The Suspicious Death of Christine Cole (Rhode Island)

When a 10-year-old girl didn’t come back from a quick trip to the store on a cold January night in 1988, her family and the Pawtucket, Rhode Island community searching for her feared the worst. Then weeks later when her body was found miles away, those fears were confirmed… and the questions just started stacking up.

What happened to Christine Cole? Investigators have considered multiple persons of interest and suspects over the last 30-plus years and even made an arrest, but the evidence crumbled as allegations of misconduct rose to the surface.

If you have any information about the 1988 unsolved case of Christine Cole in Pawtucket, Rhode Island or the 1988 unsolved murder of Michelle Norris in Central Falls, Rhode Island, please call 1-877-RI-SOLVE.

January 6, 1988

It was around 8:15 p.m. on January 6, 1988 and Margaret Cole was waiting by the apartment window watching for her 10-year old daughter Christine Cole to come walking down West Avenue.

According to reporting by Suzanne Espinosa for the Providence Journal, Margaret, who also went by Margie, had given Christine a food stamp voucher and sent her out to get some milk and clams for supper around 5:15. Christine asked her mother if she could use some of the money to buy a little penny candy, too, and Margie said yes. Christine just had a birthday two days earlier, so it would be a special treat.

The store, Red’s Seafood at 286 Mineral Spring Avenue in Pawtucket, Rhode Island was just about a half-mile away from their apartment depending on the route, and Christine knew her neighborhood well. Margie was a young single mother who had her hands full and Christine was the oldest, so it wasn’t unusual for her to run some errands for mom or go out walking on her own. It also wasn’t unusual for Christine to not return when she should.

Reports say that Christine had been reported missing in 1985 after she did not come home for several hours. When searchers found her, she was in a dumpster looking for a key she said she lost. Just the previous summer, Christine was reported missing again when she was gone for more than six hours. She was found playing at a friend’s house a few blocks down the street.

That afternoon though, Margie gave Christine specific instructions about where to go and what to buy. She told her daughter to get the milk and some clams at Reds, but if Red’s Seafood was closed, she could walk to Saint’s Market about two blocks further down on Slater Street. But even then, the trip on foot wouldn’t have taken this long.

Margie’s boyfriend, Oscar Waldron, had already gone out looking for Christine when she didn’t return by 6:30. When he checked at Saint’s Market, the clerk told him Christine left the store just 15 minutes before he got there, so Oscar turned around and went back to the apartment, assuming Christine was heading there too and would probably beat him home…but she didn’t. It had been over three hours with still no sign of Christine. By 8:45, Margie couldn’t take it anymore. She called Pawtucket Police to report Christine missing.

The Search

The first attempts to locate Christine began with retracing what should have been her movements that afternoon. Christine was a regular at Red’s Seafood, so the employee there definitely recognized her and told police that Christine came into the store just before 6 p.m. and bought 3 pounds of clams and a bag of chips, both of which were packaged up in a white paper bag that she carried out of the store.

Christine apparently made a detour because she was next seen at a friend’s apartment on Wilmarth Court about six blocks away from Red’s Seafood. The friend’s mother told police that when Christine arrived to play with her daughter, she didn’t have a white bag of clams with her. The mother said the two girls played dolls for an hour and then Christine said she had to go home. The mother reportedly offered Christine a ride home but Christine refused, saying it was a short walk. When the friend’s mother caught sight of Christine walking down the street though, it was in the opposite direction of home.

The next confirmed sighting of Christine that night was at Saint’s Market around 7 p.m. Suzanne Espinosa reports for the Providence Journal that the owner of the store said Christine didn’t have a white shopping bag with her when she came into the store either. Christine started browsing in the candy jar section and then bought a gallon of milk. From the change she popped a dime into a gumball machine, but the gumball got stuck. The store owner helped Christine get 10 gumballs with 10 extra pennies and put them all into a small paper bag. The owner noticed that Christine was hanging onto a broken necklace, so she put the pieces in the bag with the gum, too. As she handed the bag over to Christine, she felt the girl’s cold hands. The temperature was dropping below freezing outside, and felt even colder than that with the windchill, so the store owner handed Christine one mitten someone had left behind and told her to keep the other hand in her pocket on the way home.

After that, Christine’s whereabouts were harder to pin down. Her interaction with the owner at Saint’s Market is the last confirmed sighting, however, police said that the manager at Star Market located on Barton Street saw Christine at the store with someone, another girl, between 9:30 and 10 p.m. that night.

Alexander Reid reports for the Boston Globe that after seeing a photo of Christine, the manager said that he was pretty sure she was one of two girls he kicked out of the store for quote-unquote acting up. A teenage employee also working at the market that night would later tell police that the girl with Christine looked about the same age, maybe 10 or 11, but she was wearing a red Tolman High School jacket.

Star Market was just under a mile away from Saint’s Market in the opposite direction of home. If Christine was there after 9:30 that night, she would’ve been more than late for supper with those clams. But what even happened to the bag of clams? Neither the friend’s mother nor the owner at Saint’s Market saw Christine carrying a white bag. And was that girl at Star Market even Christine? If so, who was the other girl she was supposedly with? The questions were only beginning to mount because Christine didn’t turn up that night, or the next.

By the fifth day, the FBI and authorities from other states joined the effort to find the missing girl. Connecticut State Police lended a bloodhound to the search and the dog followed Christine’s scent from her home all the way to Star Market. It gave investigators a little more confidence that the sighting of her there was legitimate, but the dog couldn’t trace the scent any further. Additional tracking dogs were brought in the following day to search the area surrounding Star Market, including the railroad tracks that ran just beyond the store below a steep embankment, but the dogs lost the scent there, too.

L. Kim Tan reports for the Boston Herald that as concerning as it was for so many days to pass with no sign of Christine, police weren’t ready to say they suspected any foul play involved in her disappearance. They just didn’t have any evidence to draw the conclusion she’d been abducted or harmed, but one of the biggest concerns that police kept coming back to at the time was the severe winter weather. A recent snowstorm blanketed already ice-covered sidewalks, and if Christine was trying to survive outside for whatever reason, the frigid temperatures would’ve made it dangerous or even deadly to do so.

One investigator theorized that maybe Christine lost the bag of clams she bought. Maybe that’s why she wasn’t seen with it at her friend’s house or Saint’s Market. Maybe she was worried that she’d be in trouble for losing it, so Christine decided not to go home and she fell asleep outside somewhere. Maybe she fell victim to the elements. There were a lot of maybes to unravel but until they found Christine, nothing could be corroborated.

Nine days into the search, police were still trying to track down the girl reportedly seen with Christine at Star Market. They hoped the girl could confirm if it was, in fact, Christine Cole with her that night, and if so, get some information about where Christine was heading next. They assured the girl via the newspaper that she wasn’t in trouble, but she could be helpful in tracking Christine down. Whether police were ever successful in locating this girl though, is unclear.

The phone was ringing off the hook with tips for police to run down. According to reporting by the Providence Journal, one anonymous caller said he killed Christine and left her body in an abandoned house on Hendrick Street in Providence. Police searched the house but didn’t find anything. The call was a hoax.

With the days ticking on without her, a local philanthropist offered a $10,000 reward for information via Crime Stoppers hoping that the incentive would bring more witnesses forward and give the investigation something new to go on. But nearly two weeks later, the tips had run out and Christine was nowhere to be found. The sinking feeling that maybe something bad did happen to Christine was hard to ignore.

By the start of the third week of searching, police had administered polygraph tests to four people, including Christine’s mother Margie, Margie’s boyfriend Oscar, the mother of the friend who Christine played with the night she disappeared, and someone else…A man previously questioned about the murders of two children just a few months before Christine went missing.

Christine Cole’s story continues on Dark Downeast. Press play to hear the full episode wherever you get your podcasts.

Episode Source Material

  • Joao Monteiro v. Susan Cormier, Trevor Lefebvre, Daniel Mullen, Tina Goncalves, City of Pawtucket and Tamara Wong, Complaint filed January 26, 2021
  • Joao Monteiro v. Susan Cormier, US District Court of Rhode Island, No. 1:21-cv-00046-MSM-LDA
  • Neighbor is held in deaths of 2 Rhode Island boys, AP/New York Times, 31 Dec 1987
  • Police hunt for missing 10-year-old by Suzanne Espinosa, Providence Journal, 08 Jan 1988
  • 10-year-old R.I. girl missing by L. Kim Tan, Boston Herald, 09 Jan 1988
  • Bloodhound follows missing girl’s trail to market by Suzanne Espinosa, Providence Journal, 12 Jan 1988
  • The winding trail of Christine Cole: People recall seeing the Pawtucket girl over a 5-hour span by Suzanne Espinosa, Providence Journal, 14 Jan 1988
  • Police seek girl last seen with Christine Cole, Providence Journal, 15 Jan 1988
  • Witness says girl with Christine wore faded Tolman High jacket, Providence Sunday Journal, 17 Jan 1988
  • Four pass lie-detector tests about missing girl: Christine Cole’s mother, 3 others questioned by Suzanne Espinosa, Providence Journal, 19 Jan 1988
  • Police out of clues in Christine’s vanishing, Providence Journal, 22 Jan 1988
  • Pawtucket police, FBI: No progress in search for Christine, Providence Journal, 21 Feb 1988
  • Police search river, find no trace of Christine Cole, Providence Journal, 26 Feb 1988
  • Officials treating death of girl found on Warwick beach as a homicide by Susanne Espinosa and Dean Starkm, Providence Journal, 01 Mar 1988
  • Sneakers found in Bristol may be Christine Cole’s by Suzanne Espinosa, Providence Journal, 04 Mar 1988
  • Examiner trying to identify body by bones, teeth by Suzanne Espinosa and Mark Sennot, Providence Journal, 04 Mar 1988
  • 50 attend services for Cole girl by Suzanne Espinosa, Providence Journal, 08 Mar 1988
  • Police have lead in Christine Cole’s death by W. Zachary Malinowski, Providence Journal, 20 May 1988
  • Police eye drifter in death of 10-year-old by Beverly Ford, Boston Herald, 20 May 1988
  • Expert: Michelle not beaten, apparently fought attacker by W. Zachary Malinowski and Scott, Providence Journal, 02 Jun 1988
  • Police maintain silence on investigations of deaths by W. Zachary Malinowski, Providence Journal, 04 Jul 1988
  • Why was he freed? by Nick Tate and Beverly Ford, Boston Herald, 02 Aug 1988
  • Pawtucket woman jumps, slain girl’s family escapes burning apartment house, The Evening Bulletin, Providence Journal, 10 Aug 1988
  • Pawtucket police fingerprint city’s school children by W. Zachary Malinowski, Providence Journal, 08 Nov 1989
  • Police speak on child’s murder by Suzanne Espinosa, Providence Journal, 29 Jan 1990
  • UPDATE: Time fails to bring answers about girl’s death by Suzanne Espinosa, Providence Journal, 21 Apr 1991
  • Judge dismisses new charges against child rapist Richard Gardner by Madeleine List, Providence Journal, 19 Nov 2018
  • What we know about the man accused of killing Christine Cole by Tim White, WPRI, 18 Jul 2019
  • Police arrest suspect in decades-old cold case murder of 10-year old girl after obtaining DNA sample by Morgan Winsor, ABC News, 19 Jul 2019
  • ‘We are coming for you’ – Coldest of cases reopens with detective’s digging, DNA’s defining power by Brian Amaral, Providence Journal, 19 Jul 2019
  • Man arrested in cold case killing of Pawtucket girl remains free on bail by Brian Amaral, Providence Journal, 23 Jul 2019
  • Six months after Pawtucket police announced they had solved… by Brian Amaral and Tom Mooney, Providence Journal, 01 Feb 2020
  • With DNA ‘match’ too broad, defendant walks by Brian Amaral and Tom Mooney, Providence Journal, 01 Feb 2020
  • Judge dismisses charge against man accused of murdering Pawtucket girl by Brian Amaral, Providence Journal, 05 Feb 2020
  • Brother of Pawtucket girl killed in 1988 speaks out after charges against suspect dropped by Amanda Pitts, ABC6, 05 Feb 2020
  • Sex offender Richard Gardner charged with domestic violence by Jack Pery, Providence Journal 12 Mar 2020
  • Man cleared of ‘88 murder sues police by Katie Mulvaney, Providence Journal, 27 Jan 2021
  • Dueling motions in botched cold case by Katie Mulvaney, Providence Journal, 14 Mar 2023
  • Murder lawsuit cleared for trial by Katie Mulvaney, Providence Journal, 02 Oct 2023