This story is part of a collaborative project between Project: Cold Case and a University of North Florida Journalism class. The student credited above wrote this story as a class project.
Brenda LaCombe had a strong spirit and never backed down from anything, possibly stemming from her upbringing in a large family. Despite this, she was soft-spoken with a love for children and animals.
Brenda was known to take her younger cousins to the playground. They knew how to bring out her goofy side, as she loved to make them laugh. She especially loved her son Matthew, who was nine months old when he last saw his mother.
The 19-year-old Lowell, Massachusetts native went missing on the night of May 15th, 1982.
Earlier that evening, Brenda canceled plans for a double date with her sister, her sister’s boyfriend, and her own boyfriend. She requested to be dropped off at her grandmother’s house instead.
At 12:45 a.m., after a night of drinking wine and playing cards with her grandmother, Brenda left. What happened next is uncertain, but her body was found two weeks later on a rural road in Harvard, Massachusetts, nearly 20 miles from her hometown.
Laura Almeida always looked up to her older cousin Brenda, who lived with her for a short period of time. She remembers family dinners with Brenda and describes her as happy-go-lucky.
Almeida remembers the last time she saw her cousin – she was hanging out in Brenda’s bedroom watching her cousin do her hair and makeup in preparation to go somewhere. “It was just like another ordinary day,” Almeida said.
The next time Almeida visited Brenda’s house, her cousin was gone.
Brenda’s young son, Matthew, stayed with her sister for a while, but was later adopted by other relatives. Lacey Kearns describes the death of her aunt as “like a scar” on Matthew. “If you know him very well you can tell that it’s in there,” she said.
Matthew’s adoptive family lived over an hour away from Lowell, but Kearns saw him at family gatherings over the years. When Matthew turned 18, he got a cross tattoo in remembrance of his mother. He currently lives in Florida.
Kearns wasn’t yet born when LaCombe’s beaten and naked body was found, but she is far from disconnected to her aunt’s story. “In some weird sense I feel like she’s around me a lot of times,” Kearns said.
Kearns grew up imagining that she would solve her aunt’s murder. Her mother often took her along to the library or police station on her quest for information about Brenda’s murder. She remembers sitting on a neighbor’s porch drinking lemonade while her mother questioned them for information. She didn’t know exactly what the adults were talking about at the time, but being an inquisitive child, she gradually pieced together what had happened to her aunt.
Kearns’s research continued into adulthood, which has resulted in her collecting numerous theories and at least two laundry baskets worth of paperwork related to Brenda’s case. Kearns takes care to assume every piece of information she receives could be true in order to keep her mind open to every possibility.
Currently, Kearns’s work consists of raising money through GoFundMe to exhume LaCombe’s grave and conduct DNA testing. She says that her search for answers has reignited her family’s interest in the case and many people who didn’t want to talk about it in the past are now reaching out to her.
She has no plans to quit any time soon. “I can only learn more,” Kearns said when discussing her hopes for the future of LaCombe’s case.
“It’s important for justice to be served, for people to not be forgotten.”
If you have any information on the unsolved murder of Brenda LaCombe, please call the Worcester County District Attorney’s Office at (508) 755-8601.
Research and Impact
“Parents who are suddenly faced with the abduction or murder of a child encounter an immediate demand to respond to bereavement issues to coping strategies” (Sprang, McNeil, & Wright, 1989).
For Project: Cold Case, helping families impacted by a homicide can be challenging, especially when the victim was a child. For these families, the complexity of grief associated with such a traumatic event is unfathomable and often difficult to navigate.
While there is still much to learn about stress, traumatic grief and coping research reveals that a parental survivor will develop naturalistic coping skills based on knowledge of death, abduction, or long-term missing in a different manner.
For parents dealing with a homicide of a child, confirmation of the case’s status from law enforcement encourages the initial steps toward grief process, coping, and addressing the actual loss. However, for parents of abducted or missing children, the same is often not true. Their path toward navigating the grief process is drastically altered as they must manage coping tactics to survive through the longstanding unknown.
Additionally, parental survivors of children will also address, interact, and accept support systems based on the relationship of those offering. For example, the support of family and friends will be a different experience for the survivors dealing with a homicide than those dealing with abducted or missing child. The same is true of professional relationships. However, both coping mechanisms and relationship continuance can fall burden to being expendable and a source of targeted discontentment.
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