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Slaying victim had fled a troubled past

Tentative ID cited for body in freezer

John T. Kelley, the man whose wife killed him and stashed him in a freezer, was escaping his own past and a looming criminal indictment when he fled with his wife from Somerville in the 1980s to start a new life in California, a friend said yesterday.

At a family wedding reception in Somerville in 1981, a brawl erupted among the guests, and Kelley's brother-in-law was fatally injured. Four men, including Kelley, were later charged in the wild fight, although no murder charge was brought.

The death devastated the family and Kelley decided he had to flee, said Thomas McCann, Kelley's close friend. ''He thought a grand jury was going to come down with an indictment, and he wasn't sticking around to find out," McCann said last night. ''He didn't want anything to do with that."

Kelley fled to California and told McCann that he planned to leave the country to avoid being charged with the murder of his brother-in-law, Edward Gordinier.

The details about the wedding brawl unspooled as Massachusetts law enforcement officials announced yesterday that they had tentatively identified the body discovered inside a Somerville storage facility earlier this week as Kelley's. A preliminary autopsy yesterday showed that he was killed by a gunshot wound to the back of his head, said Middlesex District Attorney Martha Coakley.

As the bizarre tale of John Kelley and his wife, Geraldine, stretched from Somerville to California, secrets piled upon secrets. After Geraldine Kelley killed her husband about 13 years ago and stuffed his body in a freezer, she told friends and coworkers at the California motel where she worked three different stories about his accidental death in a car accident.

Police went to Planet Self Storage on Medford Street in Somerville Thursday after Kelley, 54, confessed on her deathbed that she had killed her husband. Kelley, who died Nov. 12 from breast cancer, made her confession to her daughter, Sheri-Ann Bouchie.

Officials say they believe that Kelley killed her husband in California and shipped his body to Somerville in 1998 when she returned to her hometown, Coakley said at a press conference yesterday at her Cambridge office. Police found the .38-caliber gun they believe was used to kill Kelley in Geraldine Kelley's Somerville apartment.

News of the gruesome tale shook those who knew the couple in Ventura, Calif., where they lived after leaving Somerville.

Allied Van Lines driver Mark Atkins said he recalls loading Geraldine Kelley's belongings, including a freezer sealed in duct tape, in late October 1998 from her apartment at a motel and from a storage unit, both in Ventura.

In early November 1998, Atkins said, he delivered the goods to Kelley's Cypress Street address in Somerville and to the storage unit at Planet Self Storage. He said he didn't notice anything unusual, or detect any smell from the freezer, at the time of the move.

Yesterday, he was incredulous when he heard about Kelley on the news, and called the story ''horrifying."

''I said, 'Aww, it can't be,' " he said. But then a friend from work called, he said, and confirmed that Kelley was the woman Atkins had moved.

When Geraldine Kelley finally told the truth, Coakley said at the press conference, it was not clear whether she ''wanted to unburden herself" or if she wanted her children to know ''so they wouldn't go and find [the body] and so they would not be blamed for it."

''The main thrust was to let them know where he was," Coakley said. ''It appears her concern was for them."

The state's chief medical examiner tentatively identified John Kelley based on physical descriptions of him and his tattoos, Coakley said. The remains matched a description of Kelley provided by California authorities: 5 feet 6 inches tall, 135 pounds, and bearing three distinctive tattoos: a panther on his right shoulder, a Kewpie doll on his right arm, and a picture of a skull on his left arm.

The locked freezer, still in its cardboard box, was not plugged in while in Somerville, officials said. Coakley described the remains inside as ''essentially mummified."

Geraldine Kelley told her children and others that her husband had been killed in a car accident in Las Vegas. The Kelleys' two children, Bouchie and John Paul Kelley, had been estranged from their parents for years, Coakley said, and John Kelley had also been estranged from his own family, including his siblings. On her deathbed, Coakley said, Geraldine Kelley told her daughter that she had been abused by her husband.

Coakley said the history of domestic violence in the couple's relationship was one reason the children suspended contact with their parents in the late 1980s. In 1989, John Kelley was convicted of driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs, according to records in Ventura County Superior Court.

Coakley said authorities knew of no insurance money being paid to anyone as a result of John Kelley's slaying. ''This does not appear to have a financial motive," she said.

The Kelleys' two children released a written statement through their lawyers yesterday, which recounted the estrangement from their parents and Geraldine Kelley's story that their father had been killed in a car accident and was buried in another state.

Coakley said the children lost touch with their parents in the late 1980s; when they reestablished contact with their mother, she told them their father had died in a car accident in Las Vegas in the early 1990s, Coakley said.

''Until the recent disclosure by their mother, they accepted and believed their mother's story as true," the statement from the Kelleys' children read. ''Today they are facing the grim reality of what has actually happened."

The statement, released by lawyers Dennis J. Kelly and David M. Losier of the law firm Burns & Levinson, said Kelley's confession and the discovery of the body have been ''traumatic events for them."

At the 1981 wedding party in the courtyard of Bryant Manor, a Somerville Housing Authority complex for the elderly, John Kelley had been drinking heavily and became violent, as he often did when he was under the influence of alcohol, McCann said.

He said Kelley told him he had assaulted Gordinier, his brother-in-law, who later died, but that he was not responsible for his death.

''He said he didn't kill him," McCann said. ''He said he punched his lights out, and he remembers that."

After the brawl, McCann said Kelley -- whom he met when he was 14, in East Somerville where they used to hang out -- changed. ''He became very secretive," McCann said.

McCann never heard from Kelley after he left for California. Before Kelley left, he told McCann, ''I'm severing all ties." McCann tried sending him a few Christmas cards, but added, ''I never heard nothing out of him after moved away, no cards, nothing."

Although Kelley was violent when drunk, McCann said he never heard about any domestic violence between Kelley and his wife. Kelley served for a time in the Army and owned an auto repair shop in Somerville, McCann said.

John Kelley was indicted by a Middlesex grand jury in late September 1982 on charges of assault and battery on Michael Coughlin, another of the indicted brawlers, and being a disorderly person. The exact date of his departure from Massachusetts is not clear.

Margaret Winters of New Hampshire, John Kelley's older sister, said yesterday that Geraldine and John moved to California because of ''simple feuds."

''They wanted to get away from the family; it was a whole bunch of different things," she said, declining to be more specific.

After the wedding brawl, Gordinier clung to life, in a coma, at Somerville Hospital in critical condition until he eventually died. His kidneys had failed, and he had undergone three operations, including one to remove part of his stomach, Gordiner's brother-in-law said at the time.

Once John and Geraldine Kelley arrived in California, they applied together in 1988 for a job managing the Victoria Motel, now a $50-a-night motel beside the freeway in Ventura, a seaside city north of Los Angeles.

Their cover letter presented a united couple ready to work together on plumbing, electrical work, and painting and said they could start immediately.

The husband-and-wife team, both graduates of Somerville High School, said they had owned and managed two apartment complexes in Somerville between 1975 and 1986, according to their resumes and cover letter.

Their letter also said John Kelley had owned an auto repair shop and had been a foreman at a steel manufacturing plant, but did not say where.

Former motel co-workers in California described Geraldine Kelley as private, gruff, but also hard working. Valerie Kiunke, whose late father owned the motel, said yesterday that Kelley kept out the riff-raff, refusing to let high school students party at the motel on prom night. She was short, about 5 feet 2 inches, but she could move mattresses on her own.

''She didn't take any guff from anybody," said Don Kiunke, Valerie's husband.

Geraldine Kelley owned a boa constrictor and used to garden with the snake draped around her neck, Valerie Kiunke said. Potential guests would see the large snake and keep driving, she said.

Scott Allen, Matthew Carroll, John Ellement, Shelley Murphy, Maria Sacchetti, Donovan Slack, and Suzanne Smalley of the Globe staff contributed to this report, along with Globe correspondent Benjamin Gedan. 

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