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Man pleads guilty to murder in 1991 cold case

Craig W. Conkey speaks to the judge in Grafton Superior Court in North Haverhill, N.H., on Feb. 14, 2014. Conkey pleaded guilty to first degree murder in the stabbing death of Theresa Reed in 1991. Beside him is his attorney James Brooks.  Valley News - Jennifer Hauck

Craig W. Conkey speaks to the judge in Grafton Superior Court in North Haverhill, N.H., on Feb. 14, 2014. Conkey pleaded guilty to first degree murder in the stabbing death of Theresa Reed in 1991. Beside him is his attorney James Brooks. Valley News - Jennifer Hauck

A Grafton County native twice convicted of murdering women pleaded guilty to a third yesterday, closing a case that has been unsolved since 1991.

Craig Conkey, 47, received a mandatory sentence of life without parole in Grafton County Superior Court after pleading guilty in the stabbing death of Theresa Reed, who was a 30-year-old assistant in the registrar’s office at Plymouth State College.

“It is a happy day,” said Joseph Reed, Theresa’s father, as he addressed Conkey during the hearing. “It is a happy day to know that finally, closure is coming in this case, although I don’t know what closure is.”

Conkey, who grew up in Dorchester and graduated from Mascoma Valley Regional High School in 1985, sat across the courtroom from Reed, tall and wearing a green Department of Corrections uniform. He was handcuffed. After the sentencing, a police officer guided him out of the courtroom by the chain around his waist.

Yesterday’s sentence will be added to the two life sentences Conkey is concurrently serving in Massachusetts for two murders that took place in that state in the 1990s. Those two sentences, however, left Conkey with the possibility of parole.

During the hearing, Senior Assistant Attorney General Jeff Strelzin laid out the case the state would have made if it had gone to trial.

Strelzin said that, in July 2012, officers with New Hampshire’s Cold Case Unit went to visit Conkey in prison in Massachusetts following his recent convictions for the 1990s murders. In 1995, Strelzin said, Conkey was a suspect in Reed’s murder, but “there was simply not enough evidence at the time.”

“That’s when he first came on the radar up here,” said Michael Kokowski, a detective with the Cold Case Unit.

During the visit, Conkey didn’t confess. But as the officers left, he offered hints that he knew more about the case than he had let on.

The officers tried again later. Conkey asked whether they had enough evidence to convict him of Reed’s murder; they said no. Conkey then volunteered to the investigators that he committed the crime.

Conkey told the investigators that he went to Reed’s Plymouth apartment one night in September 1991 with the intent of burglarizing it, Strelzin said. He didn’t know Reed; the apartment he broke into was chosen at random.

Once inside and looking around, Conkey found Reed on her bed, and she began to scream when he entered the room.

“In order to keep her quiet, he lunged across her,” Strelzin told the court. “He stabbed her as much as he could.”

An autopsy later showed that Reed had been stabbed nine times.

During the assault, Reed’s body fell into the space between her bed and the wall. Conkey’s knowledge of that fact – which had not been previously disclosed to the public – as well as his knowledge of the murder weapon – a knife with a 6-inch blade and a tightly wound leather strap around the handle that was found outside Reed’s apartment – gave credence to his claim that he did it, Strelzin said.

Investigators knew from previous experience with Conkey that his confession could be valid: So was his admission of another crime – and another cold case – he committed in Manchester in 1989, Strelzin said, where he strangled a woman behind the counter in a flower shop before fleeing.

Conkey told investigators that he spent a maximum of two minutes in the apartment the night of Reed’s assault, and left in a state of shock. He slept in the woods that night, and walked to his parents’ Dorchester home, where he grew up, the next day.

The Associated Press reported that following Reed’s 1991 stabbing, Plymouth-area stores experienced higher sales of items such as ammunition, door locks and Mace from residents worried about the possibility of a killer on the lose.

Officials said yesterday that Conkey preferred to be incarcerated in New Hampshire. Strelzin said during the hearing that the state would “have no problem with that,” though he said afterward that movement across state lines would require both states’ departments of corrections to agree to the arrangement.

If they don’t, Conkey will remain in Massachusetts unless he makes parole, Strelzin said, after which he’ll be released into the Granite State’s custody. The earliest that could happen is in the mid-2020s.

One way or the other, Conkey “understands that he’s going to be incarcerated for the rest of his life,” said James Brooks, Conkey’s public defender, after the hearing.

During the hearing, though, Conkey frequently responded to questions posed by Judge Peter Bornstein with answers other than “yes” or “no.” As several of Reed’s family members looked on, Conkey told the judge at the beginning of the hearing that he wanted to “get it over with” and plead guilty.

Later, Bornstein asked whether Conkey knew that first-degree murder was the maximum charge he could receive. Conkey instead brought up the death penalty, a sentence he was told he could not receive for the crime he did at the time he did it.

“After being in (prison) for 20 years, I would have preferred the death penalty,” he eventually said.

The conversation between the two came after Joseph Reed’s brief remarks, where he noted the coincidence that Conkey’s sentencing occurred on Valentine’s Day, one of Theresa Reed’s favorite holidays.

He said the family still has the last Valentine’s Day card she sent them, signed, like all her other notes, with the words “love ya.”

“At Theresa’s funeral I had a few things to say,” Reed said, addressing Conkey. “And I said that you’re still part of humanity. Now whether that is a blessing or a condemnation, I don’t know.”

Do we need Felons Rights legislation? This would allow them to choose death over life imprisonment in cases like this one. Why should we deny them this choice?

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