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Woburn deaths are ruled homicide

Del. police question, release ex-husband

By Ralph Ranalli and Douglas Belkin
Globe Staff / January 9, 2004

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Looking for the person who killed a Woburn woman and her 12-year-old daughter, investigators in Delaware yesterday questioned and released the woman's former husband.

Prosecutors said that in 2001, the 34-year-old victim, Joanne C. Presti, had accused Thomas J. Pollak, whom she divorced in 2002, of physically abusing her. Both Presti and her daughter, Alyssa, were slain, prosecutors said.

Middlesex District Attorney Martha Coakley said at a press conference yesterday that an autopsy showed that Presti, who was found lying face down on her living room couch, had died of a blow to the head and stab wounds. Later, Coakley's office released a statement that a second autopsy found that Alyssa Presti, who was found in an upstairs bedroom, died from slash wounds to the neck.

In 2001, Presti obtained a restraining order against Pollak, to whom she was then married, saying he hit her with a telephone while she was pregnant with their son, Sean. The 2 1/2-year-old boy was found hungry but alive in the house where the bodies of his mother and half-sister were discovered Wednesday afternoon, authorities said. Police believe the two may have been killed Sunday.

In seeking a restraining order, Presti also had said Pollak tried to choke her, threatened to set her car on fire, forbade her to call the police, and ripped the telephone out of the wall. She also said he threatened to take their son away if she tried to leave their home and said he would frame her by planting drugs in her house.

"He said he is coming back and I am scared because he is abusive and he was supposed to go to counseling and never did," Presti wrote in an Oct. 12, 2001, court document in support of a restraining order. The couple divorced in April 2002.

At the request of authorities in Massachusetts, police in New Castle County, Del., tracked down Pollak and invited him in for questioning yesterday. "We interviewed him, and he was released," said Corporal Trinidad Navarro, police spokesman. "I can't comment on any aspect of the interview."

Alyssa Presti was the daughter of former Boston Bruins player John Carter, who said yesterday that he was stunned by the killings. Carter and Presti were not married, and Carter -- who played for the Bruins in the late 1980s and early 1990s, until an eye injury ended his career -- said he had met the youngster only once.

"This is just awful," Carter said in an interview with the Globe yesterday from his home in Woburn. The former Bruins left-winger said he told police he had no knowledge of the killings and that police had not suggested he was a suspect. "I don't know much of anything, other than things I'm hearing in the media," he said. "I'd like to know what happened, like anyone else. That poor little girl."

Coakley said yesterday that State Police and Woburn police investigators planned to interview the three men who fathered Presti's children. She had another, older son who lives with his father on the North Shore, neighbors said.

While saying that investigators "do not think it was a random act," Coakley said the investigation has yet to focus on any individual. "I will say that everyone we've spoken with to date has been cooperative," Coakley said. "We have no reason to label anyone as a suspect."

She said Presti's body was being examined for possible sexual assault, and officials said some items were taken from the Woburn house for testing to see if they had been used as weapons.

Later, when asked about Pollak's release in Delaware, Coakley's spokesman, Seth Horowitz, said the office would not comment on suspects and that no one has been ruled in or out.

Neighbors said yesterday that Presti and her daughter were popular among the residents of Totman Drive, a quiet, residential street dominated by neat duplex homes. Presti, a licensed optician who had mostly stayed home since the birth of her toddler, often sat outside and watched over the neighborhood children, said Satnam Singh, a nurse and Presti's landlord. "She was just an incredibly nice lady," said Singh. "Alyssa was a beautiful child, kind, sensitive, and gentle."

Singh said she last talked to Presti on Sunday night and became concerned a few days later that no one had come out of the house and that Presti's blue minivan had remained parked in the same spot. Singh and her husband were about to call the authorities when they saw Woburn police arrive with Presti's mother.

Presti loved talking about her children, Singh said, but never offered any information about their fathers. Presti did not appear scared in the days leading up to the killings, Singh said.

Presti's son Sean Pollak was released Wednesday night from Winchester Hospital to the custody of a foster family, said Denise Monteiro, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Social Services.

"He was dehydrated, hungry . . . but he has recovered quite well," Monteiro said. State officials were concerned for Sean's safety because he may have been a witness to the killings. "This young person is a potential witness so we need to keep him safe," she said.

Presti's parents may eventually take the child, Monteiro said. Yesterday she described them as very distraught.

Joanne and Alyssa Presti's bodies were discovered at around 3:45 p.m. Wednesday. There was no apparent forced entry into the home.

At the Daniel L. Joyce Middle School yesterday, Alyssa's death was announced over the public address system at 8:15 a.m., followed by a moment of silence.

Throughout the school day, students trickled into the guidance office to speak with grief counselors. Tears and occasional wails were heard in the office and the cafeteria, where Alyssa's usual seat remained empty.

"There was a lot of talk about it. And the kids who are in her homeroom were wicked sad, and her homeroom teacher was completely sad," said John Cronin, 13, an eighth grader who did not know Alyssa.

Cronin said some teachers eliminated class work and discussed the situation with students. "The teachers just kept telling us that we were safe in school," he said.

One of Alyssa's close friends and classmates yesterday described the 12-year-old as quiet, serious, and responsible. A Pop Warner cheerleader, Alyssa was very well-liked, but she quit halfway into the 2002 season, the girl said, to help take care of her baby brother.

The girl and her mother spoke to reporters yesterday, but declined to be identified by name.

Presti filed for divorce on Oct. 11, 2001, accusing Pollak of "cruel and abusive treatment" during their marriage, according to court documents. In them, she said Pollak had been particularly violent during a Labor Day weekend confrontation weeks earlier.

"He tried to choke me in front of my 10-year-old daughter," Presti wrote in an affidavit. "I can't live like this anymore." During that altercation, police responded after Presti told her daughter to run to the neighbors and call for help, according to the affidavit.

In a permanent restraining order issued Oct. 26, 2001, Presti was granted custody of Sean Pollak, who was then 3 months old. That custody was reinforced in the couple's court-ordered divorce judgment in April 2002.

The restraining order lapsed on Nov. 8, 2002, when neither Presti nor Pollak showed up for a court hearing on an extension, court records show. Police said there were no violations of the order while it was in force, and Coakley called it "just one small piece of the puzzle."

Kevin Paul Dupont of the Globe staff and Globe correspondents Cris Barrish, Maureen Costello, and John McElhenny contributed to this report. Ralph Ranalli can be reached at rranalli@globe.com.

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