1984 murder of Virginia Hannon solved after deathbed confession

April 02, 2022

On February 13, 1984, 59-year-old Virginia Hannon was found beaten, stabbed, and strangled at her home in Pembroke, Massachusetts.

Virginia “Ginny” Hannon was well liked in the Pembroke community. She worked as a cook at Bryantville Elementary School where she was known for her kind and giving nature. She liked to bake and give out cookies and treats to the students and local kids. She also took care of stray animals in the area.

"The kids loved her, and she loved them. She gave them extra cookies and juice. She was well liked and could have been elected mayor by them...we are surprised something like this happened” said Joseph Hannon, the victim’s father-in-law.

Virginia was a widow; she had lost her husband 13 years earlier in 1971 and lived alone in a small yellow cottage on West Street, around three miles from the town center. Each year she would travel over 3,000 miles to California to visit her aunt, she spoke fondly of her aunt to neighbors and acquaintances and was so friendly and personable that she often shared details of her life with strangers in the community. When her aunt died, Virginia inherited around $380,000 and resigned from her job, settling into an early retirement. Not much else about her life changed after she came into the money, however, she shared details of the inheritance with those in the local community. Although she had deposited her inheritance at the bank, rumors that Hannon kept stacks of money in her cottage circulated.

On the night before her murder, Virginia Hannon drove four miles south west to the nearby town of Hanson to attend evening mass at St. Joseph's church at around 5pm with a friend of hers, Dolly Harmeth. After church, the two women drove seven miles south to Halifax, where they had dinner at BR’s restaurant. The two friends would regularly go to dinner after evening mass and Saturday February 11, 1984, was no exception. After dinner. Dolly Harmeth drove Virginia Hannon home and the two bid each other goodnight at around 7:30pm. Hannon climbed the steps to the cottage, likely struggling to breathe as usual, a symptom of the emphysema she suffered from that was exacerbated whenever she did anything slightly strenuous.  Nobody heard from Hannon over the weekend.

The following Monday, February 13, at approximately 11am, Hannon’s stepfather’s housekeeper made a startling discovery at the West Street residence. Virginia was a caretaker to her stepfather who lived nearby and she would take him lunch each day.

The housekeeper called into Virginia Hannon’s home to request a spare key for Hannon’s stepfather’s home, but instead happened upon a disturbing scene.

Virginia Hannon was discovered murdered in her bed with a sheet pulled over her. Her body displayed obvious signs of trauma and injury. She had been hit in the face and stabbed six times about the abdomen. What appeared to be the imprint of a shoe-mark on her stomach implied she had been kicked by her attacker. A pair of stockings found at the scene had been used to bind her and she had been strangled. Some reports state she had been stabbed in the eye. Hannon’s brutal murder was the first murder in the small town of Pembroke in over ten years.

In 2019, Ted Cain, who was Detective Sgt. of the Pembroke police at the time of the 1984 murder, told WSBTC: “I’ve said this before but when she was murdered, you could hear the locks across Pembroke, cars and front doors being locked.”

There was sign of a break in at Hannon’s home; both the window and the door had been damaged to gain access to the cottage. $100 that she was said to have in her wallet on the night she went out to dinner with Dolly Harmeth was unaccounted for, leading police to believe that the motive for her murder may have been robbery. Police believe she may have been tortured. There no evidence indicated that she had been sexually assaulted during the murder.

No suspects were ever identified in Virginia Hannon’s murder. Police canvassed the area looking for answers but none of Hannon’s neighbors reported hearing anything out of the ordinary on the night of her murder. They described her as well-liked with no known enemies and with no leads or suspects the case went cold. It stayed cold for almost 40-years until 2020, when police received a tip telling them that a Brockton man, Jesse Aylward, was the killer. Aylward was born March 9, 1961 and died February 3, 2020. His obituary described him as intelligent and independent and stated that he liked to help the homeless. He is said to have worked as a handyman and at one point owned his own paving business.

The tip was received one day after Aylward died in hospital, the tipster said Aylward confessed to the murder while on his deathbed at the age of 58. He was 22 at the time he committed the murder.

Police obtained a warrant to collect a sample of the suspects DNA and tested it against that found at the crime scene. It was a match. Finally, after 37 years, they were able to close the case of Virginia Hannon’s murder. The DNA was collected from the nylon stockings used to bind the victim as well as the broken glass from the break in. Paper towels saturated in blood were also used to collect the killer’s DNA. Investigators had already tested the DNA found at the crime scene several times before. In 2018 they began testing the evidence again and by 2019 they had a male genetic profile. Frustratingly it did not aid them in identifying the perpetrator but was significant when it came to confirming Aylward as Hannon’s killer.

Although police finally have Hannon’s killer, they do not know the motive. There is no reported link between Hannon and Aylward.

In a statement Plymouth District Attorney Tim Cruz said: “Though this investigation has spanned more than 37 years, we have identified Virginia Hannon’s killer and that is -- it is Jesse Aylward. We have exhausted all of the evidence that we currently have and it all points in the direction of Jesse Aylward.”

Sources: [X][X][X][X][X]

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