The Suspicious Deaths of Janet and Stephen Dow

Crackling fire engulfed the 1982 Saab 900, melting the car’s plastic pieces and scorching its metal shell. The flames fed off the fuel that the car provided, roaring and warming up the cold, early hours of the morning.

It was December 10, 1982 and the town of Thornton, New Hampshire, was cold and quiet, the hissing of the fire the only sound breaking the small town winter silence. The car had tumbled off of Route 175 into a shallow ditch, but the crash did not awaken Roland Gooch or John Spurling, both of whom lived nearby. It was the sound of the fire and smell of the burning that drew their attention. 

When Roland and John arrived at the scene, the car was fully ablaze, though the physical damage from the crash was minimal. Roland described it as an “inferno,” and the two men struggled to see if anyone was in the car. The flames obscured the passengers inside.

Janet Dow and her son, Stephen Dow, were inside that burning car just 500 feet from their own home. They were deceased, but the cause of their deaths – whether from the seemingly gentle car crash, the wild flames, or something else – was not clear. What was clear to both John and Roland was that there must be more to what they’d witnessed. 

Over the next forty years and across multiple investigations, whether the truth of the suspicious deaths of Janet and Stephen Dow was ever uncovered is still uncertain to some and a closed case to others.

If you have information regarding this case, contact the New Hampshire Cold Case Unit at (603) 271-2663,, or leave a tip.

About the Dow Family

Before the settling of its expansive forest and many rivers by European immigrants, the area now known as New Hampshire was inhabited by Abenaki tribes. In 1763, one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, Matthew Thornton, founded the town of Thornton, New Hampshire. 

Thornton is nestled in the hills of Grafton County, centered around the Pemigewasset River. Today, the town is home to nearly three thousand people. But in the early 1980s, just under a thousand called the place home. New Hampshire Public Radio calls the town a “kind of in between place,” a primarily residential and sleepy area with a close community and little controversy. Residents of the area enjoy quiet and live some distance from any of New Hampshire’s largest cities. On any given day, they can look out to or visit the landmark of the White Mountain National Forest. 

Throughout the history of the town, there have been few significant events. For the majority of the 250 years since its founding, peace has prevailed. But in the years following December of 1982, Thornton made headlines.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Thornton was home to around a thousand individuals. Three of those formed the Dow family living on Route 175 along the river. They were 38-year old Richard Dow, 40-year old Janet Dow, and 18-year old Stephen Dow. 

Over the last forty years, Janet Dow – formerly Janet Cook Medeiros – has lost a significant amount of her identity to time and memory. Most publications note that Janet worked for the government as a postal carrier, a job that must have made her a staple in the small town. 

In Janet’s early twenties, she was married for the first time to Manual “Wally” Medeiros. Janet and Wally had a son together in 1964, and named him Stephen. 

By 1973, when Stephen was 9-years old, the pair had divorced. Within a few years, Janet married again – this time to a man named Richard Eugene Dow, known to his friends as Dick. Most people who knew the couple indicate that Janet’s marriage to Richard seemed to be a happy one until the end.

Janet’s son, Stephen, was a normal 18-year old boy in many ways. In 1982, he was a senior in high school. He was well known for his love of sports, but more than that, for his passion around cars. Stephen especially cherished his own car and often spent his free time working on it. 

He was also very close to his girlfriend, Kelli Sutherland. In the years since his death, Kelli has spoken kindly about Stephen. She described him to the Concord Monitor in 1993 as, “a compassionate, intensely interested person.” In the same interview she also shared that he did not get along with his adoptive father, Richard Dow. In his relationship with Kelli and his relationship with his mother and biological father, however, Stephen was loving and remained on good terms. 

Since the deaths of Janet and Stephen in 1982, the relationships between Richard, his wife, and his adopted son have been the source of a great deal of speculation. Most friends and neighbors of the couple had shared that the family seemed happy, but some reports shared that Janet and Richard married just a year after her divorce from Wally, which may have contributed to a strained relationship between Richard and Stephen. 

It is difficult to know the true status of the household in December of 1982. Over the last forty years, Richard has been the primary source of information about his family and the deaths of his wife and son, and after the initial investigation, Richard Dow consistently declined to comment on the events.

What Happened?

There have been multiple stories about the days and weeks leading up to the deaths of Janet and Stephen Dow and it is unclear which details are entirely true. 

On December 11, 1982, the Valley News in Lebanon, New Hampshire ran a report that several individuals had been killed in car accidents during the same time period. December in New Hampshire meant a frigid cold snap, leading to frozen roads and slippery dustings of snow over slick ice. Because of these conditions, the idea of two deaths resulting from a car crash was tragic, but not outside the realm of possibility.

When Roland Gooch and John Spurling found the brand new Saab 900 burning in a ditch off of the highway, it made sense that the car had gone off the road and had caught on fire. The 6 a.m. snapping and popping sounds building into an explosion had woken both men and had caught their attention before dawn. These sounds, paired with the smell of smoke and the unmistakable scent of a car on fire, brought both Roland and John rushing out of their houses to investigate. 

John worked as a firefighter in the community, and was familiar with both fire and car accidents. In 2001, he told 48 Hours, “As I approached the flames, I could actually see that I had a car in the ditch. I could see that I had a victim in the driver’s seat and also that this victim was beyond anything that I could do for them.” 

Two people were in the car. Their bodies were burned beyond recognition by the time anyone was able to see them.

Though the neighbors were unable to save the mother and son, they did take note of the scene. With his knowledge and background as a firefighter, John noted that the road showed no signs of skid marks that would have resulted from Janet losing control of the car and attempting to correct. He also noticed that the damage to the front end of the car was not severe, though the crash had apparently been powerful enough to set the vehicle alight. 

WMUR reported that John said at the time, “the explosion struck me as quite loud for gasoline and possibly more of a shop nature, but bothered me when I arrived at the scene and found the passenger compartment fully involved and not so much the exterior of the vehicle.”

Roland Gooch and John Spurling stood outside in the cold winter air, helplessly watching everything turn to ash.

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