lived after her father died, was demolished in the mid 1950s, and the sanatorium where her mother died closed in 1982. The Charles V. Chapin Hospital, where Raymond Patenaude was committed after his strange confession, closed in the 1970s, and is now a part of Providence College. The mill where he and Rita worked has long been vacant, and the Capitol Theater, where they allegedly met on the evening before her death, was demolished in the 1950s. The spot at which the bloodstained dagger was found is now the corner of a quiet, modern suburban neighborhood, and the “Lover’s Lane” beside which Rita’s body was discovered is now the Greenway Bike Path. All that remains in the unsolved crime is a macabre memorial of that fateful night; a tree by the bank of the Ten Mile River still bears the deep scars of the killer’s “hatchet marks” in its side.
And yet, many questions still linger in the case of Rita Bouchard.
Where had she spent the night of January 31st, 1947, and how had she come to arrive at the river’s edge? Had she been killed where she was found, or had her body been carried to the place? Why were there only three puncture holes in the back of her coat though she had been stabbed 13 times in the back? What about the deep gashes between her shoulders, and the significance of the hatchet marks in the tree? Had they been inflicted by another weapon? What was the identity of the mystery man in the car, and who was the man Rita told her aunt she feared? Had Patenaude’s story been, as police contended, only a dream?
The answers, sadly, may well be lost to history; and whatever really happened to Rita Bouchard one February morning in 1947 is a story that has very likely been taken to the grave.
Portions of the above text were originally published in the Providence Journal, Providence Journal Bulletin, and Pawtucket Times, 1947–1956