It was January of 1981 and in true New England fashion, the weather was brutal and unforgiving. In Northern Vermont, temperatures dropped to 38 degrees below zero. With windchill, it felt like 80 below, the kind of cold that’s deadly.
A University of Vermont student was walking down a residential street on Saturday, January 3, 1981 when he spotted what he believed to be a mannequin in the snow, but the reality was much more grim. His 9-1-1 call opened a case that is still unsolved, more than 42 years later.
During the earliest moments of the investigation, the death of 35-year old Angela Belisle was presumed to be the result of dangerous temperatures and extreme winter weather. Instead, the autopsy revealed that Angela was the victim of a homicide. What happened to Angela and who is responsible? And what will it take for her killer to be brought to justice all these years later?
If you have any information about this case, please the Vermont State Police. Tips may be submitted anonymously online or by texting keyword: VTIPS to 274637 (CRIMES).
Misreported Cause of Death
On the morning of January 3, 1981, a University of Vermont student was walking down the iced over sidewalks on the charming residential street of Brookes Avenue when he spotted a figure laying in the snow. He thought it looked like a person, but his mind played tricks with him. Maybe it was just a mannequin? But why would a mannequin be out in the snow?
As the man stepped closer and blinked into the frigid air to get a better look, it all became clear at once. It wasn’t a mannequin, but a real person. A woman. And it looked like she’d been there for quite some time. In a panic, the student ran across the street to a neighbor’s house and pounded on the door. His eyes were wide and his expression frantic as the homeowner greeted him. The student told him to call the police.
The neighbor and the student walked over to the woman, almost standing guard as they waited for authorities. They’d later tell Jodie Peck of the Burlington Free Press that the woman had dried blood on her face that looked like it came from her nose. She was lying next to her vehicle and the driver’s side door was open with the window cracked just slightly. The man from across the street recognized the woman. Her name was Angela Belisle.
The initial report from Vermont’s chief medical examiner Dr. Eleanor McQuillen said 35-year old Angela Belisle likely died from exposure after getting out of her car, slipping on the ice and hitting her head. That was the story printed across the country the following day – her death became part of national weather coverage.
A headline in The Boston Globe read, “Car keys in hand, woman dies in cold.” In the Wichita Eagle, an Associated Press piece sandwiched the report of Angela Belisle’s death between details of extreme windchill and complaints from citizens about no heat in their apartments.
But the chief medical examiner’s initial report would prove to be wrong. Angela Louise Belisle didn’t die from a fall on the ice and exposure to the biting temperatures. The autopsy revealed someone shot and killed Angela, a mother of three, right there in the driveway of her own home.
About Angela Belisle
Angela Belisle, maiden name Gage, was the mother of three children with her ex-husband, Gerald Belisle, called Gerry. The two started dating in the 60s after they met at a dance hall in Bedford, Quebec, near where Angela was from. Gerry, like many Vermont residents, often spent time over the border in Canada. It was a short drive.
Gerry and Angela were married in 1968 and moved to Swanton, Vermont together. Gerry was a cement-truck driver at the time and Angela had a teaching certificate. She eventually became a school teacher in St. Albans.
After they became Mr. and Mrs. Belisle, Gerry’s business grew into a lucrative cement pouring firm. I found it interesting that numerous reports in the media at the time made note of the couple’s income – $70,000 annually, which was equivalent to about $287,000 today. With that, they were able to build a new house on the land where they once lived in a mobile home. Then they bought a camp together on Lake Champlain.
On the surface, their life looked charmed – the new house, the lakeside property, the three beautiful children – but the couple began to have problems that they couldn’t reconcile. In divorce filings, Angela called Gerry a work-aholic. They separated in 1978 and finalized their divorce in 1979.
Following their divorce, a series of strange and unsettling events began to follow Angela around. In August of 1979, the home where she was living with her kids in Swanton, Vermont caught fire. Angela and the children were away for the weekend and were unharmed, but the blaze damaged the house and its contents enough to force Angela to move the family out.
William Braun reported for the Burlington Free Press that Angela stayed with her former mother-in-law, just across the street for some time. Gerry eventually rebuilt the Swanton house and moved in there.
Although reporting in several sources called it “mysterious”, it appears that no one was ever charged with arson for that Swanton house fire. The Franklin County State’s Attorney was at least considering it though. One state police fire official believed the fire was intentionally set, while another thought the evidence showed it was an accident. At the time of Angela’s death, the investigation into the fire was still open.
A year after the fire, in 1980, the lake house that Angela had gotten as part of the divorce settlement was vandalized. Information about this incident is scarce and whether anyone was found responsible for the damage is unknown.
The two events made Angela uneasy and fearful. A friend of Angela’s told the Times Argus that Angela stopped going out at night. When she absolutely needed to leave her house after dark, Angela was sure to park her car as close to the entrance of her home as she could upon her return, wanting to walk the shortest distance possible out in the open. She constantly worried about her safety, but beyond the fire and vandalism, no one could elaborate on any other trigger for Angela’s fears.
By 1981, Angela had moved to Burlington and was pursuing her doctorate in Psychology at the University of Vermont. According to a professor in the psychology department, Angela worked 20 hours a week on her clinical internship and attended about another 20 hours of classes. The same professor told the Burlington Free Press that Angela was a, quote, “really vibrant person, super, and well-liked.” End quote.
Angela’s death, her murder, was a shock to the University of Vermont and greater Burlington community. As the early investigation began, everyone hoped that whoever stole her life would be caught, and fast.
Episode Source Material
- UPI Weather Report, Sunday News, 04 January 1981
- Car keys in hand, woman dies in cold, The Boston Globe, 04 Jan 1981
- Arctic storm stuns Northeast, Associated Press, The Wichita Eagle, 04 Jan 1981
- Mother found slain in front of her home by Jodie Peck, Burlington Free Press, 04 January 1981, Found slain, page 2
- Police probe Burlington murder, The Times Argus, 05 Jan 1981
- Autopsy shows woman was shot, Bennington Banner, 05 Jan 1981
- Murder suspected, Brattleboro Reformer, 05 Jan 1981
- Brookes Ave. woman was shot in head by Jodie Peck, Burlington Free Press, 05 Jan 1981
- Mrs. Angela Belisle Obituary, Burlington Free Press, 06 Jan 1981
- Fatal shooting inquest ‘disappointing’ by William H. Braun, Burlington Free Press, 06 Jan 1981
- Misfortune seemed to follow murder victim by William H. Braun, Burlington Free Press, 08 Jan 1981
- Murdered woman feared attack, friend, former husband report, Times Argus, 08 Jan 1981
- More inquests in Belisle death inconclusive, Burlington Free Press, 09 Jan 1981
- Letter to Editor – No Relevance by Kathleen Moore, Burlington Free Press, 10 Jan 1981
- Letter to Editor – Headlines Criticized, Burlington Free Press, 16 Jan 1981
- Keller: New inquests planned in Belisle death, Burlington Free Press, 22 Jan 1981
- Victim was questioned, Bennington Banner, 04 Mar 1981
- Suicide victim was questioned in Belisle death, Burlington Free Press, 04 Mar 1981
- Murders, The Times Argus, 12 Nov 1981
- Year later, murder is unsolved by Robert Knotts, The Times Argus, 04 Jan 1982
- Clues sought in ’81 slaying, Burlington Free Press, 20 Jul 1982
- Unsolved mystery by Sam Hemingway, Burlington Free Press, 01 Jan 2006
- Belisle: Murder mystery remains after 25 years – page 2, Burlington Free Press, 01 Jan 2006
- Mystery in the Mountains: The unsolved murder of Angela Belisle by Libbi Farrow, mychamplainvalley.com, 09 Feb 2021
- Vermont State Police: Angela Belisle
- Cold case closed? DNA evidence reportedly helps police solve decades-old murder
- Mystery in the Mountains: Rita Curran’s murder is Burlington’s oldest cold case by: Libbi Farrow