Man charged with 4 murders Wife was strangled, children smothered, N.H. police say Milne, John Boston Globe 22 Oct 1991CONCORD, N.H. -- An unemployed truck driver was charged with four counts of first-degree murder yesterday in the weekend deaths of his estranged wife and three young children. Investigators say he strangled his wife and smothered the little girls in their beds.
One prosecutor said the night of violence, described in court papers made public yesterday, disturbed every investigator on the case.
Thirty-four hours after a Massachusetts state trooper talked him out of jumping off the upper deck of the Tobin Bridge, James M. Colbert of Chester was arraigned in Concord District Court in the deaths of Mary-Jayne Colbert, 30, Emily, 2 1/2, Elise, 18 months, and Patricia, 10 weeks.
Colbert, 39, a stocky man with graying hair and a neat mustache, stood silently, his chin on his chest, at his arraignment yesterday afternoon. Judge Michael Sullivan ordered him held without bail at the Merrimack County Jail in Boscawen and set a probable cause hearing for Oct. 31. A plea will be entered at that time.
Colbert appeared earlier yesterday morning in Chelsea District Court, where he waived extradition to New Hampshire. The Chester man stood in the prisoner's dock, his brother and a sister looking on, as Judge Eugene Panarese asked him several questions about whether he understood the charges.
Colbert responded each time in a clear, firm voice, saying either "Yes, your honor," or "Yes, sir."
Panarese turned Colbert over to Concord police officers, who drove him back to Concord, where the killings have been described by Police Chief David Walchak as the worst tragedy in the history of this city of 40,000.
Details of the killings, which police say Colbert gave them shortly after he was apprehended on the bridge before dawn Sunday, emerged from sworn police affidavits and medical examiners' reports made public yesterday.
Although neighbors said the couple appeared to be getting along, court papers showed that Mary-Jayne Colbert was granted a restraining order against her husband on Oct. 9 after she charged that he had sexually assaulted her and threatened more violence.
According to the affidavit, Colbert told police when he was arrested that, on Saturday night, the couple drank some wine and beer and then "made love." The affidavit went on: "James Colbert stated that he strangled his wife.
"James Colbert stated that he suffocated his three daughters as they slept in their beds by placing his hand over the nose and mouth of each child."
Roger Fossum, the New Hampshire medical examiner, conducted autopsies yesterday. "Ms. Colbert's cause of death was ruled to be strangulation, and each child's cause of death was ruled to be suffocation," said a statement issued last night by Attorney General John P. Arnold.
"We are confident that we will be able to convict the defendant on four counts of first-degree murder, and the Concord police are continuing their investigation," said Michael D. Ramsdell, senior assistant attorney general.
The killings came as the marriage was dissolving between Colbert, an unemployed truck driver, and his wife, a homemaker who hoped to start a bakery business. The domestic violence petition, filed Oct. 4, said Mary-Jane Colbert complained of threatening behavior dating back to August. Her petition for divorce had been scheduled to be heard yesterday, and a hearing on how often James Colbert could visit the children had been set for today.
According to Mary-Jayne Colbert's sworn statements in support of her request for a restraining order, on Aug. 21, James Colbert "threatened to cut her with a razor;" on Sept. 1, he "threatened to buy her a bullet;" and on Oct. 2, he "sexually assaulted and abused" her.
An affidavit, signed by Concord Police Detective Stephen B. McDonnell, described his investigation in Concord and related interviews with Concord police officers, deputy state medical examiner James Kaplan, and Massachusetts State Police troopers. McDonnell's affidavit described these events:
4:45 a.m. Sunday: Concord police dispatcher Matt Robinson answered the telephone. The caller "stated that he had killed his wife and family" and "the caller was going to commit suicide." Police went to the home specified by the caller, found it dark and without signs of forced entry. No one answered the door.
Neither Ramsdell nor Chief Walchak would comment on whether James Colbert had made that call or on whether the call originated in Massachusetts.
But, at about the same time as Concord police reported receiving the call, Massachusetts State Trooper John White reported finding a man "standing over the outside rail and possibly going to jump" off the upper deck of the Tobin Bridge.
White persuaded the man to come down, and he identified himself as James Colbert. As they drove to Massachusetts General Hospital, White asked Colbert "why he wanted to commit suicide and the man stated that he had killed his wife and children."
Colbert was described by White as "distraught, excited, remorseful but rational." White said he read the man his Miranda warnings against self-incrimination but Colbert kept talking.
5:04 a.m. to 5:35 a.m.: Chelsea police found a white 1986 Ford Taurus parked on the Tobin Bridge. It was registered to James Colbert and, according to the affidavit, "in the front seat of the car was a handwritten suicide note." This information was relayed to Concord police.
5:50 a.m.: Two Concord policemen, Sgt. David Little and Officer Lionel Talbot, went to the yellow duplex with brown shutters in which Mary-Jayne Colbert and the couple's children lived. The landlord let them in. Little found two cribs in one bedroom, each containing a dead child. In another bedroom, he found a baby in a bassinet and a woman, both dead.
Kaplan, the deputy medical examiner, pronounced the woman and the children dead. He concluded that each victim was either strangled or suffocated, and he saw a handwritten note on a table in the living room. The affidavit said Kaplan read that the note "made mention of `Jim' loving `M.J.' "
Neighbors said the Colberts had been seen putting the three blond children into their sedan early Saturday morning. The affidavits said James Colbert took them to Chester and brought them back that night.
The family of Mary-Jayne Colbert, who grew up in neighboring Bow and attended Bishop Brady High School and the University of New Hampshire, tried to preserve their privacy yesterday. Said her mother, Gayle Jenovese: "We're a very private family and would like to keep our grief private.
Mary-Jayne's friends know what she was like and, as far as we're concerned, nobody else matters."
James Colbert's family also declined to discuss the case. The brother and sister who attended his Chelsea arraignment declined to talk with reporters. A relative who answered a door at a family home in Somerville said simply, "We have no comment."
Middlesex County Probate Court records say James Colbert married his first wife, Karen, when she was 15 and he was 17 on May 23, 1969. The couple had four children -- one boy, James Michael, and three girls, Stacy Ann, Cheri Ann and Julie Ann -- during the first three years and three months of the marriage.
Karen Colbert filed for divorce on Aug. 6, 1980, citing "cruel and abusive treatment." No description of the "cruel and abusive treatement," a commonly used phrase in divorce proceedings at that time, was available in the records.
James Colbert may have met Mary-Jayne Jenovese in the Boston area. She moved to the area in 1983 and managed the Charrette graphics art store in Cambridge for five years. She and James Colbert married in July 1988.
The couple lived for a time in the first floor of a two-family home in Medford. The Colberts moved out in the spring of this year, and residents yesterday recalled no sign of domestic violence.
Funeral services for Mary-Jayne Colbert and her children will be private, according to a spokesman for Waters Funeral Home.
Man who killed 4 died in prison: 'Colbert got life in deaths of wife, kids'
Concord Monitor Ray Duckler March 17, 2012
James Colbert, who was serving a life sentence for killing his wife and three young daughters in Concord 21 years ago, died this week after a long illness, a state prison spokesman said.
Jeff Lyons of the New Hampshire State Prison confirmed that Colbert died on Tuesday at the age of 59. Lyons would not specify the cause of death, but Buzz Scherr, Colbert's attorney during his initial trial in 1992, said Colbert died from cancer. He did not know what kind.
Colbert made national headlines in October 1991 when he strangled his wife, Mary Jayne Colbert, in the couple's Merrimack Street home, then smothered his daughters as they slept.
The police found Mary Jayne Colbert, a 1979 Bishop Brady High graduate whose maiden name was Jenovese, dead in her bed, the covers pulled to her chin. They found 10-week-old Patricia in her bassinette beside her mother's bed, and 2«-year-old Emily and 1«-year-old Elise in their bedroom across the hall.
Colbert drove to Boston after the murders and climbed over a railing on the Tobin Bridge, hundreds of feet above the Mystic River. He threatened to kill himself, but a state trooper persuaded Colbert to accompany him to Massachusetts General Hospital for a psychiatric evaluation.
En route, Colbert confessed to the killings and later was charged with four counts of first-degree murder.
His trial began in July 1992, at which time his team of public defenders, including Scherr, now a professor at the University of New Hampshire School of Law, claimed their client had been insane when he committed the murders.
The defense cited sexual abuse Colbert had suffered by his uncle while growing up in Somerville, Mass., incidents that stretched over a six-year period and prevented Colbert from emotionally and mentally dealing with the stress in his life that followed.
Colbert had moved to Chester two weeks before the killings, after Mary Jayne Colbert had filed a restraining order and divorce papers. He also discovered that his wife had begun an affair with another man.
The jury ruled in August 1992 that Colbert was sane and handed down a life sentence without the possibility of parole.
Subsequent appeals - based on charges the judge had shown bias and not properly documented her conversation with a juror who'd been dismissed due to illness after deliberation had begun - were denied.
Colbert tried to commit suicide in prison at least twice, once by hanging himself with his shoelaces in the prison shower. He was discovered unconscious by a guard and recovered.
Colbert's family, based in Massachusetts, could not be reached for comment, and Mary Jayne Colbert's parents in Concord preferred not to comment.
Reached yesterday by phone, Scherr said his client felt genuine remorse, citing the fact that Colbert had made a police video in 2000 to shed light on domestic violence.
'He did what he could, both before he committed the murders and after he committed the murders,' Scherr said. 'He tried in prison to lead a life that would begin to make some kind of amends for something you could never make full amends for.'