If you asked Jane Britton’s friends what they thought of her, they’d have told you that she was an attractive, clever, and exceptionally talented young woman. She was a student studying near eastern archeology and was well on her way to a promising career when tragedy struck.
Jane’s untimely death would be one of the many unsolved crimes of the 1960s. The little evidence that remained after her murder was fairly inconclusive and in those days, a forensic investigation was not what it is today. Still, Jane’s family had hope that one-day justice might be served…
Before her death, Jane had been studying anthropology at one of the most prestigious schools in the world: Harvard University. Her Harvard career had already seen her traveling to France and Iran to participate in various anthropological research programs. Everything was going just as it should.
A Night to Remember
The night before her murder, Jane had gone out with her friends. She and her boyfriend, along with several Harvard classmates, had eaten dinner at the Acropolis Restaurant. When they parted ways, Jane and her beau went ice skating at Cambridge Common. It was a fun time with friends and lovers. The next day, everything changed.
Not Like Her
Jane’s boyfriend was worried the next morning. Jane had never shown up for a scheduled exam. It wasn’t like her, especially considering her dad was a vice president at an affiliated college. Sadly, when he went to check up on her, Jane’s boyfriend found her dead on a blood-spattered mattress, bludgeoned as she slept.
A Gruesome End
Not only had Jane been bludgeoned, but she’d been sexually assaulted beforehand as well. It was evident, even from the start, that someone had come into the apartment in the middle of the night and had little or no difficulty bypassing the locked door and windows of the dorm. Police immediately began looking at those who knew her, her boyfriend in particular.
Jane’s boyfriend, of course, had an alibi and was quickly ruled out, but even after that, many people assumed that the perpetrator might have had close ties to the Harvard anthropology department that Jane had been a part of. This was no random guess either, elements of the crime seemed eerily familiar to that particular department.
Rebecca A. Cooper is a former New Yorker staff writer working on a book about Jane’s life and death. She notes that there were elements of the crime scene in particular which resembled a makeshift recreation of an anthropological burial ritual – one they may have been studying in class the term Jane died…
Ultimately, these strange links to Jane’s anthropology turned out to be little more than coincidences. They were nothing but a red herring, born out of a lack of hard evidence and much speculation. Other theories involved something far more plausible, though just as unsettling.
How It Happened
The sad truth of the matter was that the killer was likely someone who didn’t actually know Jane at all. They were probably just looking for a victim and happened to see that Jane’s window was unlocked. They then sneaked in, committed the heinous crime, and fled the scene without leaving more than a few cursory DNA strands. It wasn’t until decades later that those microscopic clues would be able to be tested.
50 Years Hence
Jane Britton’s murder went cold after that. There were no leads, no connections. In 2018, 50 years after the crime was committed, the Middlesex County District Attorney’s Office announced they had finally identified a suspect in the case, though the possible perpetrator was not someone they had even considered until now.
The perpetrator’s name was Michael Sumpter, a man many would have considered to be a career criminal. By the time they even began considering him as a potential suspect, he’d spent decades drifting in and out of prison for assault, robbery, and now that they had tested his DNA, sexual assault and murder.
The only problem with using Sumpter’s DNA to solve the old case lay in the fact that by the time it occurred to them, Sumpter was already long dead. He died in 2001 after serving a 15 to 20-year sentence for raping a Boston woman in her apartment. To get his DNA, they had to get a male relative to help provide a similar strain.
Thankfully, one of Sumpter’s relatives was aware that their relation wasn’t exactly a stand-up guy and consented to provide a sample. The DNA was run and at that point, District Attorney Marian Ryan announced that they are confident that Jane Britton’s killer has finally been sussed out. This revelation also came with a few added details of other cold cases as well.
As it happens, Jane Britton’s death is the third killing which Sumpter has been linked to. Others include the rape and subsequent murders of two other Boston women in the 1970s and at least two other sexual assaults that did not end in homicides.
In 2012, Sumpter’s DNA was linked to the sexual assault and death of 24-year-old Mary Lee McClain. Mary Lee was in her apartment in Beacon Hill when Sumpter broke in and attacked her, in much the same way he did with Jane. He did the same to 23-year-old Ellen Rutchick two years earlier. He’d gotten away with each terrible crime, until now.
Stranger in the Dark
It must have been a terrifying end for all those poor girls. To be awakened in the dead of night to pain and abuse, feeling terror and praying that it would end, only to find that the end of the assault meant the end of their lives. Frankly, Sumpter’s death from cancer at age 54 seems a fittingly painful end for such a vile human being.
As of this writing, Jane Britton’s case is the oldest case that the Middlesex County District Attorney’s Office has ever had the pleasure of being able to solve. “I am confident that the mystery of who killed Jane Britton has finally been solved and this case is officially closed,” Miss Ryan said in a statement to the press recently.
Despite the fact that Sumpter is already dead, his identification as the prime suspect is a nice bit of closure for the remaining members of Jane Britton’s family. Sadly, this only truly includes her brother, who is a pastor at a California church. Thankfully, his career has helped him learn the value of forgiveness.
Mr. Britton recently wrote an email to the Boston Globe about the case. In it, he said that “learning to understand and forgive remains a challenge” and that “a half century of mystery and speculation has clouded the brutal crime that shattered Jane’s promising young life and our family.”
Britton also wished to thank the police, the public officials, their friends, and the press, who, as he put it, “Persevered in keeping this investigation active, most especially State Police Sergeant Peter Sennott. The DNA evidence may be all we ever have as a conclusion.” That said, at least it is a conclusion.
It is because of dedicated law enforcement officials that cases like Jane Britton’s are being solved every day. New technology has allowed for many of the restless deceased victims of these horrific crimes to find peace just as much as their living, grieving relatives. As technology continues to improve, will likely see many cold cases come back into focus and hopefully, find a resolution.