Donald Mars pleads guilty to involuntary manslaughter for the 1966 West Springfield homicide of Betty Lou Zukowski

May 2, 2024 -Springfield-  Donald Mars, 75, of Bedford, Ma, plead guilty at a change of plea hearing  to a charge of manslaughter after being indicted in November 2022 by a Hampden County Grand Jury for his involvement in the 1966 homicide of Betty Lou Zukowski.

Hampden District Attorney Anthony Gulluni stated, “Sadly, Betty Lou’s parents are deceased, and are not able to see Donald Mars answer for the brutality he inflicted upon their daughter. While neither solving this case nor any punishment of the perpetrator will give Betty Lou a chance to live the life that she deserved, I hope today represents a significant step for her family in their mourning and how they are able to memorialize her, so many years later.

District Attorney Gulluni went on to say, “ I would like to thank the Massachusetts State Police and, specifically, Colonel Jack Mawn, for his dedication to these cases and his leadership that prioritizes service to victims and the betterment of our communities. I with also thank the West Springfield Police Department, especially, Chief Paul Connor, who never forgot about Betty Lou and her family, and never gave up on justice. Paul persisted and passionately pushed for a focus on this case, with the belief that Betty Lou’s killer could be brought to justice.  Further, I would like to highlight the intensive investigative efforts in 1997 of the late Captain Daniel Murray, retired Sgt. Paul Finnie, and Detective Thomas Caney of the West Springfield Police Department, whose diligence and commitment to Betty Lou developed strong evidence that allowed this case to be brought forward today by more recent investigators in the last couple years; Assistant District Attorney Beth Farris, Massachusetts State Police Detective Thomas Sullivan, and West Springfield Sergeant Tom Svec.

Almost 58 years ago, on Thursday, May 26, 1966 Betty Lou Zukowski left her family’s home on Front Street in Chicopee around 6:00 p.m. after receiving a phone call that she told her mother was from one of her girlfriends. That was the last time her family saw her. Later that evening, Stanley and Mildred Zukowski reported their 10 year old daughter, Betty Lou Zukowski, missing to the Chicopee Police Department after she failed to return home.

This resulted in the Chicopee Police Department issuing an “All-States Alarm” in their attempt to locate her. Tragically, four days later on Memorial Day, May 30, 1966, Betty Lou’s beaten and mud covered 4’ 7”, 75 pound body was found just off shore by  young boys fishing in the Westfield River in West Springfield. The section of the Westfield River where she was found, near the intersection of Westfield and Dewey Streets, runs next to Robinson State Park.

The cause of death was determined by the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner to be multiple blunt force injuries to her head, a skull fracture, and terminal drowning.  Upon the discovery of Betty Lou’s remains, a joint homicide investigation led by the West Springfield Police Department and assisted by the Chicopee Police Department commenced. Both departments initially assigned their entire detective bureaus to the case. In addition, both the Hampden County District Attorney’s Office and the Massachusetts State Police assisted as well.

The case remained unsolved over the ensuing five decades, despite the initial joint investigation conducted in 1966 and a renewed investigation by the West Springfield Police Department in 1994 through 2001, primarily led by then-Captain Daniel Murray with the assistance of then Sergeant Paul Finnie.

In June 2021, the Hampden District Attorney’s office’s Unsolved Homicide Unit, led by Assistant District Attorney Beth Dunphy-Farris and Trooper Thomas Sullivan, along with Sergeant Thomas Svec of the West Springfield Police Department’s Detective Bureau, actively resumed the investigation into the death of Betty Lou Zukowski. 

In 1966 media reports describe an intensive search along the shore where Betty Lou’s body was found, as well as divers searching the river for any clues. Detectives interviewed family, friends, and classmates to determine who Betty Lou may have met up with at the time of her disappearance.  Investigators believed Betty Lou knew the person who killed her, otherwise she would never have left her home after receiving the phone call on Thursday night. They theorized she met up with this person and ended up in West Springfield after riding in a vehicle operated by someone she knew.

Approximately a week after her remains were found, police developed a composite sketch from two witnesses, one of whom was thought to be the last person to have seen Betty Lou alive in the mid-evening hours of May 26, 1966. He also confirmed the suspect as having worn a “college-type” ring with a blue stone. The sketch was released and was highly publicized in local newspapers at the time.  The release of the sketch lead to investigative tips, but none led to the identity of her assailant. From there the case went cold.

Since re-igniting the case, Trooper Sullivan and Sergeant Thomas Svec reviewed all witness statements and, where possible, re-interviewed individuals who gave statements at the time. Most notably, investigators re-interviewed several key witnesses; one thought to have been the last person to see Betty Lou alive, the defendant’s ex-wife, and Donald Mars’s mother.

The current investigation realized that in November 1997, investigators of the West Springfield Police Department received information from multiple sources that linked Donald Mars to Betty Lou’s killing.  Although several witnesses were interviewed, their investigation did not lead to the arrest of a suspect.

In 1997, detectives of the West Springfield Police Department showed a witness approximately thirty yearbook photographs that had been copied from the 1967 edition of the Chicopee Comprehensive High School yearbook. The photographs included a picture of the Defendant, Donald Mars. The witness selected two photographs that reminded him of the individual last seen with Betty Lou. One of the two photographs selected was the Defendant’s senior yearbook photograph.

When speaking with investigators, Ms. Marilyn Mars, the Defendant’s mother, then aged 95, relayed that the defendant, her son Donald, admitted to her years ago that he had thrown a rock and killed a little girl. 

The defendant’s ex-wife confirmed the defendant suffered several nervous breakdowns that required hospitalization during their marriage. Sometime around 1987, as the defendant was either experiencing or in initial recovery from a nervous breakdown, he told her that he had to be “honest” with her. The defendant’s admission included that he and an unnamed friend killed Betty Lou; that she was killed with a rock and then “dumped” in the area of Robinson State Park. He repeated the contents of this private conversation with her to his parents, in her presence, a couple years after he told her.  She said that his parents did not seem surprised by the information.

Donald’s ex-wife also confirmed that the class ring for Chicopee Comprehensive High School had a blue stone, as she also owned one. The defendant told her that he had one from the class of 1967 but had lost it. 

In 2022, detectives learned that the Defendant, who had briefly served in the United States Navy, was living in the Veteran’s Administration Building in Bedford, Massachusetts. On July 18, 2022, investigators spoke with the defendant in the community day room of the veteran’s facility. The defendant walked into the room with the assistance of a walker.  Detectives conducted a recorded interview with the defendant, after the appropriate legal rights and warnings were furnished, that lasted nearly two hours. 

The Defendant’s demeanor shifted on occasion during the interview, and, at times, he became emotional. The defendant was responsive to some questions, but he would change the subject on other occasions or simply not respond to certain questions. When investigators asked the defendant about Betty Lou Zukowski, initially he said that he did not know who she was and did not do anything to her. He then became emotional and began to cry. The defendant said, “I’m not crying because of Betty Lou. I’m crying about my whole life”. He then told different versions of the killing involving several different locations. When investigators told the Defendant that he had previously told investigators the location of Betty Lou’s head injuries, he denied doing so.

During the interview his mood changed considerably, and he said, “that she hurt him more than he ever hurt her”. The defendant, without prompting from the investigators, acted out the crime. He stood up, hunched over, and made a striking motion downward four times with his left arm, and then admitted that he hit Betty Lou with a rock. He sat down again and was very emotional, sobbing loudly. Investigators asked the defendant whether the rock was “a little bigger than a softball,” and the defendant replied, “Yes”. 

The totality of these facts supports a finding that on May 26, 1966, the Defendant, Donald Mars, aged seventeen, while acting alone, caused the death of ten-year-old Betty Lou Zukowski when he repeatedly struck her with a rock to the right side of her head, causing multiple blunt force injuries, both externally and internally, and when disposing of her body in the Westfield River would cause terminal drowning. 

His guilty plea was accepted by a Hampden Superior Court judge and was sentenced to 2.5 years in prison followed by 2 years of probation and registration as a level 3 sex offender.

Assistant District Attorney Elizabeth Dunphy-Farris represented the Commonwealth.

Attached are victim impact statements from Betty Lou’s cousins.


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