On a November night in 1934, Etta Riel told her family that she was off to New York to marry Henry Sawin--her high school sweetheart, the man she said was the father of her 2-month-old daughter.
Sawin had denied it, and a paternity case was to go to trial the next day. But now, she told her family, they could wed out of state, no questions asked. She would return to Oxford for baby Alma in a few days.
She was never seen again.
Nearly 60 years have passed since the disappearance of Riel, 20, a student at State Teacher’s College in Worcester. The investigators and lawyers of her day are gone. Social mores have changed.
But her daughter can’t forget.
Alma Conlon, 58, of Franklin, has sued a man she identifies as her father and revived a police inquiry into her mother’s case.
“Everybody knows Etta Riel. Everybody has their own theories as to what happened,” said Sgt. Michael Boss of the Oxford police, who has taken on an investigation that started in the depths of the Depression.
Riel’s disappearance was big news. Police organized search parties. Reporters from Boston swarmed all over this central Massachusetts town, taking pictures and interviewing anyone and everyone--including Sawin, of course.
According to news accounts of the time, Sawin told police that Riel wanted to escape all her troubles, so he simply dropped her off at a train station in nearby Worcester.
The popular detective magazines of the time took up the story, offering a $1,000 reward. A grave was even dug up--to no avail.
Meanwhile, Alma grew up. She married, lived elsewhere in the state, worked as a reporter and secretary, and brought up five of her own children.
She had been led to believe that the aunt and uncle who reared her were her parents. When she was a teen-ager, relatives finally told her of her real mother--and of their belief that Sawin was her father. They explained his absence with a lie; they told her Sawin was dead.
It was not until 1987, when a local newspaper reported Sawin’s 50th wedding anniversary, that Conlon discovered he was alive and living in Worcester.
“A lot of people think that I want to find my father just for retribution,” Conlon said. “But that’s not the only reason. I want to know who I am.”
Conlon has tried to persuade a court to decide that question. She sued Sawin, now a 78-year-old retiree from an envelope-making company, in July, 1990. She has requested that the state Probate and Family Court officially declare that Sawin is her father, but she is asking for no money.
In August, Judge James Sweeney threw the suit out of his Marlborough courtroom, saying Conlon is too old to sue under a state paternity law that refers to “children.”
Her lawyer and son-in-law, Paul Carlucci, has appealed the decision. The case is expected to come back to court in about a year.
Carlucci says DNA and other blood tests indicate that Sawin is his client’s father, but he declined to provide the results. He acknowledged that Sawin took the tests voluntarily, without any court order to do so.
Sawin refused to comment.