Outgoing Stockbridge police chief hopeful successor can help solve homicide
STOCKBRIDGE -- The unsolved homicide of Jan Stackhouse, 52, a Brooklyn, N.Y., labor organizer, on a leafy lane in a quiet, rural section of town near Route 183 (Glendale Road) nearly nine years ago is being reopened for a more active investigation.
Police Chief Richard "Rick" Wilcox, in his final interview before retiring this Friday after 28 years running the department, disclosed that he and the new chief, Robert M. Eaton, Jr., have discussed the case intensively during the three weeks they have worked together during this month's transition.
"He's very interested in continuing to pursue it," Wilcox said, "and it's a fresh set of eyes. My hope is that it's a doable case in terms of resolving it."
Eaton will work with state police and the Berkshire District Attorney's office, the primary investigators, Wilcox said. "We'll spend a day or two on it, all day long," he said. "When he can get his head above water and we have the time, we'll do it and work with the DA's state police unit."
The slaying took place on a Sunday afternoon along Dugway Road. A neighbor found Stackhouse with a fatal neck wound, face down in a pool of blood, according to Eagle archives.
Stackhouse had been on a weekend visit to console a friend who had recently lost his partner. The friend's house was near the dirt road where her body was discovered not long after she went out for a walk alone at 1 p.m. The neighbor came upon her body 30 minutes later after hearing a scream.
The massive police investigation included search dogs and metal detectors in the wooded area along Dugway Road. Neighbors, friends and acquaintances in Stockbridge and Brooklyn were questioned, but no one ever was arrested.
In 2006, speculation developed following the arrest of William S. Demagall, who had been living in caves not far from Dugway Road in 2005, before he was charged with killing George Mancini, a Hillsdale, N.Y., man in his home the following year. Demagall was convicted in 2007 after a trial that included testimony about his mental illness, characterized by erratic, delusional behavior.
At the time, Berkshire District Attorney David Capeless confirmed that Demagall had attracted the attention of investigators in the Stackhouse case, but he declined to characterize him as a suspect. Capeless could not be reached for further comment on Monday, a federal holiday.
Demagall's case has followed a long and winding road.
In 2009, a New York state appeals court reversed the original conviction, prompting a second trial. In 2010, at Columbia County Court, he was again convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to 25 years to life. But on Jan. 9 of this year, the state Supreme Court reversed the 2010 conviction. The New York Court of Appeals has ordered a third trial as Demagall remains imprisoned in Washington County.
Bizarre incidents of vandalism in the rural neighborhood rattled fearful residents in the first five years following the murder: A knife stuck in a tree, a decapitated angel statuette, and a nearby homeowner's life-sized garden statue, a female figure, decapitated, the head found at its feet.
The unsolved murder case remains among Wilcox's gnawing memories as he looked back on 28 years as chief. He has called the case "a very big frustration ... in terms of my ability to give the community peace of mind."
His other regrets include "the mea culpas for any time when I didn't have enough patience, or spend enough time, and those are little things, but maybe some people were upset or slighted, and some weren't, but in my mind, I could have given a little more at that point, whatever it was. There were times when I thought, ‘I could have done that better.' "
As Wilcox acknowledged, there are especially challenging circumstances facing a police chief in a small town.
"The most difficult is when you have to go and tell the parents of a child who was killed in an automobile accident," he said.
When Blake Champion, son of famed dancers Marge and Gower Champion, died in a single-car accident on Route 7 north of town on May 21, 1987, it was Wilcox's task to break the news to the 25-year-old's mother, a Stockbridge resident, along with a close family friend.
In 1992, when the three children of John and Elizabeth Moritz of Sheffield, aged 8, 9 and 11, died in an auto accident while being taken home by a carpool driver from school in Pittsfield, Wilcox was among the first responders to the scene on an icy Route 7 along High Lawn Farm in Lee, just north of the Stockbridge town line.
"I literally watched one of the children die, and the other two were already dead," said Wilcox sadly. He called it perhaps the worst memory and the most difficult moment of his career.
"An adult, an older person, at least they've had a chance to live life, and with a young child, it's the ultimate tragedy." he observed.