Letter to the Editor:Beware of Tom Reilly’s Personal Promises


​In a recent blog regarding my book “The Politics of Murder,” I mentioned that Mr. Reilly was dealing with two very high-profile unsolved murders at the time of Janet Downing’s murder in July, 1995. Deanna Cremins, age 17, was strangled and left in an alleyway just blocks from her house on March 30, 1995. Before that, law professor Mary Jo Krug, age 49, was stabbed to death while walking near her home in Cambridge in the late afternoon of April 4, 1991. Reilly and his CPAC team had failed to develop any suspects for these murders; in fact, they both remain unsolved to this day.

​I got curious about other unsolved murders in Middlesex County during Tom Reilly’s years, from January 3, 1991 to January 7, 1999. I also wondered about how many murder convictions were recorded in Middlesex County during that time. Unfortunately, that data is not readily available on any Internet search. Statistics for homicides in Massachusetts are not gathered by county. Middlesex County is comprised of 12 cities and 42 towns. I tried doing a city-by-city search. Only Cambridge had a listing for all homicides committed, the dates, the manner of death, the place of death, and who—if anyone—was convicted of the crime.

​So my limited review of unsolved murders in Middlesex County during the years that District Attorney Tom Reilly was in office revealed only that under Reilly’s watch there were seven murders that went unsolved, six from Cambridge and one from Somerville.

• 3/5/1991 Uri Woods, 29, of Cambridge was stabbed to death on the street

• 4/4/91 Mary Jo Frug, 49, was stabbed to death in West Cambridge

• 12/5/91 Esther Olofson, 49, was strangled to death in her bed in Cambridge

• 9/22/93 Michael Garner, 23, was robbed and shot in Cambridge

• 3/31/94 Edward Semino was beaten to death behind CASPAR in Cambridge

• 3/30/95 Deanna Cremins, 17, was strangled to death in Somerville

• 8/9/95 Lilia Fagundes, 42, was shot to death in her market in Cambridge​

And here’s what’s really significant: I never heard of these other murders.

In fact, most readers will probably only recognize the name of Deanna Cremins from Somerville. For years, her family had a billboard up on Route 93 asking for information about her case. Tom Reilly often boasted about his empathy for the victims of crime… but I’d never heard him even mention these other victims!

During this same period in Cambridge, Reilly’s office obtained 10 convictions for murdered victims. You wouldn’t recognize any of their names if I listed them, except, perhaps, that of Yngye Raustein, who was an MIT student brutally stabbed on Memorial Drive by a juvenile and two 17-year-olds. But even here, I believe that while most readers would remember the crime, no one remembers Yngye’s name, or nationality, or age, or even how he was killed.

Whether or not one considers 10 convictions out of 16 murders a good clearance rate, (I don’t) the fact is that Mr. Reilly did not choose to personally prosecute any of those murders.

Now think about this: virtually everyone knows the name “Eddie O’Brien.” Everyone knows that his case changed the juvenile laws in Massachusetts, making it possible for 14-year-old children to be tried as adults. Everyone knows that juveniles, after the O’Brien case, could be sent to adult prisons for a sentence of life without parole. Many people even recall the victim’s name, Janet Downing. And most people assume he’s guilty.  

Why was this case so different from all of the other horrific murders that took place during Tom Reilly’s tenure? It’s because he made the case famous, by choosing from the outset that hot summer night in 1995 to handle the prosecution of the case personally. As Michael Blanding noted in a Boston Magazine article entitled “The Reilly Factor” in 2002:

He (Reilly) took the unprecedented step of trying the case himself, leading angry residents to accuse him of using the boy’s trial for his own political ends. Detractors accused him of grandstanding before the TV cameras and turning the case into a political issue he could ride into higher office.

Reilly, on the other hand, told a reporter that he felt a personal responsibility for Downing, whose wounds, he said, showed she’d fought hard for her life.

Does that mean he felt no personal responsibility for the other victims who were brutally murdered under his watch? Did he not believe they had fought hard enough for their lives? What does it say about an elected official who picks and chooses who is worthy of his personal attention—and who is not?

In 2002, Reilly told Boston Magazine that his motivation was nothing more than a “personal promise. We owed it to the family to finish the job.”

Why didn’t Derrick Chance, Bobby Schley, Tyrone Phoenix, Rosalie Whalen, Claire Downing, Trang Phoung Ho, Laurence Cooper, Helena Gardner, Benny Rosa or Joseph Berenger get the district attorney’s personal promise? Why didn’t he owe a personal promise to their families, to finish the job for them too?

There is only one answer to these rhetorical questions. He didn’t personally try those cases because Tom Reilly would never have been elected attorney general for convicting Dennis Whalen, who bludgeoned his wife Rosalie to death with a hammer. Tom Reilly would never have been elected attorney general for convicting Ken Downing for beating his wheelchair-bound wife Claire to death with a blunt object. Domestic violence was just not part of Reilly’s political agenda in 1995. He wasn’t trying to change the laws on domestic violence in Massachusetts. He was, however, trying desperately to change the juvenile laws in Massachusetts. He wanted to be the trailblazer for the superpredator theorists.

Less than a month after the O’Brien verdict, a jury convicted Louise Woodward (a British au pair tried for the murder of a baby in her care) of second-degree murder. But the judge in that case took the highly unusual step of reducing the verdit to manslaughter, and releasing her from custody in exchange for the time she’d served while awaiting trial. Why? He accused Reilly’s office of overreaching and overcharging defendants. He wanted to put an end to it. 

The label “overzealous prosecutor” Reilly earned when he personally prosecuted the O’Brien case was forever cemented, according to Blanding, with the Woodward case.

If only Eddie O’Brien had drawn a judge willing to see what so many others saw in his case: the full weight and power of the state being brought to bear on a 15-year-old boy who had neither the temperament, the motive, or the opportunity to commit this heinous crime. If only Tom Reilly had not made a “personal promise” to Janet Downing’s family, we would have learned who really killed her that hot night in July. The real killer would have been tried and convicted of her murder, just like the other 10 convictions. The Downing family would not be tortured by reopening this case for further investigation, and Eddie O’Brien would not have lost 22 years of his life.

We all lost when Tom Reilly chose this case as his cause célèbre. That is, everyone lost… except Tom Reilly. He won that election for attorney general. But what a price the people of Massachusetts, the Downings, and the O’Briens paid for his win !

I wonder if he thinks it was worth it?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s