“Missing half sister.”
That was the headline to a July 1999 post on an Ancestry.com message board that caught Rebekah Heath’s eye last year as the librarian searched the Internet for clues that could unravel one of New Hampshire’s most enduring murder mysteries.
“We are looking for the daughter of Ralph E. McWaters aka Tom,” wrote the wife of a Connecticut man, who was looking for an older half-sister he’d never met.
Her name was Sarah, and she was born when their father was in the Marines, stationed in California in the 1970s.
“Please help,” she wrote.
It was the first of a series of messages, posted sporadically over years. There was one in 2003, then nothing until 2013, then several more. Slowly, a portrait emerged of a mother and two little girls — Sarah, born in 1977, and an older child born in 1971, named Marie Vaughn.
Relatives on both sides of the family were desperately searching for them but had only limited information to go on.
McWaters and Sarah’s mother, Marlyse Honeychurch, split up when Sarah was a baby. He moved back to Connecticut, had a son, and died in 1983. His son believed Sarah was adopted by her maternal grandparents after her mother was killed in a car accident, according to posts on the message board.
But Marlyse’s brother and sisters wrote that they didn’t know what had happened to her and that their mother never adopted Sarah.
“Don’t know if she is dead or not,” Marlyse’s sister wrote in an Ancestry post in January 2014. “We would like to know.”
For years, there were no answers. Then in October, Heath, a 33-year-old librarian who lives in Simsbury, Conn., and had been moonlighting as an amateur detective, messaged one of the relatives. Were the relatives still searching for Sarah McWaters? They were.
Heath had been scouring genealogy and lost relatives message boards for more than a year, looking for missing people who might match the unidentified woman and three girls found murdered and dumped in barrels in the woods of Allenstown, N.H., decades ago.
When she read about the search for Sarah, a terrible possibility crossed her mind. Given their ages and the time they had been missing, Marlyse and her daughters could be among the Allenstown victims, who were probably killed in the late 1970s or early 1980s.
“They were looking for a live person, not the scenario of looking for unidentified people,” Heath said in an interview.
Then the woman gave Heath a stunning piece of information — she believed that after divorcing McWaters, Marlyse had married a man with the last name Rasmussen.
“OMG, are you sure?” Heath messaged back.
The woman was unaware, but in 2017 authorities had identified a serial killer, Terry Peder Rasmussen, as the man who killed the Allenstown victims, including a girl who was his biological daughter.
Heath wasn’t comfortable breaking the news to the woman and didn’t want to interfere with a murder investigation. So the next day she called Peter Headley, a deputy for the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department who worked with genealogists to help identify Rasmussen.
She told him that she believed she had identified some of the Allenstown victims, a cold case that had defied resolution for decades.
“She deserves credit,” said Headley, who quickly turned the information over to New Hampshire authorities. “She’s an incredibly good researcher.”
Armed with the breakthrough, New Hampshire authorities returned to the same methods they had used to identify Rasmussen — familial DNA and a group of dedicated genealogists. Relatives of Marlyse Honeychurch and her daughters provided DNA, photographs, and information about her life.
This week, Heath cried when she learned authorities had identified the victims at last — Marlyse Elizabeth Honeychurch and her daughters, Marie Elizabeth Vaughn and Sarah Lynn McWaters.
“It’s an overwhelming feeling,” she said. “It’s like you know their faces and their names now, and they can go back home.”Shelley Murphy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @shelleymurph.