It may be a long shot, but investigators have renewed hope of identifying a young woman and three little girls who were murdered sometime around the early 1980s, then stuffed naked into two metal drums that were found 15 years apart in Allenstown - and finally finding their killer or killers.
The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children recently provided a significant boost by convening a team of national experts to review the case files in detail and meeting with three New Hampshire investigators and a Maine forensic anthropologist at its Virginia headquarters.
The brainstorming sessions, which the center funded, have already led to attempts to do a new round of more precise DNA testing. New facial reconstructions of the victims are being completed to replace the old ones that are believed to be outdated, as well.
Experts made recommendations aimed at finally solving a sad mystery, one that many people simply don't even remember.
Kim Fallon, chief forensic investigator at the state Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, believes the revived investigation is going to pay off.
"Somebody got away with something," Fallon said. "This is solvable."?The case received little publicity over the years, considering the magnitude of the crime, she said.
"Because they are unidentified, they have no advocates," Fallon said. "There are no loved ones going to the press pushing for resolution."
The murders were likely the result of domestic violence, their killer someone who once loved them.
The investigation was hamstrung from the start because of the 15-year span between the discovery of the first two victims and the last two sets of remains. Police say the woman and two of the children may be related, but want to wait for the new round of DNA testing to say for sure.
On Nov. 10, 1985, a hunter found an overturned 55-gallon metal drum in the woods near Bear Brook State Park. The remains of a woman aged 23 to 33 and a girl aged 5 to 11 - which could be her daughter or sister - wrapped together in plastic were spilled onto the ground. The victims had been beaten to death.
For 15 years, police believed they were looking to name just the missing pair. But then in 2000, a state trooper revisited the site to take a fresh look at the case and found a second 55-gallon metal drum 100 yards from where the first was found.
This one contained the skeletal remains of two younger girls, ages estimated to be between 1 and 3 for one girl and between 2 and 4 for the other, also believed to have been slain during the same time frame as the others - from 1977 to 1985. Their causes of death were not determined.
Fallon has spent many hours, much of it on her own time, scouring missing-person databases for clues. There were a couple of promising leads from Rhode Island and California, but none panned out. Authorities have also reached out to Canada.
The little girl aged 5 to 11 found in 1985 offers Fallon the most hope that someone will remember her because she may have attended school up to the fifth grade. She had double piercings in both ears, which would have been considered unusual at the time.
"That girl must have been in school, and someone must remember a kid not showing up in school, a teacher or a classmate," Fallon said.
The girl had fine light brown or dirty blond hair and would have stood about 4 feet 3 inches tall, Fallon said. There was some evidence of pneumonia in her left lung.
"If I had a good friend in elementary school who suddenly left, I would remember."
The longer they have no names, the less likely their killer will ever be called to account, according to Senior Assistant Attorney General Jeffery Strelzin, chief of the state's homicide unit.
"There are significant hurdles in this case," Strelzin said.
Maybe no one did notice them gone, except the killer, he said.
"I think it's likely a long shot that we'll be able to identify them," Strelzin said.
But there is hope, he added.
Today, it may be difficult to understand how four people could disappear without being reported missing, he said.
"It was a different era," Strelzin said. "There were no cell phones, no social media, no 24/7 news cycles."
Bear Brook is the largest state park in New Hampshire, he said.
"Somebody could have pulled in there and gone camping," Strelzin said.
The investigation is being led by state police sergeants John Sonia and Joseph Ebert, who both participated in the NCMEC sessions, along with Marcella Sorg of Maine, a forensic anthropologist who has worked on the Allenstown remains.
Sonia provided the most up-to-date details on each victim:
1. Adult female, 23 to 33 based on anthropology, 23 to 24 based on dental evidence.
The woman was 5 feet 2 to 5 feet 7 inches tall, and had fine light brown curly hair.
2. Child 1 was found with the woman in the first barrel in 1985. Both her ears were double-pierced. Her age was estimated between 5 and 10 based on anthropology and 8 and 11 based on dental evidence. She was 4 feet 3 inches tall, had fine light brown or dirty blond hair.
The two girls found in 2000 in the second barrel:
3. Child 2 did not appear to be related to the woman or the other two children, based on mitochondrial DNA. She was 2 to 4 years old based on anthropology and 3 to 4 based on dental records. She had a noticeable overbite and stood 3 feet 8 inches tall. She had fine brown slightly wavy hair that was 12 to 13 inches long.
4. Child 3, found in the second barrel in 2000, was 1 to 3 years old based on anthropology and 2 to 3 years old on dental estimates. She had a gap between her two front teeth. She stood 2 feet 5 inches tall and had fine blond slightly wavy hair 8 to 12 inches long.
Strelzin said it is critical to identify the victims to find their killer or killers.
"Most homicide cases build on what the victims did during their last 24 hours. It's typical to do a background on the victim's social connections," Strelzin said.
Fallon is going to present the Allenstown case Feb. 21 to the American Academy of Forensic Sciences in Washington, D.C., to detail what happens in a cold case.
At one point in the investigation, the state conducted analysis on the adult woman's hair to check for isotopes found in drinking water that might be able to pinpoint where she had been.
But the results indicated she could have traveled in 44 states prior to her death - or just one state.
"It was not helpful," Fallon said.
Fallon said she and the other investigators are determined to look at every detail with fresh eyes. They will take nothing for granted.
The unusual facts of the case and the new testing should help them finally identify the victims, she said.
"I feel like this case is very compelling - and more easy to solve - because there are four unidentified people and three are children," Fallon said.
If you have information about the Allenstown mystery, please call State Police Sgt. John Sonia or Sgt. Joseph Ebert at 603-223-3856.
Tips can also be made by email anonymously by contacting the State Police Cold Case Unit at email@example.com