The Cases of Laura Kempton and Tammy Little

In just over a year span during the early 1980s in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, the lives of two young women were ended by an assailant who broke into their apartments, violently attacked and beat them, and somehow managed to escape undetected, remaining anonymous for decades.

Laura Kempton and Tammy Little’s murders have long been intertwined. As you’ll hear, the circumstances of their deaths and their lives are just too similar to ignore a possible connection, but now in 2023, their cases apparently diverge. The New Hampshire State’s Attorney’s Office announced that they have identified the person responsible for one of those homicides. Laura Kempton’s killer has finally been named.

In a 25-page report and press conference, the details of the 40-plus year investigation into the murder of 23-year old Laura Kempton were revealed. Now the question on everyone’s lips: What’s next for the case of 20-year old Tammy Little?

I’m Kylie Low and these are the cases of Laura Kempton and Tammy Little on Dark Downeast.

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

September 26-28, 1981

23-year old Laura Kempton was a free spirit. She was outgoing and social and had a big personality. In the fall of 1981, she was studying to be a hair stylist at the Portsmouth Beauty School, and sources say Laura was also an aspiring model. A Dark Downeast listener wrote to me that although she didn’t know Laura personally, she knew of Laura because she’d posed for a few photoshoots and those photos of Laura were on display at a local salon.

In addition to her coursework at the beauty school, Laura worked at the quirky Macro Polo gift shop in downtown to cover her bills and maybe give her some walking around money. Laura liked to go out with friends to the local nightspots in Portsmouth, and she was on the dating scene, too.

On Saturday night, September 26, 1981, Laura Kempton was out for one of her usual nights on the town in the historic city of Portsmouth. Laura met her date for the night, a man I’ll call Jeremy, at the Riverside Club for some dancing and they closed the place out. As the lights came on and the revelers poured onto the streets of Portsmouth, Laura hopped in Jeremy’s car for a ride home.

They stopped into her apartment at 20 Chapel Street around 1:30 a.m. but were only there a half hour before leaving again to grab food. Laura and Jeremy returned together by 3 a.m. and he spent the night. Before they turned into bed, Laura asked him to check the door to make sure it was locked. She lived alone and was diligent about locking her door.

Laura had to work the next morning, but she had time for a quick breakfast with Jeremy at Goldi’s Deli before her shift at Macro Polo started. Laura said goodbye to Jeremy around 10 a.m. Just in time to clock in at work one block away.

When her shift ended around 7 p.m. on Sunday, September 27, 1981, Laura returned to her apartment. Her friend Karen stopped over around 9 p.m. and the pair decided to walk over to Luka’s Restaurant for dinner and drinks while they listened to the band play. According to Karen, Laura had been seeing the guy who played saxophone in the band, and wanted him to come over that night.

Laura danced to the live music and chatted with a few guys at the restaurant, and she and Karen stayed until close around 1 a.m. The saxophonist couldn’t come over, so the women walked back to Laura’s apartment together. Laura invited Karen to stay the night, but Karen had an early shift the next morning and wanted to get home. Lauren suggested they grab a coffee at Victoria Spa, but Karen wasn’t up for it, so she said goodbye and headed for home, leaving Laura alone at her apartment.

The 20 Chapel Street building was a multiunit on the corner of Sheafe Street, built around the turn of the century and wedged onto one of the many narrow one way streets in Portsmouth that probably never expected to have full-size automobiles navigating down them some day. I found rental ads for furnished rooms in the building as early as 1937, and it looks like it’s still an active rental building today. The exterior hasn’t changed significantly since 1981 either.

Looking through the report of this case, it seems that at least the front entry door of the apartment building at 20 Chapel Street was not usually locked. A man named Arthur who was experiencing homelessness during the late summer and early fall of 1981 often snuck into the building and slept in the hallway at night.

On the night of September 27, Arthur had quite a bit to drink and decided he’d crash in the Chapel Street hallway, but as he got closer to the building, he saw that a man and woman were arguing on the street corner and didn’t want them to see him sneak in the front door, so he left and came back later. He snuck through the front door and found a place to sleep in a cubby hole on the third floor.

Arthur was awoken from his snooze not long after closing his eyes by the sounds of arguing and a loud crash on the first floor. He didn’t want to be found out if police responded to the increasingly loud situation inside a first floor apartment, so Arthur quickly vacated his cubby hole and made for the exit, but not before noticing that some of the lights in the hallway were out and the door of a first floor apartment was slightly open. It sounded to him like the man and woman shouting inside knew each other; these weren’t cries for help, at least, that’s what Arthur thought as he snuck back out the front door of 20 Chapel Street and found a new place to sleep in a nearby park.

Around 2 a.m. another tenant of 20 Chapel Street named Daniel got back to his place. His apartment was just across the hall from Laura’s and as he walked into the building he noticed that her door looked broken. A panel of wood was missing and when he craned his neck to look through it, he saw what looked like a sheet of metal covering most of the opening on the other side. There was only an inch or so between the edge of the wooden door and the metal sheet, and Daniel thought he could hear someone fiddling with it inside the apartment.

It raised a red flag for Daniel – he wondered if maybe someone had broken into Laura’s apartment – but he didn’t inspect the situation further. He unlocked his own apartment door, checked to make sure his place hadn’t been broken into, relocked the door behind him, and went to bed.

At 6 a.m. on the morning of Monday, September 28, 1981, a second-floor tenant at 20 Chapel Street, a woman named Rebecca, was leaving the building when she realized the second-floor rear exit door was slightly ajar. It was odd. Rebecca thought that the door was always locked.

She made her way downstairs and exited the front door, but noticed something else strange on her way out. The door to her neighbor Laura’s apartment was damaged. A panel was missing but the opening was blocked with something. The door hadn’t been damaged when she passed it the night before, she was sure of it. There was music playing inside Laura’s apartment. Rebecca left without taking a closer look or listen.

Just before 9:30 that same morning, September 28, Portsmouth Police Officer Ron Grivois stepped out of his cruiser at 20 Chapel Street in Portsmouth. He had a summons for unpaid parking meter violations in hand with the name Laura Kempton printed at the top. She lived in apartment number 2 on the first floor.

Officer Grivois stepped into the building and approached unit 2, but even before his knuckles rapped on the blue wooden door, the officer noticed with alarm that the upper left section of the door paneling was missing. He peered through the rectangular opening in the old door. Though half of it was obscured by a thin metal sheet of some sort, he could see into the apartment beyond through a small gap on one side.

Officer Grivois would be the first to find Laura Kempton’s body that day. He secured the scene and called for backup.


According to the report released by the Office of the New Hampshire Attorney General in July of 2023, Laura Kempton’s body was found on the floor of the main room of her apartment which appeared to be both a living space and her bedroom. She was mostly covered with sheets, bedding, and her mattress and boxspring that had been placed on top of her.

When investigators removed the pile of stuff, they found that Laura was nude and her ankles were bound with a white electrical cord. A gray telephone cord was around her neck and shoulders, and it appeared to be from the phone in Laura’s kitchen. She had injuries indicative of blunt force trauma to her head and wounds on her face.

The broken door panel was the first and most obvious sign that someone had forced their way into Laura Kempton’s apartment, but investigators expanded the search to the exterior doors and windows for further evidence of where and how the assailant got into the building. The windows directly into her apartment were all locked and secured, but there was a basement window with a screen pushed in. Investigators ultimately ruled out that window as a possible entry point though since the dirt on the window ledge was undisturbed. Perhaps the killer had just walked right in the front door.

The scene was thoroughly processed and the team collected hundreds of potential pieces of evidence. The primary items included the electrical and telephone cord from Laura’s body, a green pillowcase removed from her head and neck, a cigarette butt found on the floor, as well as a glass bottle found next to her body. The autopsy would later suggest that an object similar to the glass bottle could’ve been the murder weapon.

Though an apartment building is likely covered in fingerprints from the tenants and their guests, investigators did not discount the potential importance of latent prints from exterior doors. Technicians got to work dusting and lifting several from around the building, from Laura’s apartment door, and several from surfaces inside her apartment, too, including her kitchen telephone.

Investigators shared a photo of the blue paneled door leading into Laura’s apartment in the AG’s report, and you can see it in the blog post for this episode at The door wasn’t kicked in or smashed – it appeared to be precisely dismantled in place, allowing the perpetrator to reach through the open panel and easily unlock the doorknob. The door was later removed and reconstructed as part of the investigation to better understand how the assailant got in.

Inside Laura’s apartment, investigators found a bent piece of black metal that had been torn off of a wall mailbox – it was the hooked part on the bottom that might cradle a newspaper, for example. It appeared to be a makeshift tool used by the attacker to pry off the molding around the upper left door panel.

When the molding was off, the wooden panel could be removed from the door, leaving only a thin panel of sheet metal on the other side. Investigators concluded that, too, was pried off with the metal hook from the mailbox. Investigators believed that the perpetrator likely put the sheet metal back in place after gaining access to the apartment so no one could see what was happening inside, which was how Officer Girvois found it that morning.

Meanwhile, Dr. Dennis Carlson performed the autopsy at the Exeter Hospital. The Office of the Medical Examiner hadn’t been established yet in 1981 and Dr. Carlson was a certified pathologist to perform autopsies. I won’t be sharing any specifics of Laura’s injuries noted in the autopsy report – it’s just not necessary to broadcast those graphic details. All I’ll say is that her death was the result of, “a severe beating about the head” with terminal pulmonary edema.

Dr. Carlson also determined that Laura had been sexually assaulted. The pathologist collected biological samples including swabs and skin scrapings. This evidence was secured by Portsmouth Police and transported to the New Hampshire State Forensic Lab for future testing.

The following day, Laura’s father positivity identified her body, and soon the news of what happened on Chapel Street had spread around Portsmouth and the state of New Hampshire.

Witness Statements

While the investigative team waited for results from forensic testing and analysis on the evidence recovered from the scene, detectives set about interviewing witnesses about the days and hours leading up to the discovery on that Monday morning.

Detectives spoke with Jeremy, who had been with Laura the full night before she was killed. He was transparent with police, telling them that he and Laura had been intimate as recently as the morning of September 27th. He also told police that he remembered Laura putting some cash into an envelope and leaving it on her kitchen table before they left for breakfast on Sunday morning. Police never found that envelope of cash.

Detectives also interviewed Arthur, the man who sometimes slept in the hallway of the 20 Chapel Street building. He told police about the loud voices and the arguing, and he mentioned that when he first tried to sneak into the building, he saw a man and woman arguing outside on the sidewalk. When police showed Arthur a photo of Laura, he confirmed that was the woman he saw, and though it’s not clear how from the AG’s report of the case, Arthur also was able to identify the person she was arguing with as a man named John.

Laura’s friend Karen also spoke with detectives and told them everything about their night together at Luka’s Restaurant dancing and then walking back to Laura’s apartment together. Karen’s timeline helped narrow down when the murder could’ve happened.

Laura’s two neighbors, Rebecca and Daniel, also helped narrow this timeline down and provided more details about the state of Laura’s apartment door when they saw it between 2 a.m. and 6:00 a.m. on September 28th. Amidst all of the witness interviews, early leads began to develop, and police wanted to speak further with two men about their activities on the night of September 27 and early morning hours of September 28, 1981.

1981 Suspects & Forensics

Laura’s neighbor Daniel’s statement was curious to detectives. He told them he saw the broken panel on the door, he heard someone messing with the sheet of metal on the inside, and felt strongly enough about a possible break-in that he apparently checked his own apartment for intruders, but he didn’t bother to take a closer look at what was going on inside Laura’s apartment.

When detectives spoke with Daniel again, they pressed him on the events of that night and why he didn’t question what was happening with the panel on Laura’s door. He told police he just figured it was Laura fixing her own door and didn’t think it warranted any further inspection. His answers in both interviews didn’t satisfy investigators. Detectives asked Daniel to take a polygraph test, but he refused. And so he landed himself on the list of suspects for Laura’s murder.

Interestingly, Daniel contacted police a few days after Laura’s body was discovered and told them that he went to replace a lightbulb in the downstairs hallway of the 20 Chapel Street building when he realized that the existing bulb wasn’t burned out, it was just slightly unscrewed and loose in the socket. Detectives immediately collected the lightbulb and other components of the light for fingerprint analysis. It was possible that whoever untwisted the lightbulb and darkened the hallway was the same person who broke into Laura’s apartment.

Detectives also took a hard look at the man named John, the guy reportedly seen in an argument with Laura on the street corner that night. The AG’s report doesn’t get into any investigative details about this guy John, but it’s safe to assume he was interviewed or at least tracked down and checked out because the report does include his full name. John, too, became an early suspect in the investigation.

Forensic analysis of fingerprints, blood, and biological evidence at the scene was ongoing. 1981 technology was a far cry from what’s available to investigators today, but analysts were still able to learn a lot from what was left at the scene.

The autopsy pathologist theorized that an object similar to a heavy glass bottle could’ve been used as the murder weapon, and Type A blood, Laura’s blood type, was found on both glass bottles on the floor of her apartment. Type A blood, presumably Laura’s, was also detected on a green pillowcase and a portion of door molding found beneath her body.

The section of telephone cord around Laura’s neck was found to have two components of seminal fluid on it, but no sperm. Other samples collected from Laura’s body had tested positive for spermatozoa and seminal material. That was as far as 1981 forensics could take it though. Technology wouldn’t reveal anything about the person who left the samples there for many more years.

The investigation continued into the following year. Spring of 1982 rolled around with no arrests and nothing to report. A lingering unsolved murder of such a violent nature didn’t align with the image of the city. Portsmouth wasn’t considered especially dangerous before Laura’s murder cracked the polished veneer of the historic seaside town.

A March 1982 article in the Boston Globe by Brad Pokorny described the city’s sudden uptick in violent attacks – five reported rapes, the murder of Laura Kempton, and another homicide in the nearby town of Rye all within a six month span had residents banning together to keep their city safe. Two members of a group called Dover Friends Meeting, a community of Quakers in the area, created a project called “Friends Who Walk”.

Armed with only a police whistle, two members walked the dark streets of Portsmouth with their eyes trained on the even darker alleys and shadowed corners of the city. Should they encounter anything nefarious, illicit, or alarming, they’d blow the whistles, stand their ground (non-violently, of course), and wait for authorities to respond. If necessarily, they’d testify in court to what they saw.

Another newly formed citizen-led task force called the “Stop Seacoast Crime Committee” called on residents to watch for suspicious strangers and unfamiliar vehicles in their neighborhoods. I found it interesting that according to Pokorny’s reporting, neighborhood watch programs like this are actually a New England tradition. As far back as colonial times, New Englanders walked their streets at night on the lookout for shady behavior.

Despite the efforts of citizens to protect their neighborhoods, one year after Laura Kempton was brutally attacked and killed in her own apartment, Portsmouth would experience another alarmingly similar homicide within city limits.

Tammy Little

20-year old Tammy Elizabeth Little lived alone in an apartment on Maplewood Avenue in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, not far from Portsmouth Beauty School where she was taking classes. She was an aspiring model. She was active and social, and Tammy loved going out in Portsmouth. The Boston Globe described Tammy as a regular at local clubs.

There is little public information about the circumstances surrounding the night of October 19, 1982, beyond the fact that Tammy Little’s body was discovered in the bathtub of her apartment. She’d been beaten and sustained fatal injuries to her head.

Anyone in Portsmouth or even greater New England with any awareness of what happened just a year prior was quick to pin strings between the still-unsolved murder of Laura Kempton and this new shocking homicide of Tammy Little. It was too obvious to ignore – both women were students at the same school, both lived alone in Portsmouth, both were reportedly aspiring models, both died in similar attacks.

And unfortunately similar for Tammy Little’s case, it soon went cold, too.

Because Tammy Little’s case is still open, there’s just not a lot of details about evidence, persons of interest, possible suspects, or any real substance of what’s been going on behind the scenes of the investigation all these years. But any updates in Laura Kempton’s case over the following several decades made mention of Tammy Little. These women, whether they knew each other in life or not, became intertwined in death.

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