On a summer night 50 years ago, Jackie Harp trooped home after a rousing practice session of the Imperial Knights, her school’s all-girl drum and bugle corps in Midland Park, N.J.
Practice broke up at 9 that Wednesday night, July 17, 1968.
Harp, a 13-year-old with a pageboy haircut, was seen 30 minutes later walking just five blocks from her Birch St. home. She was still clutching the leather sling she used to carry her band flag.
But when midnight arrived with no sign of the girl — the youngest of Leroy Harp’s five daughters — her mother phoned police.
A citizen found Jackie’s body the next morning in a wooded sliver along Goffle Creek, just 25 paces from a house on dead-end Morrow Road.
The eighth-grader had been punched in the face and strangled with her flag sling. Police said the attack was sexually motivated, although she was not raped.
The murder would prove to be a Bergen County template.
Robert Reldon (l.) was convicted for two separate murders, but cops think he may have been responsible for the unsolved killings. He remains in prison. Convicted rapist Raymond Alves (r.) may also be the killer, according to cops.
Nine months later, on April 8, 1969, the body of Irene Blase, 18, was found in the Saddle River shallows 10 miles south of Midland Park in Saddle Brook. The teen, last seen the previous night in Hackensack, had been garroted, but had not been raped.
And on July 14, 1969, three days before the grim Harp anniversary, another Bergen teenager turned up missing.
Denise Falasca, 15, left her Closter home that evening to meet a friend. Her body was found the next day outside a Saddle Brook cemetery, a mile from where Blase was found. Falasca had been strangled with her crucifix chain and dumped from a car, wearing only bellbottom jeans and a pink bra.
She was the third petit Bergen teen choked to death in 12 months.
“There are definite similarities,” Michael Gross, the assistant county prosecutor, told the Daily News’ Vinnie Lee. “They could be the work of one man.”
The Harp, Blase and Falasca homicides were among a terrifying sequence of attacks on teens and young women that prompted panic in the northern New Jersey suburbs about sexual predators.
“The child molester is a constant menace to children,” said Milton Halvorsen, a Ridgefield ironworker who advocated vigilantism. “We cannot sit back and wait for him to strike.”
Other victims included Alys Eberhardt, 18, raped and stabbed more than 50 times in her Fair Lawn home on Sept. 24, 1965; Janet Adams, 19, stabbed and strangled in her Paramus apartment on April 5, 1966; Mary Ann Della Sala, 17, whose body was found in the Passaic River on April 10, 1967, three months after she disappeared; and Donna Albright, 13, who went missing in Hasbrouck in 1970 and whose body was found six years later in a 3-foot grave in Hackensack.
Another petit young woman, Darlene DeWolff Polizzi, 19, vanished from Lodi in April 1967 and was never seen again.
In an era when eight out of 10 homicides in the United States were cleared by arrest, Bergen authorities failed to find the killer in all these cases.
And that abysmal record is intact a half-century later, to the exasperation of the victims’ loved ones, many of whom remain deeply engaged in the search for justice.
Some want fresh forensic work to attempt to match evidence with the latest DNA technology, even if that means exhumations.
They complain that Bergen authorities have been defensive and aloof.
“It has been an exercise in frustration and futility with the investigators,” Karen Miller, Valasca’s sister, said on an unsolved crime message board.
Bergen cops insist they are hampered by haphazard records and long-lost evidence. The investigative files are a rat’s nest — “like opening a steamer trunk,” as one cop told a reporter.
In 2000, former county prosecutor Larry McClure all but dismissed the possibility of a serial predator, despite what Michael Gross told The News in 1969.
“I don’t think we ever had a sense that there was a connecting factor,” McClure told the Bergen Record. “We had a series of unsolved homicides, a number of which involved young ladies. Trust me: They’ve been referenced and cross-referenced.”
Some cops are convinced that the killer of one or more of the teens was locked up long ago for other crimes.
Among the possibilities is Robert Reldan of Tenafly, convicted in the 1975 strangulation sex murders of two Bergen women, Susan Reynes, 26, of Haworth, and Susan Reeve, 22, of Demarest. Reldan, who did prison time for rape in the late ’60s, has been implicated in other murders. Now 77, he is a lifer in New Jersey.
Another is Robert Zarinsky, convicted of the 1969 murder of Rosemary Collandriello, 17, in Monmouth County. DNA linked him to the sex murders of two other Monmouth teenagers in the 1960s, but he died in prison before he could face charges.
Authorities have also scrutinized Raymond Alves, a convicted Bergen rapist suspected of other such crimes in the 1970s.
But none has been definitely linked to the Jersey girl cases.
History suggests resolution is unlikely without a confession, but that hasn’t deterred new amateur sleuthing.
A Midland Park schoolmate of Jackie Harp has invested many hours in re-examining that case and others.
He and Karen Miller, Falasca’s sister, declined to talk publicly about what they have discovered. But they told the Justice Story they are still hopeful of new developments.
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