To Steve Aiello, now in his 50s and a deputy fire chief for the Gloucester Fire Department, Michael O’Gorman will always be the tall, bright and gentle 12-year-old classmate he knew 40 years ago at Fuller School.
Michael was an “all A’s” student from Lanesville, and when he went to Fuller School the morning of March 18, 1974, he was wearing a dark brown corduroy jacket, a green sweater, brown pants and dirty white sneakers.
After he was seen outside the school at the end of the day, none of his family members or friends would see him alive again. Five years after his mysterious disappearance, his body was found near a rest stop off Route 128 in Manchester. To this day, no one knows what happened to him.
While Michael’s death certificate indicates only that the cause of death remains “under investigation,” Manchester police officer Alan Gilson, who attended the autopsy, recalls it showing that Michael had sustained a blow to the head.
With the 40th anniversary of Michael’s disappearance passing earlier this year, the case sparked the interest of a Gloucester High School teacher, Jude Seminara. Researching other local history for his students, Seminara came upon the case of the 12-year-old boy who left school back in 1974 — and never came home.
“It was interesting,” he said. “There were really no answers.”
That’s still true today, and Aiello, Seminara and others say they’re concerned his story will get lost in the shuffle of time.
“The longer it goes, the more likelihood that people will forget about him,” Aiello said. “Just like in the Pike case, maybe someone will feel guilty and say something.”
In 2009, Mike Lane and other Gloucester police detectives reopened an investigation into the 1976 murder of Pike’s Funeral Home employee Eleanor Wadsworth, recognizing that many of the key players in the case were still in the area. Norman Pike, grandson of the funeral home’s then-owner, pleaded guilty to manslaughter related to the decades-old crime just last year, while Keith Ireland also pleaded guilty to a lesser charge of breaking and entering in the case. The alleged shooter, Richard Kennedy, had died in the interim, police said.
While Seminara worries that revisiting Michael’s disappearance may reopen old wounds, he believes it shouldn’t be a roadblock to seeing his killer identified, and it might lead to some semblance of justice.
While the case has been inactive for decades, it’s not closed.
“Murders are never closed,” Gloucester police Chief Leonard Campanello said. “Any new information we welcome.”
The first investigation and search involved local police and at one point a New Jersey psychic who talked of seeing “running water” and the “number 28.”
The investigations were also clouded by what Barry Weiner, a prominent Boston attorney who was an O’Gorman family friend, describes as rumors “hurtful” to the O’Gorman family. Weiner represented the O’Gorman family at the time and still serves as a family spokesman today. Members of the O’Gorman family declined to be interviewed for this story.
The Times filed a state public records request with the Essex County district attorney’s office in March, seeking information about the O’Gorman case. Similar requests to Manchester and Gloucester police yielded little. Manchester police and the DA’s office did release reports from the initial search and discovery of the body, but not from the investigation — including whether there were ever any confirmed suspects.
The office of Essex County District Attorney Jonathan Blodgett, while conceding the investigation has long been “inactive,” still considers the case open. While the office is hopeful new leads may emerge, releasing any information would “seriously compromise our ability to assess the validity of any new leads that may emerge, and thus our ability to bring those responsible to justice,” a statement from the agency reads.
The response from Assistant District Attorney David F. O’Sullivan also notes that there is no statute of limitations when it comes to murder. “This office is hopeful, as always, that new leads may emerge,” he wrote.
By all accounts, Michael — the son of James and Jean Baer O’Gorman — was well-liked by other students. He was quiet, Aiello said, but more open once you got to know him.
Aiello and other kids from his neighborhood were bused to Beeman Elementary because of overcrowding at the old Hovey School (which is still standing, but as condominiums off Washington Street).
Aiello grew up in the city center, and Michael was from Bay View, so Aiello found it a bit daunting to be bused from the city’s core to a somewhat more affluent neighborhood. Yet, Michael helped make the Hovey kids feel welcome, Aiello recalled.
“We became friends quickly ... in school, he was a better than average student, a smart kid,” Aiello said. “You looked at him and you said to yourself, ‘That kid, when he grows up, he’s gonna be a rock star.’’’
Marie Giambanco said she and Michael grew up in the same neighborhood and played in the woods with other friends. She was 11 at the time of his disappearance.
“He was quiet, but I remember him being funny, too,” she said.
Sefatia Romeo Theken, now a city councilor, remembered Michael as the type of friend who wouldn’t hurt anyone.
“He was just an awesome person, an individual,” she said.
Then, one day, he was gone.
The initial report by former Gloucester police Sgt. James Marr noted that he received a missing persons report of an 11-year-old boy — though Michael was 12 when he went missing.
Police got the call around 7:05 p.m. on March 18, and Marr learned from interviews that Michael sometimes took a path from Fuller to his North Kilby Street home, where family members still live today. The path led from the Route 128 Extension to Babson Reservoir — but did not lead to any traces of Michael.
The missing person report on Michael’s disappearance, dated April 4, said that Michael didn’t take any other clothes with him and was not known to run away or have a substance abuse problem. He did have $60, likely birthday money, since he had turned 12 on March 1. As the family begged him to come home, many people reported seeing him throughout the state after news of his disappearance was broadcast.
According to Times articles, state police dispatched a helicopter, as well as police dog, a German shepherd named Schultz. The dog picked up a scent near the reservoir but soon lost the trail.
Other searches included efforts by an auxiliary police force, Gloucester High School students and volunteers from Beverly and Ipswich. John J. Coyle, Gloucester police chief at the time, assigned a Lanesville civilian who was familiar with the area to search some woods.
Linn Parisi, who worked as a volunteer at Gloucester High School at the time and helped in the extensive search for Michael, noted that Lanesville was and remains a tight-knit community.
“It was just so sad and stunning,” she said, adding that the investigation proved to be a “real dead-end sort of thing.”
In today’s world, a student’s disappearance and ultimate death would bring an outpouring of support, including shock and grief counseling, for students and others in the school community. That wasn’t the case at the time of Michael’s disappearance.
“We never got satisfaction in school,” said Romeo Theken. “No therapy.”
Instead, she — like everyone else — was left with a question that still holds today: What happened to Michael O’Gorman?
While police officers and others combed Gloucester, others took different tacks. Soon after Michael’s disappearance, O’Gorman family members contacted Weiner, who had met the family through professional relationships in New York. He was called in to help the O’Gormans by working with different police departments, investigators and the press.
With few places to turn, Weiner contacted a well-known New Jersey psychic, Dorothy Allison. According to The Los Angeles Times, Allison was credited with providing an accurate description of David Berkowitz, New York’s infamous “Son of Sam” killer. She also predicted that Patty Hearst — granddaughter to famous publisher William Randolph Hearst and later kidnap victim — would join her kidnappers in a bank robbery.
“Having talked with the family at some length, and not arriving at any kind of a conclusion, and pretty much being at wit’s end, the family was really looking to try virtually anything to find out where Michael was,” Weiner said.
Weiner first told Allison only that the family lived in Gloucester, that police were involved and the family was frantic about their son’s disappearance.
“Dorothy told me right at the beginning of the conversation, with that little bit of information, that Michael was dead,” Weiner said.
Weiner relayed what Allison “saw” — that Michael was in some type of culvert or depression in the fetal position.
“She heard running water, and that she saw the number 28,” Weiner said. Michael’s body was found off a rest stop on Route 128, near a babbling brook.
“When he was found several years later, he was in the fetal position, in a depression, covered by rock, brook running nearby,” Weiner said.
That discovery came on May 12, 1979, made by a 16-year-old boy in Manchester. According to a report by Manchester police officer Alan Gilson, the boy was riding a motor bike in the woods off Old Essex Road. At first, the boy thought he saw a piece of metal flashing in the sun on the side of a rocky cliff.
“Upon climbing the cliff to check it out, he came upon what he thought was a skeleton,” Gilson wrote.
The boy returned with a friend the next day. Sunday, May 13, was Mother’s Day, so the two decided to wait until May 14 to report what they had found to police. Days later, the skeletal remains were identified as those of Michael O’Gorman.
A redacted transcript from a police interview states that the remains were covered by boulders and leaves.
Gilson, a Navy veteran and now a 41-year veteran of the Manchester Police Department, recalled that the rest stop in Manchester off Route 128 was an area known as a meeting place. He said police tried to run people out of there all the time, with as many as 15 to 20 cars sometimes parked at the rest stop. He estimated that the state shut the rest stop down more than 20 years ago.
The placement and position of Michael’s body, Gilson said, suggested that Michael’s killer knew the rest stop and its environs. The body was found under a “V” shape of rocks, leaves and sticks.
“Somebody put him in there — to hide him,” Gilson said.
He’s also always been convinced that the murderer killed Michael elsewhere. For one thing, Gilson and two other police officers lived on Old Essex Road, which accessed the rest stop.
“If you’re going to commit a crime,” he said, “I don’t think you’d want to do it on a street where three cops are living.”
While there were never any clear signs of what happened to Michael, Weiner said, there were a lot of “rampant suspicions.” Rumors abounded, and the gossip was hurtful to the family, he said. Fingers of suspicion were pointed at teachers, administrators, classmates, family members and neighbors.
“(But) nothing ever came up that led investigators to be able to conclude what had happened,” he said.
Aiello recalled that Michael regularly took the school bus — though he never got on that fateful day. Others, however, recall that, as he grew older, Michael would often hitchhike — a relatively common practice among young people well into the 1970s.
Weiner believes that someone picked Michael up as he was hitchhiking home from school, then later murdered him.
“My recollection of what we do know, is that on that day that he disappeared, he had been spotted hitchhiking,” said Weiner, who does not recall meeting the boy. “That’s my memory.”
There are few signs of Michael today. A stone marker, not far from the family home, bears Michael’s name. And he is listed in the 1980 Gloucester High School yearbook — the year he would have graduated.
Weiner said he hopes any rehashing of what happened doesn’t stir up old rumors or traumatizing memories. But, there is the chance that it might jog the right memory, he acknowledged.
“Do I think about it? Of course,” Weiner said. “From time to time I do. It was a sorrowful time, particularly for the family.”
Weiner said he and family members realize that even identifying and bringing Michael’s killer to justice four decades later would not bring back the 12-year-old who left for school that morning.
“But,” he said, “it would certainly bring an appropriate closure to this tragedy for this family.”
James Niedzinski can be reached at 978-675-2708 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.