The Murder of John Donaldson (Massachusetts)

It’s been more than 45 years since John Donaldson was killed while sitting in his parked car just yards away from the safety of his own home in Harvard, Massachusetts. It took years for investigators to build a case and arrest a suspect, but it would all prove to be a distraction from the truth. Now, Johnny’s siblings are taking up their little brother’s case one last time in hopes of finally uncovering the answers they deserve.

If you have information about the 1979 murder of John Donaldson, please contact the Massachusetts State Police Detectives assigned to the Worcester County D.A.’s office at 508-453-7589 or email

April 5 & 6, 1979

It was approaching midnight on April 5, 1979 and 20-year old John Donaldson was wrapping up another dishwashing shift at the Sheraton Boxborough Hotel in Boxborough, Massachusetts. Washing dishes wasn’t exactly his first choice of jobs. He was originally hired to work the front desk but a demotion had him in the kitchen scrubbing food from room service plates and sanitizing flatware after dinner service each night.

John, who was better known as Johnny to his family and friends, had found himself back in his hometown of Harvard, Massachusetts after struggling to keep up with his coursework in college. He flunked out and left school in December of 1977, but he was told he could reapply when he was ready and that seemed to be his plan. But until then, it was washing dishes and living at home with his parents, paying $15 a week rent at the same house he grew up in on Lovers Lane in Harvard.

Most of the friends Johnny had grown up with were away at college by then, but he made new friends among the kitchen staff at the hotel, many of whom were younger high school kids. After their shifts, he and a few co-workers would usually find a place to hang out and throw a couple beers back. That was their plan on the night of April 5 and early morning hours of April 6, 1979.

Around 12:45 or 1 o’clock in the morning, another dishwasher, 17-year old Robert Kurt Allen, who went by Kurt, hitched a ride from Johnny in his 1974 orange Ford Pinto and the pair met up with their other co-workers, a 16-year old we’ll call Thomas Brown and his 18-year old brother Greg Brown. I’ll be using fake names for privacy reasons.

According to research by Johnny’s siblings Susan Donaldson and Jim Donaldson, who has personally reviewed much of the case file for the investigation, the Brown brothers and Kurt all lived on Hillcrest Drive in Harvard, but the Brown’s house was their usual hang after work. That night like many others, they sat in Thomas and Greg’s secluded driveway listening to music, smoking cigarettes, drinking a few beers, and possibly smoking some pot and snorting cocaine. By about 2 a.m. Thomas and Greg decided to call it a night, but Kurt and Johnny lingered a bit longer in the driveway. Around 3:15 a.m. and a few more beers and cigarettes later, Johnny drove Kurt a few houses down to his place before making his own way back home to Lovers Lane.

It wasn’t unusual for Johnny to sit in his parked car once he got back to his parent’s house every night. Just a few yards from the house where his parents slept, Johnny would listen to a few more tracks on the car radio and have another cigarette since his mother wouldn’t tolerate smoking in the house. It was a quiet ritual, a little time to himself before he finally found his way up the driveway to bed.

Around 3:50 a.m. on April 6, Johnny’s quiet ritual there in the privacy of his own car and driveway was interrupted by a visit from a police officer. A patrolman named Ronald Robbins was driving down Still River Road parallel to Lovers Lane and spotted Johnny’s headlights through the trees. Officer Robbins decided to pull down the quiet side street and talk to Johnny.

It was reportedly a short, benign conversation. Robbins asked John what he was still doing up and Johnny said he usually got out of work late but would go inside soon. Robbins either offered Johnny a cigarette, or Johnny asked him for one, and then Robbins told him to go inside when he was finished. Johnny said he would and then Robbins got back in his cruiser and left. It was the last time anyone saw John Donaldson alive.

The siblings of John Donaldson share their brother’s story on Dark Downeast. Press play to hear the full episode wherever you get your podcasts.

Episode Source Material

  • Harvard man, 20, is slain, Evening Gazette, 06 Apr 1979
  • Police investigate shooting death, Evening Gazette, 07 Apr 1979
  • Cops probe slaying of Harvard man, 20, Boston Herald, 08 Apr 1979
  • Police have no suspects in Harvard murder probe, Worcester Telegram, 08 Apr 1979
  • Police continue shooting probe, Evening Gazette, 09 Apr 1979
  • Harvard police continue investigation, Evening Gazette, 14 Apr 1979
  • Harvard investigates shooting incidents, Worcester Telegram, 14 Apr 1979
  • Police link slaying with Boxboro incidents, Evening Gazette, 18 Apr 1979
  • Boxboro snipings linked to youth slaying by Joe Heaney, Boston Herald, 10 May 1979
  • Death of Harvard man still under investigation by Diane E. Lewis, Evening Gazette, 29 May 1979
  • Possible witness to Harvard shooting interviewed by Carolyn Ayon Lee, Worcester Telegram, 20 Feb 1980
  • Ex-Harvard police officer accused of withholding murder case information by Patricia Montminy, The Lowell Sun, 24 Feb 1984
  • Ex-Harvard police officer arraigned in murder case, Evening Gazette, 25 Feb 1984
  • Ex-policeman held in murder by Robert D. Winship, Worcester Telegram, 25 Feb 1984
  • No probable cause found in murder case, Evening Gazette, 19 May 1984
  • Charge is dropped in Harvard murder by Robert D. Winship, Worcester Telegram, 19 May 1984
  • Charges against former Harvard officer dropped, The Lowell Sun, 24 May 1984
  • Ex-Harvard police officer files suit for $1 million, Evening Gazette, 11 Aug 1984
  • Harvard settles false arrest suit by Robert D. Winship, Worcester Telegram, 05 Mar 1988
  • Out-of-court settlement nets $40,000 for ex-police officer by Patricia Montminy, The Lowell Sun, 11 Mar 1988
  • Out-of-court agreement nets $40,000 for former officer by Patricia Montminy, The Lowell Sun, 11 Mar 1988
  • Police revisit nineteen-year-old unsolved Harvard murder by Ann Levinson, The Harvard Post, 14 Aug 1998
  • New England’s Unsolved: The murder of John Donaldson by Bob Ward, Boston 25 News, 14 Jul 2023
  • John Donaldson – Harvard – 4/6/1979, Worcester DA’s Office
  • Excerpts from forthcoming memoir by Susan Donaldson James
  • Solvability factor chart for Case # 79-115-0999-0091, Worcester County Detective Unit, Undated
  • Summary by Jim Donaldson after viewing Harvard PD case file, Dec 2005
  • Meeting agenda and outline, Massachusetts State Police Detective Unit – Worcester County, 23 Jun 2008
  • Donaldson family notes from meeting with Massachusetts State Police, May 2018
  • Personal interviews with Debbie Donaldson, Susan Donaldson James, and James Donaldson conducted by Kylie Low