Column: How did Bill Boken get away with murder?

Why wasn’t William Boken ever arrested in connection with the October 1966 disappearance of Louise Pietrewicz?

In light of all that has emerged about this 52-year-old case in the last 15 months, and all that is now known, this question demands an answer — for Louise’s family, for the fundamental idea that historical truth matters and for the rule of law. It does not matter that most of the major players in this story are long dead. Justice does not stop at the grave.

When The Suffolk Times published its special report “Gone” in October 2017, Louise became a real person for the very first time. She was a 38-year-old woman, a mother, a sister, an aunt, a wife. After that story, she was no longer a nobody, remembered and mourned only by her family, which today includes her only surviving sibling, 93-year-old Leo Jasinski of Riverhead, and her only child, Sandy Blampied.

On Oct. 5 or 6, 1966, Louise’s sisters, Stephanie Krasity and Josephine Vinski, drove from Sagaponack to the Southold Town Police Department to report her missing. She had last been seen with Mr. Boken, a Southold police officer. Louise, who lived in Cutchogue, had fled to her father’s Sagaponack farm that summer to escape an abusive husband.

Available records and our own reporting make it clear that the sisters got the cold shoulder from the police department, whose chief in 1966 was Joseph Sawicki Sr. Why that would be remains one of the many unanswered questions about this case.

That they got nowhere in Southold is supported by the fact that they then went to the New York State Police barracks in Riverside to ask for help. There, they filled out a missing person’s report. But, while they waited for Southold to act, two critical weeks passed — an enormous amount of time in a missing person’s case. 

Soon into their own probe, state police investigators Tom Cobey and Dick Fairchild concluded that Mr. Boken, who resigned from the town police force Oct. 7, 1966, was responsible for Louise’s disappearance. His brutal treatment of his wife, Judith, was not a secret in some Southold circles; one report says a neighbor had witnessed Mr. Boken dragging his wife into their house. 

As Mr. Cobey and Mr. Fairchild began their investigation, they learned that Mr. Boken was back at his home on Lower Road in Southold. 

But where was Louise? 

According to one report, one of her sisters confronted Mr. Boken at his home. He told her he’d taken Louise to the city and left her there. I can imagine how this sounded to her desperate family. No matter where in Southold the family turned for answers — including the very house where she lay buried — they were lied to or ignored.

According to a conversation Mr. Fairchild had with retired state investigator Bud Griffiths in 2013, town police offered no assistance. The similar behavior of town police toward both Louise’s family and state investigators doesn’t sound like rank incompetence from a group of politically appointed buffoons masquerading as law enforcement in the years before the establishment of civil service standards. It sounds like something else entirely. 

But we can’t rely on official records to tell us what really went on with this case in Southold — for the simple fact that the police blotters from 1966 are among records missing from the basement at police headquarters in Peconic. Missing as in: They are gone. Not lost in a flood when a pipe burst — just gone. The word used in a police report is “unaccounted” for.

Let’s add this up: 

• Police won’t help the family. 

• Police won’t help a state police investigator. 

• Key police department records from that time are missing.

We reported Jan. 31 that Judith Boken — who later became Judith Terry and served as longtime Southold town clerk — witnessed the burial of Louise’s body in the basement of her Southold home. Her husband made her watch; he also made her untie the cords he had wrapped around Louise’s body before he rolled it into the hole he had dug. 

We also reported that Ms. Boken told Chief Sawicki Sr. about the burial of the body in the basement. She revealed this to town investigators in an interview last March. Exactly when she told him is not clear. 

What came of her startling revelation? A Sawicki family statement said that, armed with this information, Chief Sawicki and the state investigators dug in the Bokens’ basement. But they found nothing, so that was that.

In his conversation with Mr. Griffiths, Mr. Fairchild, who was present during the digging, said it was minimal — a few test holes looking for soft spots — and that it occurred in December 1967, a full 14 months after Louise vanished. This does not sound like Southold police were diligent in their search. 

This is what the Southold police department knew in the months after Louise’s disappearance: 

• Louise was missing and was last seen with Mr. Boken.

• A woman’s body was buried in Mr. Boken’s basement. 

Judith Terry’s memory of watching the burial was so vivid and specific that in March 2018 she told Southold investigators exactly where the body was buried, and exactly how deep to dig. At 83 years of age, she may have forgotten a lot of things in her life, but the memory of having a murderer for a husband stayed with her. 

How do we know Mr. Boken was even in Southold and available to be either questioned or arrested? 

Because — and there are police records of this — in December 1967, town supervisor Lester Albertson called the police department and asked that an officer bring Mr. Boken in on a charge of beating up his wife. 

For an elected official to order an arrest seems more in keeping with a corrupt foreign dictatorship than a small American town. But Mr. Albertson was no bit player in local politics. He sat on the Suffolk County Board of Supervisors before the county Legislature was formed, and he would soon become the Suffolk County clerk. 

A politician dictating an arrest is unusual enough, but not as thoroughly bizarre as what came next. The supervisor wanted the officer to take Mr. Boken to a town justice. As we described it in our October 2017 story, this whole episode reeks of being a prearranged fix. The record suggests that one town justice could either not be located or would not assist in this endeavor, so the officer who had this task, Barney Harris, took Mr. Boken to the Mattituck home of town justice Ralph Tuthill late in the evening. 

There, Judge Tuthill presented Mr. Boken with papers committing him to a psychiatric hospital. There was no arraignment on the assault charge; no lawyers were present, nor had a psychiatric report been prepared to justify such a strange extra-legal proceeding. 

But there was more behind this off-hours kangaroo court action than a simple desire to spirit Mr. Boken out of town. The night before, Mr. Fairchild had called town police to inform them that he would arrest Mr. Boken for Louise’s murder. We don’t know whom he spoke to in that call.

“Dick told me that he called the town police and said he was coming out the next morning around 10 a.m., to arrest Boken for the murder of Louise,” Mr. Griffiths remembered. “When he came out, he went to Boken’s brother’s house and was told Boken was no longer in Southold, he was in a psychiatric hospital.” 

In other words, town officials knew ahead of time that a state police investigator was going to arrest Mr. Boken for murder. And on that very morning, he was gone. Mr. Fairchild also told Mr. Griffiths that, had Mr. Boken been arraigned on the assault charge, he would have been sent to the Suffolk County jail, where he could have been questioned. Putting him in a state psychiatric facility, Mr. Fairchild said, made Mr. Boken off limits to investigators.

In several interviews, Mr. Harris said he was “used” the night he picked up Mr. Boken. “I wish I had known what they were up to,” he said. 

Mr. Boken stayed in the hospital for three months. After that, he may have lived with or near a family member in New Jersey for a while, but we know from records that he died in Queens in August 1982 and was buried in a pauper’s grave when no one claimed the body. He outlived the woman he murdered by 16 years.

Current Southold Town Chief Martin Flatley released the records to The Suffolk Times last week because the Suffolk County Police Department’s Homicide Squad declared the case closed. By all appearances, however, Suffolk Homicide didn’t actually do anything except hold a press conference when the remains were found. 

In the audience at that press conference was Joseph Sawicki Jr., the former chief’s son, who is currently Suffolk County’s deputy commissioner of finance in the police department. 

The Suffolk District Attorney’s office did not get involved either. With so many unanswered questions remaining, the most significant being the question that starts this column, should they have weighed in? Could they still?

Southold’s lack of action probably had nothing to do with shielding Mr. Boken from prosecution. These town officials knew how crazy he was. They knew — this is in reports — that he had guns in the house and was prepared to shoot it out if anyone came for him. A local woman who called me after the October 2017 story was published said Mr. Boken told her father he kept a “kill list” of people in town he felt deserved his wrath.

What did Mr. Boken have on town officials? 

Whatever it was, they got him out of town and away from state investigators and an almost certain arrest. A good guess is they did it to protect their own reputations in the shabby political swamp they wallowed in.

Photo caption: William Boken in a photo that hung at Southold Police headquarters as recently as October 2017. (Credit: Grant Parpan)

Steve Wick is the executive editor of the Times Review Media Group. He can be reached at [email protected].

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