Manchester has seen four homicides so far this year. That’s twice the city’s annual average of two, but police say these types of violent crimes are often anomalies, making it difficult to call this year’s spike a trend, and only one of this year’s cases remains unsolved.
As part of our Queen City Crime series, we examine the anatomy of how these homicides are solved by taking a closer look at a 1999 case that proved to be one of the most taxing investigations ever undertaken by the Manchester Police Department.
Lieutenant James Soucy, then a detective in the homicide unit, says it’s a case he’ll never be able to shake from his memory.
Obviously all homicides are tragic and terrible, but this particular case was something beyond the level of anything I ever investigated, one of which the likes Manchester has never seen.
It begins like this…
On a Sunday evening in July of 1999, a woman heads out to a bar; three days later, a swimmer finds her torso in the Piscataquog River.
Police alert the Attorney General’s office, then set out to work.
Really, it’s a matter of using all of our manpower in a very short period of time to try to get as many clues as we can.
A missing person’s report leads detectives to 40-year-old Mary Stetson, an assembler at Burton Wire and Cable and single mother of five. Stetson’s eldest daughter identifies her mother’s remains by a distinctive tattoo. Police have their victim.
They also have a few suspects: a man who was supposed to have taken Stetson on a date the night she went missing, a clerk at a nearby store she was known to visit, and another man – Vaclav Plch. Several people interviewed tell police they had seen Stetson and Plch together on multiple occasions. They both liked to stop by local bars.
Then, after weeks of investigating, police receive a call from Plch’s ex-wife. She’s been to his apartment and found things there rather suspicious.
We discovered there was a large piece of carpeting that was missing in the bedroom, as well as some fishing gear and some other important items, and she in fact felt that he could be linked to the homicide that we had been investigating.
What police see is enough to obtain a warrant and bring in a forensics team.
Detectives recover knives, a handsaw, bloody sheets and towels. Luminol, a chemical that reacts with molecules of hemoglobin to produce a faint blue-green glow, is used to discover trace blood on wood paneling and carpet fibers.
We did an extensive three-day search of the entire apartment, including blood evidence, trace evidence, fibers, hairs. We ended up finding very significant blood evidence in the suspect’s bedroom, including spatter that indicated some type of violent struggle took place.
When later genetically tested, this blood proves to belong to Mary Stetson.
Less than a month after the murder, on August 10, 1999 , police issue an arrest warrant for Vaclav Plch, charging him with second degree murder. Authorities believe he has left the city, and a search is underway.
Once again, his former spouse provides their best tip. A telephone conversation with Donna Plch helps detectives locate him in a suburb of Austin, Texas.
We sent two detectives down, both myself and my partner at the time, Lieutenant Mark Putney, and began working with the Austin Police in tracking down the suspect.
Investigators find pants with traces of blood in his car’s trunk and a bloody stain on the back seat. Like the blood in Plch’s apartment, blood from the seat is matched to Stetson’s.
At first, Plch denies he was involved in any way. But he eventually describes to police where they can find more of Mary Stetson’s remains. With this information in hand, the Auburn, New Hampshire Police Department conducts a search with cadaver dogs, animals specially trained to detect the specific chemicals released when a human body decomposes. Their search is a partial success.
Police keep interrogating Plch, and after an exhaustive two days, Detectives Soucy and Putney establish a motive, which is enough to raise the charge to first-degree murder.
We believe that the victim, Mary Stetson, had thwarted his advances at some point during the evening, and he became upset and enraged.
It takes another year for the 10-day trial to get underway, but on November 14, 2000, after a ten-day trial, Vaclav Plch is found guilty for the murder and dismemberment of Mary Stetson.