Spattered blood and speculation

By Matt Bai
Globe Staff / August 28, 1996

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LINCOLN -- There are ghosts rustling in the hallowed woods off the old Battle Road here. The footsteps of British soldiers echo through time, winding their way toward the ambush at Bloody Curve, just around the bend on what is now Route 2A.

Mixed in, perhaps, are the frantic steps of Joan Risch, running through the weeds -- running from an attacker, or maybe from a life she no longer wanted.

It has been 35 years since Risch -- a wealthy, 31-year-old homemaker and mother of two -- vanished from her white, Cape-style home here. She left behind a spattering of blood and a trail of speculation.

Today the stagnant case file is yellow with the years. All but one of the investigators who obsessed over it have died. Even the house where Joan Risch lived is gone, moved to a lot in nearby Lexington. Her husband, who lives quietly in town, declines to discuss the case.

But Risch's specter haunts this community. Coming less than a year before the Boston Strangler first struck, her disappearance foreshadowed the end of a brief, idyllic time in suburban America, before laser sensors and dead-bolted doors.

Most people believe that Joan Risch is dead and has been since that October afternoon in 1961. Some say her body lies under the asphalt of Route 128. Others speculate that she is living out her days somewhere, confident that no one will ever recognize her.

``This is one of the things that I would most like to see happen before I pass on, to have some resolution to that,'' said Leo J. Algeo, the one-time police chief in Lincoln and the last of the gumshoes who worked the case. ``It's sort of a stone around my neck.''

Risch, a college-educated socialite with pale eyes and dark hair cut in the style made popular by Jacqueline Kennedy, was last seen by neighbors on Oct. 24, 1961 -- six months after she and her husband Martin moved to Lincoln.

That afternoon, Risch's 4-year-old daughter ran to a neighbor and said, in a quote that would become notorious, ``Mommy is gone and the kitchen is covered with red paint.'' Her 2-year-old brother was napping.

The paint turned out to be Joan Risch's blood. The telephone was ripped from the wall. Police lifted a bloody fingerprint but were never able to match it. No weapon was ever found.

A trail of blood ended in the driveway. Droplets were on the side of Risch's parked car. Two neighbors said they saw a strange sedan in the driveway, but police determined that what they saw was probably an unmarked cruiser.

From the start, police believed Risch was abducted. Then, they theorized, she was either put into another car or she ended up in the woods, chased or carried by her assailant. That would explain the abrupt end to the blood trail.

A neighbor said she had seen Risch outside the house that afternoon, running and looking dazed. She had assumed Risch was chasing one of the children. A few motorists said they had spotted a bloody woman looking dazed near the site where Route 128 was being built. But no one had stopped to help her.

On the day his wife disappeared, Martin D. Risch, an executive at a paper company, was on a business trip in New York. He was questioned, but investigators ruled him out as a suspect.

Then the search for Risch took a new turn in, of all places, the musty town library. It was there that Sareen Gerson, then a 40-year-old reporter for the local newspaper, The Fence Viewer, found a clue while browsing through a book about Brigham Young's 27th wife, who had mysteriously disappeared.

On the check-out card for the book was Joan Risch's signature, dated Sept. 16.

Gerson prowled the stacks and found another book Risch had recently taken out called ``Into Thin Air.'' It was about another woman who vanished, leaving no trace but blood smears and a towel.

A hastily assembled group of volunteers from the town's library committee soon compiled a list of some 25 books Risch had apparently read that summer. Most concerned murders or unexplained disappearances.

``The whole thing added up to our feeling that she had planned the disappearance and was looking for a way to do it,'' said Gerson, now 74 and living near Washington.

Risch had led a life at once tragic and rewarding. People close to the case said she had been sexually assaulted as a child. Newspapers reported that her parents had been killed in a suspicious fire in New Jersey when she was nine.

Before marrying, she had worked in New York publishing houses. Gerson recalled that Risch seemed like a driven woman whose ambitions had been stunted.

But Sabra Morton, a college friend of Joan Risch who still lives in Lexington, disagreed. She said she had never seen Risch happier than she was in Lincoln.

``I think Joan is almost certainly dead,'' Morton said. ``She would never have left her family on her own.''

As months and then years passed after Risch's disappearance, there were scores of reported sightings in the Lincoln area. Several skulls and bodies were unearthed and thought to be hers. None were.

In 1975 the house where the Risches lived was moved to Lexington to make room for Minuteman National Park. Martin Risch moved to another house nearby, where he lives with his son, David, now 37. Martin Risch has kept quiet about the case for years and said last week that he was ``not interested'' in discussing it now.

Like some law enforcement officials, Martin Risch once said that he thought his wife was alive somewhere, suffering from amnesia. Several years ago one investigator hypothesized that she had wandered into an excavation pit near the new highway and was buried accidentally when the pit was filled.

Leo Algeo sat in a sun parlor at his home in Stow last week and recalled the frustrating years he spent trying to track down Joan Risch.

``I thought they'd find a body or bones or something,'' he said. ``Things do turn up. People don't disappear without a trace.''

Algeo said he has his own theories about what happened but is keeping them to himself. Asked if he would be willing to bet that she was dead, he said, ``No.''

Algeo stared into the woods beyond his home. For a moment, it seemed he was again chasing Joan Risch's ghost.

Then she was gone.

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