Cigarette Butt Leads to Vermont Teacher Rita Curran’s Killer Over 50 Years Later

For over five decades, the Burlington Police Department has remained stumped by the mystery of who brutally beat and sexually assaulted a 24-year-old elementary school teacher before fatally strangling her inside her apartment.

On Tuesday, the department announced they have finally cracked the state’s oldest cold case, revealing that Rita Curran’s killer was none other than her next-door neighbor, William DeRoos. During a press conference, police said they used DNA from a discarded cigarette butt found at the scene to identify DeRoos as the culprit of the July 20, 1971, slaying that at one time was linked to notorious serial killer Ted Bundy.

Acting Police Chief Jon Murad said that in July 1971, DeRoos, then 31, lived upstairs from Curran with his wife of only two weeks. The night of the murders, Murad said the newlyweds got into an argument and DeRoos left for a “cool-down walk”—though his wife later provided her husband with an alibi when he was questioned by police.

“Five decades later, she gave our detectives a different story: the truth,” Murad said, noting that DeRoos ultimately traveled to Thailand, where he lived as a Buddhist monk. DeRoos died in 1986 in California of “acute morphine poisoning,” according to a 2023 police investigation report obtained by The Daily Beast.

Curran’s surviving sister and brother attended the Tuesday press conference, thanking police for their continued efforts to solve the murder.

Kylas Nagaarjuna, who was married to DeRoos at the time of the murder and whose interviews with police ultimately helped solve the case, told The Daily Beast on Tuesday that she is still “overwhelmed” by the news and that she “has conveyed a message” to Curran’s family.

“I don’t wish to speak to the public about this,” she added.

Brandon del Pozo, who oversaw the 51-year-old case when he was Burlington Police chief for four years until 2019, told The Daily Beast on Tuesday that “Rita’s killer may be dead but if this is all the justice Burlington police can offer her spirit and her loved ones, then so be it.”

“Unless the police keep their memory alive and continue the investigation, the victims of unsolved murders are often lost to time. I’m so proud of the Burlington detectives who kept Rita’s case open while I served as chief, traveling in [and around] the country to collect comparison DNA and re-interview witnesses, and who never stopped until today,” he added. “The Burlington Police Department never forgot about Rita.”

As previously reported by The Daily Beast, Curran had just moved to the ground floor of a Burlington apartment with two roommates when she was brutally murdered. At the time, she was a second-grade teacher, taking graduate courses at the University of Vermont while working part-time as a chambermaid at the nearby Colonial Motor Inn.

According to a local report at the time, Curran was practicing with her local barbershop quartet until about 10 p.m. on the night of the murders before she came home to find her roommates and one of their boyfriends, Paul Robinson. Robinson told The Daily Beast last year that he and Curran’s roommates went out for a late bite for maybe “two or three” hours that night—and that the teacher declined to join.

Robinson said that the trio returned home after midnight, and Curran was not discovered until one of her roommates went into their shared bedroom and found her strangled. In an interview last July, he added that he remembered the roommate yelling at him to come over before “she opened the door and showed me Rita.”

“I was the one that called the police. I told them there had been a murder,” he said, adding, “I have always had a question about whether Rita was still alive when we got back into the apartment that night.”

A chief medical examiner later concluded that Curran’s face and head had been badly beaten, and there were indications she had been sexually assaulted before she died of “manual strangulation.” Robinson and Curran’s roommates were all cleared of any involvement in the crime. (Robinson did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Tuesday.)

The investigator’s report notes that authorities found a cigarette butt “laying on the floor” below Curran’s elbow. Later that night, another officer spoke to DeRoss and his wife on the night of the murders. Both told police “they heard nothing and Mrs. DeRoss stated that she had been up around 1:00 a.m. but had heard no unusual noises or anything else.”

News reports at the time also stated that neighbors did not hear any loud sounds—which Robinson found odd because the walls in their two-bedroom apartment were extremely thin.

“I have to believe that someone heard something that night,” he told the Beast.

Despite the intense public interest in Curran’s murder—which even prompted authorities to institute a media blackout—the case went cold. But in 1980, the case gained renewed attention after Curran was named as a possible Bundy victim in Ann Rule’s 1980 classic The Stranger Beside Me.

In the book, a retired FBI agent revealed there was a “remarkable resemblance between Rita Curran” and Bundy’s first girlfriend, Diane Edwards. The book also noted that Curran worked near the Elizabeth Lund Home for Unwed Mothers, where Bundy was born.

The connection was investigated by the Burlington Police Department, local cops confirmed to The Daily Beast.

The February 2023 investigative report states that a “big break in the case occurred in 2014,” when investigators were able to retrieve DNA from the cigarette butt left next to Curran’s right arm. Bundy’s DNA was among the 13 individuals compared to the cigarette, and he was ultimately ruled out. The report also notes that Robinson’s DNA was not a match.

Last August, the cigarette butt DNA was tested against DeRoos’—and investigators finally found a genetic match. A month later, they met with DeRoos’ former wife, who said that he had been in prison twice prior to their marriage and that they both were “into the ‘Buddhist scene.’”

The report states that Nagaarjuna revealed the pair got into a “quarrel” the night of the murders and that he left the apartment to cool down. She added that she did not remember how long he had left but that the next day, DeRoos “told her not to mention that he was not at home” at the time of the murders because he had a criminal record and that the police “would try to accuse him of it.”

She added that after the 1971 incident, DeRoos moved to Thailand to become a monk. Eventually, she also moved to be with her husband and became a nun, but they did not have “much of a relationship after that because it was against the rules.” The pair eventually divorced.

For Murad, the closure of Curran’s case marks his department’s ongoing commitment to solving the grisly murder—and the importance of “open-source DNA databases.”

“When people doing an ancestry or genealogy test check the box saying it’s okay for law enforcement to use the results, they are helping solve murders,” he told The Daily Beast on Tuesday. “They are bringing evil-doers to justice. They are delivering closure to families.”

“I am tremendously proud of the detectives who did this for Rita and her family,” the acting chief added.

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