For over 40 years, the family of Brenda LaCombe has wondered what happened to the 19-year old single mother of a little baby boy after she walked out of her grandmother’s apartment in the early morning hours of May 16, 1982 in Lowell, Massachusetts.
Although Brenda’s lifestyle at the time had her mixed up with a rough crowd and risky behaviors, she adored her son and never would’ve taken off without any word back to her family. Weeks passed – her siblings checked hospitals, called police stations, talked to her friends, visited the places she was known to hang out, and scoured the newspaper for any clues as to where Brenda had gone. Then, almost three weeks later, there was an article in the paper.
“There was an article about a body being found,” Lacey Kearns began, “And she just had a feeling and knew. And that’s how they found out that that was Brenda and everybody was devastated.”
Lacey Kearns has taken the lead in the fight for answers in her aunt Brenda’s case. Though she never got to meet Brenda, Lacey wants to help her family finally learn the truth after all these years.
If you have information regarding the unsolved 1982 homicide of Brenda LaCombe, please call the Worcester County District Attorney’s Anonymous Tip Line at (508) 453-7589.
A Family Mystery
Lacey Kearns wasn’t even born yet when her aunt, her mother’s sister Brenda LaCombe, was murdered, but she knew about her aunt Brenda from a young age.
“I’ve known just about as long as I can remember. I only began to understand what it meant as time went on. Once I finally had an idea of what happened, I began asking questions,” Lacey told me.
Lacey’s questions mounted as she watched her mother, Barbara, dig into newspaper archives at the local library, looking for any shred of detail about Brenda. She remembers her mom paying a visit to the police station, asking for updates in Brenda’s case. Barbara talked to people who knew Brenda, she wrote letters to the editor, and advocated for her sister for years. That dedication inspired Lacey, even as a little girl.
Lacey began researching her aunt Brenda’s case in earnest a few years ago, when she started to develop an interest in genealogy.
“And as I started looking things up, it just got my inquisitive mind going. I started finding different articles and then questioning people and getting as much information as I could on her case. And the more that I got, the crazier things got and [there were] strings everywhere,” Lacey explained.
Lacey keeps pulling those strings, unraveling a case that has sat unsolved for over 40 years. She has become the voice for Brenda – she doesn’t want her aunt to be forgotten.
“I want them to know what happened to her. I want them to not disregard who she was and to mainly remember the good things, but also her life mattered,” she continued, “You know, it matters. No matter what you or he or she or anyone thought of her, somebody lost their mother, their sister, their best friend. She was a good person.”
About Brenda LaCombe
Brenda Jean LaCombe was born December 21, 1962. She was one of 10 children, with four sisters and five brothers. Her childhood was tumultuous, punctuated by instability.
“Growing up, Brenda and none of the kids had it easy. I’ll say that. She had been in and out of foster care for some time, and my mom was, too. A lot of the kids were. A lot of not good stuff going on at home,” Lacey explained.
But family remained important to Brenda. She became a motherly figure to her younger siblings.
“She was strict with her younger siblings, but she was also fun with them. She mothered them, but she would dance around the house with them too. But then she’d make sure they put their toys away and make sure they ate their supper and things like that. They remember going to the beach with her, going to the white mountains. Just a lot of happy memories, just small things growing up that always stay with them,” Lacey shared.
“Her friends will tell you how kindhearted and vulnerable and even soft spoken [she was], which, you know, I hear soft spoken and then I hear feisty. I’m like, wow, that does sound like 19 to me,” Lacey chuckled.
In her teenage years, Brenda ended up in abusive relationships. Lacey explained, “[Brenda] always seemed to choose the wrong type of guys. A lot of bad guys, really bad guys. I know she got beat up a lot.”
Brenda was 18-years old when she gave birth to her son, Wayne Matthew. His name was later changed to Matthew Wayne. Lacey told me she’s heard stories about Matthew’s father, that he was abusive and violent towards Brenda. Lacey also said that the child’s father allegedly knocked one of Brenda’s front teeth out. He wasn’t really involved in their son’s life, and so Brenda was a young single mother. It was undeniably challenging, but she absolutely adored Matthew. He was an anchor for Brenda, who often seemed adrift in life.
Police reports allude to Brenda’s possible drug use – marijuana, cocaine, possibly heroine – but none of the reports are consistent or verified. Lacey knows that Brenda certainly wasn’t using when she was pregnant. Lacey has also heard the rumor that Brenda may have been involved with sex work, but those rumors seem to be unfounded.
“There’s a lot of rumors that are out there that I don’t like. Some people have said that she was into, or had been into prostitution. Well, I will tell you right now, there is zero record of that,” Lacey continued, “And the only trouble that she wasn’t even arrested for was, I think she was 16 and there was some type of argument at home and the cops came and nothing happened. Other than that, no.”
The rumors about Brenda’s activities and lifestyle would play a part in the investigation when in the spring of 1982, Brenda left her grandmother’s house late one night and never came back.
It was the evening of May 15, 1982 and 19-year old Brenda LaCombe had plans to go out with her sister Bev and Bev’s boyfriend Jack.
“They were supposed to be going on a double date, and the plans got canceled for some reason. I’m not sure why. Jack and my auntie Bev bought Brenda wine and they dropped her off at her grandmother Pearl’s house to play cards because they always played cards. My family was big on that.”
Brenda’s grandmother lived at the Francis Gatehouse elderly housing complex along the Pawtucket Canal in Lowell, Massachusetts. The large brick building was once a mill and has since been converted into condos. The area back then was similar to what it is today – largely residential, with multi-unit homes and apartment buildings wedged tightly together on surrounding streets.
So Brenda drank wine and played several hands of Canasta with her grandmother, a Rummy style card game, but at one point during the evening, Brenda put down her hand and went to make a phone call. No one knows who Brenda was trying to reach. After the call, they resumed their game of cards until the phone rang just after midnight. Brenda answered – the call was for her, but again, no one knows who called for Brenda that night.
Brenda hung up the phone and told her grandmother that she was going over to her boyfriend Mark’s house. He lived just a few blocks away on Broadway. Brenda left her pocketbook behind when she walked out the door of her grandmother’s apartment and left the Francis Gatehouse, stepping into the dark night all alone.
The Next Morning
Since Brenda had plans to be out on the night of May 15, her son was in the care of her father, who often watched Matthew when Brenda needed a sitter. She had a doctor’s appointment scheduled for Matthew the next morning, but Brenda didn’t show up as scheduled. It immediately raised concern among her family.
Lacey told me, “That was a huge red flag because she never missed a doctor’s appointment or anything to do with Matthew, like she actually carried him around with her a lot wherever she went. So it was unusual for her not to be around him.”
With no call and no sign of Brenda, her family started looking.
“My mom and my aunt, and probably my uncle, too, my Uncle Eddie I know for sure, went to everybody’s house they could think of. They went to the surrounding police stations. They called the hospitals, checked anywhere they thought she might have hung out and she didn’t turn up,” Lacey explained.
Brenda’s father reported her missing. The initial report was filed on May 17, 1982. As Lacey said, “He just knew something wasn’t right.”
Episode Source Material
- Note: Most of this material is not available via public online sources. If you have questions about the source material or would like to see any of the items listed below, please email email@example.com.
- More fires strike city, Unknown Publication, Unknown Date
- 30 homeless in 4-alarm fire by Margaret Connolly, Lowell Sun, Unknown Date
- Body found in Harvard, Unknown Publication, 05 Jun 1982
- Homicide probe, Unknown Publication, 7 June 1982
- Body found in Harvard identified as that of missing Lowell woman, The Sun, 7 & 8 June 1982
- ‘Several suspects’ eyed in girl’s death by Michael Lasalandra, The Sun, 10 June 1982
- Body of lowell woman found in the woods by Ann Levison, Harvard Post, 11 June 1982
- LaCombe probe ‘a big puzzle’, Unknown Publication, 16 June 1982
- No new leads found in LaCombe probe, Unknown Publication, Unknown Date
- Unknown Article – Clip of Brenda LaCombe Case
- East Chelmsford teenage girl missing for nearly two weeks by Reinhardt Krause, Lowell Sun, 18 Jun 1982
- Family Establishes reward fund in search for clues to murder of Brenda Lacombe, 19, The Sun, Unknown Date
- Death left its mark on the region last year by Kristopher Pisarik, The Sunday Sun, 02 Jan 1983
- Murder of city woman unsolved 10 years later by Marcia Cassidy, The Sun, 04 June 1992
- Without a trace- Pain continues for families of missing children, The Sun, 03 Jul 2004
- Sister of Lowell Slay Victim laments lack of progress in investigation, Letter to the Editor, 9 Sept 2005
- 34 Years, 0 answers by Lisa Redmond, Lowell Sun, 16 May 2017
- Family raising money to solve woman’s ’82 murder, Lowell Sun, 11 Jun 2017
- Lowell woman’s unsolved slaying to be chronicled by Elizabeth Dobbins, Lowell Sun, 22 Jun 2019
- Lowell woman’s unsolved slaying to be chronicled by Elizabeth Dobbins, Lowell Sun, 22 Jun 2019
- Original Police Report, Lowell Police Department – Brenda LaCombe
- Brenda LaCombe Death Certificate – Harvard – 19 July 1982
- Brenda LaCombe Death Certificate – State of Massachusetts – 7 April 2016
- Statement from Middlesex County DA Marian Ryan