Skip to comments.Girl Scout killer up for parole, 1973 crime seared in Hillsdale's Memory
Posted on 03/02/2009 12:57:58 PM PST by Coleus
Rosemarie D'Alessandro came face-to-face with every mother's darkest fear in the spring of 1973 when her 7-year-old daughter, Joan, was raped and strangled by a teacher as she delivered Girl Scout cookies in her quiet Hillsdale neighborhood. Joseph McGowan, then a 26-year-old chemistry teacher, admitted to abducting, sexually assaulting and murdering the blue-eyed, pony-tailed girl. D'Alessandro fought for years to pass a law in her daughter's memory. Her crusade culminated in landmark legislation that denies parole to anyone serving a life sentence for molesting and killing a child under 14.
Thirty-five years after Joan's murder, D'Alessandro is still fighting. But her goal now is to deny freedom to the man who killed her daughter. "Joan's Law," enacted in 1997, can't keep McGowan behind bars, because at the time of his conviction, the law permitted parole for such crimes. To keep McGowan in prison, D'Alessandro must press her case to the state Parole Board next month. After more than three decades in East Jersey State Prison in Rahway, McGowan will have a hearing before the Parole Board in January and could be released as early as the following month, authorities say.
"It makes no sense to me that I have to keep fighting like this, but I have to make sure he can't ever do this to anyone else," said D'Alessandro, who is asking people to join her campaign to collect signatures and send letters imploring that McGowan's parole be denied. Her goal is to send at least 10,000 signatures and 150 letters to the Parole Board; about 5,000 signatures have been collected so far, she said.
"I've seen the depth of sorrow and I wouldn't wish it on anybody, but I wouldn't be doing justice to her memory if I just lay down and refuse to fight," D'Alessandro said, standing in her living room surrounded by reminders of Joan. There's a 3-foot-tall photo of the girl smiling in her khaki Brownie uniform, her second-grade class picture and a glass-encased papier-mâché flower, which Joan made as an Easter present for her grandparents the morning she went missing. A handmade card reads, "To Nonni and Grandpa, Happy Easter, Love Joan."
D'Alessandro, who has spent decades championing victims' rights, says her mission is to draw something positive from the horror of Easter Sunday, 1973. That was the day the naked body of Joan a joyful girl who loved to dance and sing and tell silly jokes was found in a sepulchral hollow, hidden among rocks and trees in Harriman State Park. Four days earlier, on April 19, Joan told her mother that she was walking down the street to deliver her last two boxes of Girl Scout cookies to McGowan, a chemistry teacher at Tappan Zee High School in Rockland County.
McGowan answered the door and forced Joan inside. His grandmother, who was hard of hearing, was inside the house during the murder, D'Alessandro said. The heinous crime and the four days that Joan was missing not only shattered the D'Alessandro family, it remained burned into Hillsdale's memory.
Crime never forgotten
Retired borough Police Chief Frank Mikulski, who served on the force for 42 years, was a patrol sergeant when Joan was killed. "It was the most horrible crime that ever occurred in the borough and it's the one that still stands out in my mind," said Mikulski, who retired in 2006. "This man was a monster, and when something like that happens to a child, it's embedded in the memory of the community and it never goes away. For people here, it's like Pearl Harbor or 9/11. You remember where you were and what you were doing."
When word spread that Joan was missing, hundreds of residents formed search parties, checking every house, back yard and wooded area in the borough and surrounding towns, Mikulski said. "When we found out who did it, the fact that it was an educator who lived right in town, it made it even worse than if he had been some stranger," he said. "If your neighbor who's a teacher turns out to be a vicious monster, who can you trust?
"The whole town did its part, so we all grieved together and that's why this guy has to remain where he is, because what he did not only destroyed a family, but it violated the whole town," Mikulski said. Richard Shoop, a classmate of Joan's at St. John the Baptist School, remembered when Joan went missing and how the town seemed to change after her murder.
"I remember the searches through the back yards, riding a firetruck to look for her when she was still missing, and how when we got to the woods in the reservoir near Woodcliff Lake, the older people made me go back because they realized I was only 7 and too young," said Shoop, now a 43-year-old River Vale resident with children of his own. "Before it happened, we went out and played till it was dark and nobody locked their doors, but after that, everybody was much more vigilant," Shoop said.
"It stayed with me, and now that I have kids around the same age as she was, I don't let them out of my sight," he said. McGowan's first parole bid, in 1987, was rejected. A second was rejected in 1994; at the time, the board said McGowan had to wait 20 years before he would be eligible again. But in May 1998, a state appeals court gave McGowan a third chance, ruling that the Parole Board had set the bar for release too high. McGowan had to show only that he was unlikely to commit another crime if released, the court said, not that he was rehabilitated.
In December 1998, a three-member panel of the board ruled that McGowan was remorseless and dangerous and should be kept behind bars. A psychologist and FBI profiler told the board that he was "not only capable of murder, he's capable of mass murder, of killing lots and lots of people," the chairman told The Record after the 1998 ruling. The board also said McGowan had boasted in prison of knowing how to build a bomb like the one that killed 168 people in Oklahoma City in 1995. An appeals panel upheld the board's ruling in 2002.
'He was so cold'
D'Alessandro said she had suspected McGowan from the day Joan went missing. Three-and-a-half hours after her daughter walked across the street D'Alessandro's last memory is of her amber-colored ponytail flapping to and fro she went to McGowan's house to confront him. "I remember walking into his foyer, and asking him over and over again, 'Did you see my daughter? She came here to deliver cookies,' and he just kept saying, 'No, I never saw your daughter,' " D'Alessandro said, pausing to hold back tears.
"He was so distant and so cold, like he just didn't care, and he wouldn't even look at me. He kept trying to walk away from me. After I talked to him, I knew it was him and I knew she was gone," she said. "To this day, he has never once reached out to me to say he was sorry."
Kindness of strangers
But even in the depths of sorrow and misery, just months after Joan's body was found, D'Alessandro vowed to pick herself up and "make sure something good comes out of this," she said. She found comfort in her faith and the kindness of strangers, who over the years have sent cards, letters and gifts, including dozens of ceramic angels and brass ballet slippers in memory of Joan. And she feels Joan's strong presence everywhere, guiding her through all of life's battles.
A few years ago, she summoned the strength to go back to the hollow where Joan's body was found. Trekking slowly up the long hill, she said, a white butterfly fluttered its wings and led her to the top. The butterfly rested on a rock as she arrived at the site. "I think it was Joan telling me it's OK," D'Alessandro said.
For some, the brutal crime is a fresh memory. For others, its folklore. There were even some who only learned today about the rape and murder of 7-year-old Joan DAlessandro. Almost all were eager to sign the petition to make her killer, Joseph McGowan, 60, wait another 35 years for a parole hearing. McGowan a former chemistry teacher who confessed to raping and killing the Hillsdale girl April 19, 1973, when she arrived at his house to deliver Girl Scout cookies was denied parole in December. The Parole Board will decide early next month when he is eligible for another hearing.
I remember when it happened, said Barbara Russell, while signing the green petition paper Joans favorite color. I think its a shame the family has to go through this to keep this man in jail. Theyve been through enough. Russell, of Rutherford, asked her daughter Shannon drive her to the Shoprite in the Interstate Shopping Plaza just to sign the petition. It took us about 35 minutes, she said of the trip, adding, I would have gone further. Its sick that he can get out for something like this, Shannon Russell said.
The petition drive began at 9 a.m. and by noon more than 300 signatures had been collected. Barbara Malady of Mahwah was the nucleus of the drive, working the command center a table with green and white Keep our children safe signs and a large portrait of Joan off to the side. Maam, Malady called to shoppers as they entered the store. Trying to keep a rapist and a murderer in jail. Malady has been helping the cause since she first read about the DAlessandros. Im just somebody who wants to do this, she said while jetting out to intercept shoppers and steer them to the table.
The original goal of the drive was to collect 5,000 signatures before Feb. 18 to present to the board. Were going to get 10,000, said Rosemarie DAlessandro, Joans mother. Every day, I get about seven envelopes with signatures people have collected. I am in awe of this grassroots movement. Donald Stricker of Mahwah answered the call for volunteers nearly 36 years ago when Joan was reported missing. We worked the better part of a day, searching the neighborhood, through backyards, under fences, decks and porches and behind shrubs, he said.
The volunteer fireman made a special trip to Shoprite today not only to sign the petition but to get some sheets so he could collect signatures from his neighbors, friends and fellow firefighters. I have grandchildren who are that age now, he said. I have other thoughts on what they should do with him but theyre not fit for print.
Prayers for this woman and her quest. I’ll keep my mouth shut about the rest of what I want.
Parole? Jeez, the girl is still dead.
Absolutely. Many studies show that recidivism among pedophiles is practically 100%. Killing them immediately would be an act of mercy all the way around.
This scum will without a doubt, murder and abuse somebody's child.
People like this cannot be allowed to see the light of day! Kill em, keep em locked up forever, whatever, just keep them away from everybody else for good!
How has he survived in prison - given his crime? He must be in solitary...
This woman is a lot tougher than I am. I’d beg for his release so I could blow him away.
So, how did she do on the petitions??
Every time our criminal justice system releases a murderer, they literally violate the murder victim’s family a second time and make a mockery of justice.
If he fights it, then he should get a quick introduction into the general prison population.
So, how did she do on the petitions? >>
e-mail her, the info. is on post 1
“It stayed with me, and now that I have kids around the same age as she was, I don’t let them out of my sight”
That was a mistake. Never bring children into the world.