By Marjorie Nesin
---- — LAWRENCE — With the sentencing of Norman Pike, a superior court judge closed the file Tuesday on the once-cold case of whag he termed the “hideous murder of Elee Wadsworth,” the Pike Funeral Home manager killed during a botched December 1976 afternoon burglary at the funeral home.
Lawrence Superior Court Judge Richard E. Welch sentenced Pike to 14-15 years in a state prison under a plea agreement through which Pike, charged with first-degree murder in 2010, admitted to the lesser charge of manslaughter Monday morning, just before he was set to face trial for the murder.
Pike’s attorney, Thomas Ford, described a troubled young man who, then 19 ,had entered his grandfather’s funeral home with two others, planning to steal some $1,400 from a safe to repay a drug debt.
“He was a floundering young man,” Ford said. “He didn’t really have anyone.”
Still, he added that Elee was one of the few people, “if not the only person,” who was “nice” to his client, a teen who he said barely spoke with his father and had been kicked out of the family home after missing curfew.
The victim’s family members, two of whom spoke to Judge Welch about the impact of their aunt’s death, also carried no doubt that Wadsworth had treated the younger Pike kindly, remembering the younger Pike as a generous woman. Wadsworth, who was 65, had raised no children of her own but doted on the young ones who surrounded her, family said.
Robert M. Wadsworth stood at the front of the courtroom Tuesday recounting the days before his aunt was shot three times in the head while working at the funeral home. He recalled that, at age 12, hed had asked days earlier for movie money from his aunt, and she happily tucked it into his palm.
“That’s how Elee lived her life. She held out her hand and everybody took what they wanted, and he took what he wanted,” Wadsworth said, eyeing Pike in the courtroom. “It’s a shame her hand, on that day in 1976, became closed.”
His father, Elee’s brother, died in 2002 before Gloucester Police reopened the case in 2009. Wadsworth said his father lived the years after his sister’s death in a state of anger, “stuck in a cage.”
Elee’s sister, Helen, was bedridden for two years after her the shocking death, Helen’s son John Carr, who was 29 at the time of the murder, told Judge Welch. Soon after getting back on her feet again, Carr’s mother suffered a stroke, he explained to the judge.
“I hold this gentleman (Pike) responsible for that as well. This has been nothing but years of torment,” Carr said.
When Michael Lane, the police department’s lead detective in 2009, reopened the case and sent out scientific evidence for DNA testing, those tests returned no usable evidence. Still the detective, who would later serve three years as Gloucester’s interim chief, pushed on.
He and Gloucester Detective Steve Mizzoni, along with State Detective Joshua Ulrich, reached out to numerous people close to the case and interviewed and researched until they found a lead.
“He didn’t put the box back on the shelf,” Judge Welch said of Lane. “That is hard work and it doesn’t always pan out. It’s simply good police work, and doing their job.”
Police discovered that Pike had entered the funeral home with two other men while his grandfather, Harold Pike, and another employee at the funeral home were working an 11 a.m. funeral. The two men had returned to a ringing phone rattling at the funeral home.
“We were alarmed,” said Dennis Daulton, the funeral home employee who still works at the home. “She always picked up the phone.”
Daulton left to tend to more work over at the hospital, and Harold Pike discovered Wadsworth’s body while Daulton was out. In the days following, Daulton and Pike, who died in 1997, busied themselves preparing for the funeral as police headed up a fruitless investigation.
“We didn’t even have time to cry,” Daulton recalled outside of court Tuesday.
Investigations after police reopened the case pointed detectives to Pike, but also led police to a man named Richard Kennedy, whom officers suspect fired the shots. Kennedy died in 2003 in Florida.
The third man charged with the crime, Kevin Ireland, walked free in March 2012, after pleading guilty to a lesser charge of breaking and entering and also agreeing to cooperate with police against Pike.
At age 56, Ireland was sentenced in Salem Superior Court to six to seven years in prison, but with just two years to serve and the rest suspended for two years as a condition of his probation.
Pike, outfitted in a white T-shirt with jail shackles lining the hems of his jeans, and with his clipped hair now grayed, was the last suspect to face trial in the case. He raised a crumpled tissue over his nose and mouth and sniffled before making his own statement about the crime he committed 37 years ago.
“I just want to say I’m glad everyone feels resolution from this,” he said.
Marjorie Nesin can be reached at 978-283-7000, x3451, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.