Suspicions Swirl In Death At Beach
Convicted Murderer's Prison Furlough Coincided With Woman's Gruesome Killing
April 04, 2000|By DAVE ALTIMARI And JANE E. DEE; Courant Staff Writers Courant Staff Writer Colin Poitras contributed to this story.
Harold Meade, who murdered three young mentally retarded people by smashing their skulls with rocks, was sent to prison for life by a judge who said he was too dangerous to ever be freed.
It took Meade 13 years to get out.
Over seven years, starting in 1985, Meade had 184 one-day furloughs and 68 weekend leaves. He met and married his second wife while on furlough, and on the last weekend of June 1992, the couple celebrated their second anniversary by renting a cabin on the shore.
That special weekend for the Meades also was the last weekend of Linda Rayner's life.
The 43-year-old social worker was visiting family in Deep River when she decided to take a walk at one of her favorite childhood haunts -- a rocky area of beach in a remote section of Hammonasset Beach State Park frequented mainly by fishermen.
Her body was found the next day. Her skull had been crushed with a rock.
Less than two months after the Rayner killing, Meade was removed from the furlough program and placed in the highest security level below death row inmates. He has not been let out of prison since.
In an interview with The Courant last week, Meade said he did not kill Rayner and angrily complained that state police inquiries about the death cost him his furloughs.
But state police, although aware that Meade was free that weekend and that Rayner had been bludgeoned to death with rocks -- just as Meade's three murder victims had been -- have done little to investigate a possible link between him and Rayner's death.
They have focused instead on an employee of a state mental hospital, but that investigation has faltered. New Haven State's Attorney Michael Dearington refused to sign an arrest warrant they prepared, and because the rain and high tide washed away the physical evidence Rayner's killer may have left behind, police may be unable to make a case against anyone.
Meanwhile, one fellow inmate has told investigators that Meade, during a private conversation in prison, admitted to the Hammonasset killing.
Another inmate claims Meade said he was at the park the day Rayner died and worried that police would charge him in the attack.
Prison records indicate the two would not have had an opportunity to discuss their stories together. State police say both their stories are false.
Rayner's family has never heard of Harold Meade. Stacia Garritt, Rayner's daughter, said she was ``appalled that a person who is a three-time convicted murderer would be allowed to have any kind of furlough. I just can't imagine how that feels to the families of the children who were murdered.
``And I also don't understand how the system works,'' she added, ``especially if the worst of all possible things [happened] -- this person while out on furlough killed someone else.''
When Judge Kenneth J. Zarrilli sentenced Meade, then 24, to life in prison on April 11, 1972, he made it clear Meade should never get out.
``It's difficult to conceive of a more senseless and horrendous series of crimes. . . . He should be kept in a structured environment for the rest of his life and not be granted parole or pardon,'' Zarrilli said.
Former New Haven Det. George Mazzacane, who worked on the triple homicide investigation, said police believed that ``a predator who preyed on vulnerable people'' was off the streets.
``They described him as a Jekyll and Hyde in the psych reports we had access to. I'll never forget that,'' Mazzacane said.
But Mazzacane also said Meade could be ``quiet, very disarming, very engaging and polite.'' And that was the side prison officials saw.
Meade -- whose name is also spelled ``Mead'' in some official documents -- was focused on getting out of prison. He became a model prisoner. Prison guards and counselors wrote letters of recommendation to the parole board for him.
Meade was given a plum job of working with the outdoor maintenance crews. He also worked as a prison photographer, taking pictures of new inmates for their prison identification. On many occasions, his supervisors commended Meade for his excellent work ethic and ability to get along with others, according to his Department of Correction file.
Until the program was scaled back in 1995, almost all inmates, no matter how violent their crimes, were eligible for furloughs. Meade first began getting one-day furloughs in 1985; three years later, he started getting three-day weekend passes.
It was while on furlough that Meade met his second wife, Adrianne. They were married on June 24, 1990, in Manchester, according to their marriage certificate.
Meade is an avid outdoorsman and fisherman who knows by heart many of the state's parks and fishing holes. When he and his wife marked their second anniversary, they stayed near Long Island Sound in the Camp View Motor Court in Waterford. Their cabin was a 25-minute drive from the fishing spot at Hammonasset where Rayner was killed.
Meade says he wasn't at Hammonasset when Rayner died and hasn't been there since he was a child. Adrianne Meade backs him up: She says her husband was with her all day, fishing and going to dinner.
``We spent the whole day together; we spent every second we could together,'' she said.
A Different Story
But Meade has told a different story to at least one inmate.
In a letter to his lawyer, who shared it with The Courant on condition his client not be named, the inmate wrote that Meade had said he left the cabin to get cigarettes, then drove to Hammonasset to smoke.
While he was there, Meade noticed a woman sitting on a big log, and he attacked her, dragged her to a culvert or dry stream bed, and killed her, according to the inmate's letter.
When he returned to the cabin, the inmate said, Meade told his wife that if anyone asked, she was to say they were in New London having dinner.
The inmate's letter says Meade told the story in great detail. Although some of the details in the letter were incorrect -- he gave the wrong color for Rayner's clothing -- most were on the mark, including the make, year and color of Meade's pickup truck, the number of the cabin in which the Meades stayed, and the fact that Rayner's clothing had been disarranged but not removed.
State police did interview the inmate last summer after his attorney sent a letter to Chief State's Attorney John J. Bailey's office. State police said that the inmate's story was ``old and inaccurate.''
But he was not the first inmate to tell state police that Meade may have been connected to the Hammonasset killing.
In 1993, shortly after Meade was locked down and returned to a higher-security prison, he told inmate Bryan Smith that he feared the move had been made because state police knew he was at Hammonasset when the killing occurred and they'd find enough evidence to arrest him, according to state police sources.
Smith was taken to Meriden for a polygraph test, but at the last minute he refused to take it. He has since been released from prison and deported to Jamaica.
Meade said Smith told him that state police had asked him to spy on Meade. Meade said he never told Smith anything about being at Hammonasset the day Rayner was killed.
Both Meade and the state police's prime suspect have criminal records, but of a very different sort.
Meade pleaded guilty to murdering three mentally retarded people, ages 15 to 23, on an outing in New Haven in 1970. All were bludgeoned to death with rocks.
He also was considered a suspect by some investigators in the deaths of four little girls, all of whom also were bludgeoned with rocks, in 1969 and 1970. No one has been charged in those deaths.
The police suspect in the Rayner killing has a history of exposing himself to women. He has been convicted three times of public indecency and once of resisting arrest.
Police know he was in the park the weekend Rayner was killed because he was camping. Sources said he had scratches on his arms and hands the first time he was interviewed shortly after the slaying.
A year later, the man was arrested again at Hammonasset on a charge of public indecency in the same area where Rayner was killed. When he was taken to Troop F in Westbrook for processing, there was a horde of state police waiting to interview him, DEP sources said.
Family members say they believe that Rayner, a social worker and bereavement counselor, may have tried to speak with her killer. Accustomed to working with disturbed clients, Rayner, had she tried to reach out to her assailant, might have provoked hostility. Enraged, the assailant could have picked up one of the many rocks lying on the beach and struck her.
State police say her killing most likely won't be solved unless someone close to her assailant comes forward or the killer confesses.
Dearington, the New Haven state's attorney, said he is aware that because of Meade's furlough, he could have been at Hammonasset.
``I was shocked that he was on furlough,'' Dearington said. ``But based on the evidence I am familiar with, I have no reason to disagree with the state police position on this case.''
The furlough program was scaled back in 1995 amid furor over too many violent offenders being released into the community. The program had been instituted by former Commissioner Lawrence Meachum but was eventually disbanded by his successor, John J. Armstrong, and the state legislature.
``The policy as it was did not adequately address public safety, criminal history, public reaction or victim's rights and concerns,'' state Department of Correction spokeswoman Christina Polce said. ``We questioned the policy, and that's why a complete overhaul was implemented almost immediately in 1995.''
After learning that Meade had been allowed out on furloughs, Dearington wrote a letter to the Board of Parole in 1993 to make sure he didn't get paroled.
Dearington implied that Meade may have killed at least two little girls, Dawn Cave, 14, and Jennifer Noon, 5, in 1969 and 1970 but had not been charged because prosecutors had assumed he'd be in prison forever. He did not mention the Hammonasset case.
Dearington's letter makes it unlikely Meade will ever get out of prison, but Meade remains optimistic. He even has plans to become a truck driver, he said during a telephone interview Friday night.
``I would like to get out,'' Meade said. ``Thirty years is 30 years. I'm not making light of what I did, but there are those who did worse when they came in and they're all getting out.''
His wife is less hopeful.
``It's so frustrating,'' she said. ``It's like the damn system has made him start all over again just because of a lousy letter.''