Tuesday, March 7, 2023

The Peter Reilly-Barbara Gibbons Murder Case: A Chronology

A grave injustice occurred in Litchfield County, Connecticut, beginning on September 28, 1973, when Peter Reilly, 18, was arrested and subsequently coerced by State Police into falsely confessing to -- and was later wrongfully convicted of -- the grisly murder of his mother, Barbara Gibbons. Below, and reproduced here as part of the historical record, is an update and timeline of events as they appeared in the Lakeville Journal on March 17, 2005:

Connecticut Commissioner of Public Safety Leonard Boyle has agreed to give Peter Reilly access to state police files that could help him discover who murdered his mother, Barbara Gibbons, after more than 30 years. For decades, Reilly himself was the prime suspect for the police – in part because, after two days of interrogation without sleep, food or an attorney, the 18-year-old youth was induced to sign a confession saying he killed and sexually assaulted his mother. Reilly was not convicted of the crime but his name was never completely cleared, either. With the help of journalist Donald Connery, a Kent resident, and The Lakeville Journal, Reilly has been able at last to get access to the police files on the case.

[Photo at left of Peter Reilly speaking in 2005 at Noble Horizons by yours truly]

Searching through those files is likely to be a time-consuming endeavor, though. In 1983, The Lakeville Journal ran a chronology of the events up to the point of the investigation. The introduction to that listing notes that, "No other criminal case in Connecticut history has been so thoroughly investigated by so many people for so long a time ... State's Attorney Dennis Santore speaks of the principal investigative file on the case as something occupying not filing cabinets but whole closets."

That 1983 special section also noted that, "In the process, however, there has been much public confusion about what happened, and who did what to whom, and why the case went on and on like an Icelandic saga ... So many were the events and so mountainous the data that even insiders and diligent observers often lost their way."

To help readers understand the scope of the investigation and trial, The Lakeville Journal offers this abbreviated version of that chronology:


Sept. 28: At some time between 9:30 and 10:00 p.m., Barbara Gibbons, 51, is murdered in her Falls Village home, probably by more than one assailant and almost surely while she puts up a fight for her life. She is stabbed many times and almost beheaded by deep throat slashes. Her nose, three ribs and both thigh bones are broken. Her body is mutilated and internal injuries are inflicted by the sexual use of an unknown weapon. There is a great loss of blood.

The victim's son, Peter A. Reilly, 18, returns home from a youth center board meeting at Canaan Methodist Church just moments after the assault. Discovering his mother's body on the bedroom floor, he makes five telephone calls for medical assistance. The calls bring a state police cruiser and the Canaan volunteer ambulance as well as friends within minutes.

As other police personnel arrive, led by the Canaan barracks commandant, Lt. James Shay, Peter Reilly is regarded as a suspect. He is questioned and searched. After his constitutional rights are read to him, a statement is taken down, including his estimation that he arrived home at 9:50-9:55 and his belief that, as he saw his mother on the floor, "She was having problems breathing and she was gasping." He states, "I didn't touch my mother but went straight to the telephone."

Sept. 29: Soon after 2 a.m., four hours after the homicide, Reilly is taken from his home to the Canaan barracks. He waits four more hours until Lieutenant Shay arrives to again read him his rights and begin an hour and a half interrogation. Reilly asks, "Am I actually a suspect?" He is told that he is. Perceiving that his story is not believed, he volunteers for a "lie detector" and is told that one will be arranged.

After 25 sleepless hours, Reilly is permitted four hours rest in a barracks bedroom. Meantime, a six-hour autopsy of the victim's body is underway, conducted at Sharon Hospital by Dr. Ernest M. Izumi. He and the state medical examiner, Dr. Elliot Gross, had earlier examined the body at the murder scene. Dr. Izumi's opinion that some of the blows and wounds were inflicted after breathing had stopped reinforces Lieutenant Shay's suspicions of Reilly because the suspect said he thought he heard his mother breathing.

At noon, Reilly is driven to Hartford for a polygraph test that is coupled with a tape-recorded interrogation by Lieutenant Shay and three other officers that continues for some eight hours until almost 11 p.m. Statements that he slashed his mother's throat with a straight razor and jumped on her legs before phoning for emergency aid are put in writing. After signing the confession, he is arrested, fingerprinted and driven back to Canaan.

Sept. 30: After arriving at the Canaan barracks at 12:30 a.m., Reilly is driven to the Litchfield Correctional Center. An hour later, in cell 32, he goes to sleep.

In the afternoon, acting on the advice of fellow prisoners, he calls friends in Canaan for help in obtaining an attorney. Several families that had attempted to locate him since the murder take actions on his behalf that mark the beginning of a citizens' defense committee.

Nov. 7: A grand jury indicts Reilly for murder of Barbara Gibbons.

Mid-December: In Litchfield Superior Court, police testify and tapes of Reilly's interrogation are played in open court for several days as Judge Anthony Armentano considers a pretrial defense motion to suppress Reilly's written and oral statements. [Defense attorney Catherine] Roraback asserts that Reilly's statements and admissions were taken "under coercion" and in violation of his constitutional rights.


Feb. 19: Armentano denies motion to suppress confession.

Feb. 20: Reilly trial begins with jury selection in Litchfield Superior Court, Judge John A. Speziale presiding.

Feb. 21: After nearly five months in jail, Reilly is released on a $50,000 bond raised by supporters. He joins the Meyer Madow family of East Canaan.

Late February-early April: State's Attorney John Bianchi stresses confession and other Reilly statements, offers kitchen knife with residue of blood as murder weapon, portrays Reilly's home life with difficult, argumentative mother as background to his explosion of violence. Highlight of prosecution is three-day testimony of Dr. Izumi and color slides of victim and wounds. Interrogation tapes are played by defense to demonstrate psychological coercion. Roraback emphasizes lack of time for Reilly to commit murder and hide evidence, absence of blood on his clothing, and Reilly's close relationship with his mother. Testifying in his own defense, Reilly describes his movements on Sept. 28, 1973, and denies killing his mother.

April 11: After six weeks hearing testimony, jurors begin debate at 12:56 p.m.

April 12 (Good Friday): Jury, continuing debate into mid-afternoon, announces decision. Reilly is found guilty of first-degree manslaughter.

May 24: Judge Speziale sentences Peter Reilly to six to 16 years in prison.

Reilly is driven to Somers penitentiary but returns home several hours later after his supporters raise an additional $10,000 for his new $60,000 bond.


January-March: Continuing defense investigation includes review of homicide evidence by Dr. Milton Helpern, former chief medical examiner, New York City, who concludes Reilly is "the least likely suspect."

April 20: Reilly's new attorney, T. F. Gilroy Daly, files legal papers in Litchfield calling for a new Reilly trial.

June 6: Files unsealed in Litchfield disclose the Reilly defense contention that a suspect had both motive and opportunity to kill Barbara Gibbons.

June-December: Five Canaan area families put up houses and property to secure Reilly's bond as fundraising efforts continue. Defense team, while seeking additional new evidence, struggles with State's Attorney John Bianchi for disclosure of state evidence, saying his intransigence verges on being in contempt of court. New York Times in successive front page articles describes apparent miscarriage of justice in Reilly case. CBS films key figures in case for January 60 Minutes broadcast.


Jan. 15: Hearing for a new Reilly trial begins before Judge Speziale in Litchfield.

Jan. 20: Daly announces identification of fingerprint discovered by police on side door of victim's house during the 1973 investigation. It belongs to youth living close to Gibbons cottage. He is named as a suspect.

Late January-mid-February: Daly presents an array of evidence against the suspect and his brother. A succession of witnesses makes the case that robbery was the motive for the invasion of Barbara Gibbons' home (her wallet and $100 from a check cashed that day were missing) and that there was antagonism between the suspects and the victim. New evidence tightens the time sequence of Reilly's movements so much, according to Daly, that he had no time to commit violence.

Feb. 18: Hearing ends after six weeks with two days of testimony by psychiatrist Herbert Spiegel explaining the Reilly "confession" as result of police psychological coercion.

March 25: Judge Speziale wipes out 1974 manslaughter conviction by granting Reilly a new trial, stating that "a grave injustice has been done."

Aug. 22: State's Attorney Bianchi dies of a heart attack. He had delayed action in re-trying Reilly.

Sept. 2: Temporary State's Attorney Robert Beach in a "holding action" formally charges Reilly with manslaughter.

Nov. 4: The charge is dismissed, thus freeing Reilly from prosecution, as a result of the discovery by State's Attorney Dennis A. Santore, successor to John Bianchi, of undisclosed evidence favoring Reilly in the late prosecutor's files.

These are statements made to the state police on Sept. 29 and Oct. 4, 1973, by Frank Finney, an auxiliary state trooper of North Canaan, and his wife Wanda, about having seen Reilly in his blue Corvette at Railroad and Bragg streets in North Canaan just after they left the Canaan Drive-In movie at 9:40 p.m. This was the very time that a key prosecution witness in the Reilly trial, nurse Barbara Fenn, said she had received Reilly's phone call from the scene of the murder.

In a motion for discovery and inspection in December 1973, Catherine Roraback had asked Bianchi for any exculpatory information and specifically for the name of "any person who saw the defendant driving his car on the night of Sept. 29, 1973, after 9:30 p.m." Santore showed the Finney statements to Judge Speziale, who confirmed their importance. Santore, resisting pressure from state police officers and Chief State's Attorney Joseph Gormley, decided that the statements had to be considered exculpatory and had to be revealed to the sitting judge in the Superior Court, Simon Cohen, who then frees Reilly of all charges.

Nov. 26: Governor Grasso orders the state police to re-investigate the Gibbons slaying and asks Chief State's Attorney Joseph Gormley to inquire into possible prosecution misdeeds.

Dec. 20: In a report that some criticize as a whitewash, Gormley finds nothing improper in the police and prosecution actions in the case.

Dec. 23: Judge Speziale, at Santore's request, names a one-man grand jury – Judge Maurice J. Sponzo – to investigate possible crimes in the handling of the Reilly case. Attorney Paul McQuillan is later selected as special prosecutor.


Feb. 3: Sponzo and McQuillan begin hearing testimony in secret in the Litchfield courthouse. State Police re-investigation led by Capt. Thomas McDonnell proceeds simultaneously.

February-May: Virtually all the individuals who testified in the 1974 trial as well as new witnesses and suspects – 92 persons in all – appear before Sponzo and McQuillan during 48 days of hearings.

June 1: Judge Sponzo reports his grand jury findings. While concluding that no crimes were committed by police or prosecutor, he severely criticizes the state's handling of the case and virtually clears Reilly as a suspect in the murder. A secret list of five suspects who had the motivation, capability and opportunity to commit the crime is provided by State's Attorney Santore and the state police.

Sept. 26: Captain McDonnell's re-investigation report is delivered to Santore. The conclusion that Reilly is the murderer according to a new scenario of the crime ("the car theory") is leaked to the press and widely published and broadcast.

Oct. 12: Santore rejects McDonnell reports as "contrived," subjective and lacking evidence worthy enough for prosecution. His view that the Gibbons case remains open and unsolved is challenged by State Police Commissioner Edward Leonard, who declares the case closed and the crime solved.

Oct. 13: Gov. Ella Grasso asks Paul McQuillan to investigate the conflict.

Oct. 20: After making the full text of the McDonnell report public and giving it his blessing, Commissioner Leonard, following meetings with Gov. Grasso and McQuillan, backtracks and "wholeheartedly" declares his support of Santore's position.

Nov. 22: Judge Sponzo in Litchfield frees Reilly from any further prosecution by adding the words "with prejudice" (against the state) to the dismissal of the manslaughter charges ordered a year earlier.


Jan. 19: Gov. Grasso, having rejected calls for Commissioner Leonard's resignation in December, declares that the Gibbons case is still open and announces creation of a civilian State Police Advisory Committee. Paul McQuillan, named to head the citizens group, says it should be able to prevent "future Peter Reilly cases."

Feb. 1: Peter Reilly files $2 million damage suit against Commissioner Leonard and Captain McDonnell.

Oct. 3: Gov. Grasso authorizes $20,000 reward for Gibbons case information.

November-December: A new informant, Wallace ("Butch") Wilcox, indicates willingness to provide evidence. Behind-the-scenes efforts to secure a new investigation are made by Donald Connery and Lakeville Journal editor Robert Estabrook, who meet with new Chief State's Attorney Austin McGuigan and Paul McQuillan. McGuigan agrees to launch a probe outside of state police.


Jan. 16: McGuigan persuades McQuillan to serve as a special assistant state's attorney and have sole charge of a new Gibbons case investigation.

Jan. 19: A sworn statement made by Wallace Wilcox to his attorney, Alan Neigher, and private detective James Conway is published in The New York Times and other newspapers. Wilcox states that he saw two brothers running from the Gibbons cottage at about the time of the murder in September 1973, and that one of them admitted the murder to him some weeks later while they were working on a farm. Both suspects deny any involvement in the slaying.

January-September: Paul McQuillan conducts an investigation centering on the suspects named in the secret addendum to the one-man grand jury report.

Sept. 25: Three days short of the sixth anniversary of the Gibbons murder, McQuillan announces at a Litchfield press conference that there is not enough evidence to warrant seeking a grand jury indictment of any suspect in the Gibbons murder. He states, however, that there is evidence of perjury by certain witnesses before the one-man grand jury and recommends that the state's attorney follow up and consider prosecution.

Early December: Santore brings perjury charges against Timothy Parmalee, 22, of Falls Village.

Dec. 17: Parmalee pleads guilty in Torrington Superior Court to the state's charge that in 1977 he lied to the Sponzo grand jury. He is released on $1,500 bond pending sentencing. Parmalee had twice told Judge Sponzo that he had not stolen a wallet containing $120 from the Gibbons home about a week before her murder, but after other witnesses implicated him he acknowledged to state police that he had committed the theft and lied to the grand jury.


Jan. 22: Parmalee receives a one-year sentence, to be suspended after six months, and probation for two years.


July: Peter Reilly asks the state police to conduct DNA tests on strands of hair found in his mother's hand at the time of her death.


May: The state police say the hairs are too decayed for standard DNA testing.


January: Reilly, Donald Connery and The Lakeville Journal file a Freedom of Information request for state police files on the Gibbons murder. The commission rules that Reilly can see all files dated after 1977, the date of his exoneration. Appeals are filed by the three as well as by the state police.

From December: Judge Speziale, James Conway, playwright Arthur Miller (a supporter of Reilly) and Paul McQuillan all die within a few months of each other.


January: Public Safety Commissioner Leonard Boyle agrees to give Reilly access to all the files relating to the murder investigation.

March 9: The Freedom of Information Commission vacates its earlier decision, allowing the state police to give Reilly access to the files.


Dennis Santore, Former State's Attorney (2007-08-16 11:48:30)

Mr. Cowgill Just a note to thank you for the chronology of the Barbara Gibbons case. After all these years and the diminishment of memory it is hard for me to recall the chapters of that case. Now I have an excellent outline of the case that had so much impact on my career. Regards...Dennis Santore

Jessikah Brown (2007-08-20 21:48:15)

I have always seeked answers on this case due to my relation to the two brothers who were later suspects in this case. I'd like to say I find it amazing how easy small towns point the finger at troublemakers. The same sort of blind "evidence" used to persecute Peter was later used against those two brothers just cause someone is capable of theft or even lying possibly out of fear (which isn't much different than Peter's reasons for falsely confessing) does not make them capable of murder!! And to the gentleman who claims to have seen the brothers leaving the house there is a reason hearsay is not admissible in court and shouldnt be because of your accusations two men's names have been further dragged through the dirt for what?? Just as easily the finger could have pointed at you. In closing I've lived in a small town all my life. It brings a sort of comfort but in that comfort you lose a lot, the one thing you did wrong when young or your outspoken personality hang you in the naive ideals of your very own townspeople and what sort of justice does that bring in the end?

1 comment:

  1. P.S. After I published this many years ago on my Lakeville Journal blog, I got an angry call from the aforementioned Tommy McDonnell, the since-retired State Police captain who led the "reinvestigation."

    He told me the above timeline was "wrong and biased" and that Reilly was guilty as charged. I asked him how Peter could have inflicted so much trauma on his mother while having no traces of blood on his body or clothing -- the same clothing witnesses say he had been wearing only half an hour earlier at the youth center board meeting at Canaan Methodist Church.

    He told me after killing his mother, Reilly had fled the house and changed his clothes in the basement of the other church across Route 63. I guess that means Peter had stowed away a spare set of the same clothing he had been wearing minutes earlier (white collared shirt, dungarees, sneakers).

    What a crock. It seems to be part of police culture: never admit you made a mistake.