A Connecticut man suspected of killing at least seven people was considered a “kind-hearted giant” by his ex-girlfriend’s family, The Daily Beast has learned.
Juliana Holcomb, 19, told The Daily Beast that suspected serial killer William Devin Howell was her late mother’s ex-boyfriend and often stayed at their New Britain home when he wasn’t crashing in his van.
On Tuesday, it was revealed that police were linking the man Holcomb knew as “Devin” to seven bodies buried in swampy woods behind a strip mall. The grisly discovery of four sets of remains came after weeks of digging by authorities. Three other bodies were found there in 2007.
“I never once thought [Howell] could have done this,” Holcomb said in a phone interview.
She added, “He has long hair and in his mugshot, he looks angry. But he was a kind-hearted giant. He was so nice. He and my mom got along well together.”
Holcomb was about 6 years old when Devin Howell—described in media reports as a drifter who took odd landscaping jobs—started dating her mother, Dorothy, a Bristol hairdresser who died three years ago.
The teen said her mother and aunt kept in touch with Howell for years—even after he was cuffed in 2005 for the murder of Nilsa Arizmendi, 33, who had vanished two years before. The woman’s body was never recovered.
All seven victims suspected to have links to Howell disappeared in 2003. Four years later, three bodies were identified as Diane Cusack, 55; Mary Jane Menard, 40; and Joyvaline Martinez, 24. On Monday, officials identified a fourth victim: Melanie Camilini, 29. All four women had a history of drug problems, authorities say.
Authorities have not disclosed how the victims were killed or how investigators concluded one person was responsible for their deaths, the Associated Press reported.
Howell has been locked up at the Garner Correctional Institution since 2007, after he was convicted of manslaughter in Arizmendi’s death. He was scheduled for release in March 2019, records show.
Arizmendi’s on-again, off-again boyfriend of 20 years, Angel Sanchez, told investigators at the time the victim was a Hartford prostitute and that the couple was battling heroin, cocaine and crack addictions.
In 2003, they became acquainted with Howell, who offered rides in his 1985 black-and-blue Ford Econoline. Arizmendi was last seen getting into the van to buy crack cocaine after the couple had a fight, Sanchez claimed. Police found blood matching her DNA—and blood from another unidentified woman—on rear seat cushions inside the van.
But not everyone bought that Howell was behind the disappearance. Arizmendi’s mother Carmen was eyeing then-boyfriend Sanchez because he never contacted her after her daughter vanished. Carmen also suspected Sanchez “cut his long hair in an apparent attempt to change his appearance,” court records reveal.
Sanchez admitted during trial to hitting Arizmendi “once or twice,” the Hartford Courant reported. “I was trying to get her to get into a [drug rehab] program,” the former flame added. “That was the last real conversation we had.”
Holcomb’s family also questioned whether Howell, who has maintained his innocence, had anything to do with Arizmendi’s disappearance. At trial, Howell pleaded under the Alford Doctrine—meaning he wasn’t admitting guilt, but conceding that the state had enough evidence for a conviction.
Howell dropped his public defender and tried to enter a new plea. His new lawyer, Jeffrey Kestenband, claimed the previous lawyer provided ineffective counsel by telling Howell his “choice was either life or 15 years, leaving no possibility that he might be acquitted,” according to a court motion.
"I didn't do it," Howell said in a 2007 court proceeding. "I did not commit the crime. I was forced into this plea deal. I offer my sincerest condolences. I know they feel I murdered their daughter. I didn't murder Nilsa."
The now-retired public defender, Ken Simon, and Kestenband did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
Despite the sensational headlines surrounding Howell, Holcomb can’t picture him committing murder. She remembers Howell “let people borrow his van.”
“None of us really believed he did that,” Holcomb told The Daily Beast about Arizmendi’s murder. “He never put a hand on my mom or anything.”
Holcomb says Howell bought her a bubble machine and took her mother and brother to dinner and to the park and the beach. She said he also drove them around in his alleged murder mobile—where Howell often slept.
“I remember him being really funny,” Holcomb added. “He was always smiling and laughing. He was a very happy person and so was my mom.”
But Dorothy eventually left Howell in part because he “didn’t have a lot of money.” Her new beau was wealthier, and the family moved to Litchfield Hills, Connecticut to be with him, Holcomb said. “Devin was really really sweet … [but] he was poor,” Holcomb said. “My mom was poor, too.”
Holcomb said her aunts even gave Howell money by padding his commissary after he was incarcerated. When Holcomb was 14, she says her mother answered prison calls from him and wrote letters. “I still remember it being explained to me, why he went to jail,” Holcomb said. “In hindsight, I was so young. I wish I could ask [my mother’s] opinion of it now. I feel like she would say the same thing … He was never violent or hurt anybody.”
After Dorothy died in 2012—due to complications with alcohol abuse, her daughter says— “Devin” reached out from behind bars. “He was very upset when my mom died,” Holcomb said of a letter she received from Howell. “Because he really loved her. She kinda loved him too.”
Still, Holcomb’s aunt Cheyenne Hackett declined to comment on the sunny relationship between the accused murderer and her relatives. She said something about Howell’s situation was “fishy.”
“On behalf of my family, I’m so happy he did not kill my sister,” Hackett told The Daily Beast. “That my sister was not one of his victims.”
Howell’s van was registered in Dorothy Holcomb’s name, prompting investigators to pay her a visit in 2004. When cops asked Holcomb about the van’s driver, she allegedly became belligerent, according to court records.
Detectives said they believed the van’s operator was inside her home—a charge she denied. Police left and ran a record check to discover that “a warrant was out for [Howell’s] arrest on the charge of assault in the third degree upon” Dorothy.
Investigators claimed Dorothy was “running interference” for Howell, court records show. Three weeks later, Howell was arrested in North Carolina on an unrelated matter and the van was seized by authorities.
Once search warrants were issued, detectives lifted fingerprints and discovered hairs, carpet samples and other pieces of evidence—including a “steak-type knife” with a red plastic handle and “bloodlike stains.”
On May 13, 2005, Howell was arrested in Hampton, Virginia as a “fugitive from justice” in Arizmendi’s death, the Connecticut Post reported.
When Howell saw suited detectives pacing toward him, he allegedly tried to bolt through the back door of childhood friend Joseph Masters’ home.
“One of my friends walked into the garage and asked, ‘Does anybody know them three guys in suits?’ and Devin knew who they were and he took off running,” Masters told The Daily Beast.
Howell’s dash was quickly thwarted after cops tackled and cuffed him a block away, Masters said.
Masters was called in to testify against Howell at trial. But when he took the stand, he said police coerced him into making false statements. “I told (police) what they wanted to hear,” he said, according to the New Britain Herald.
The 42-year-old welder, who spoke to The Daily Beast from his Hampton home, said cops threatened him into giving up his friend. “I had been working for 12 hours and was half-intoxicated when they questioned me,” Masters said, adding that he chugged countless beers that evening.
“They told me they could keep me as long as they wanted and that I may never see my family again because they could charge me with aiding and abetting,” Masters said.
At issue was whether he and Howell cleaned off bloodstained cushions in Howell’s van. Masters told The Daily Beast that he testified during Howell’s trial truthfully that that the cushions were not bloodstained.
There was only the landscaping equipment inside the van that Howell used to cut grass, Masters claimed.
“He came to stay with me because he was homeless and had been living out of his van,” Masters said. “Devin wanted to get all of his lawnmowers out of there. I helped him clean out the van and vacuum it out.”
Masters described Howell as a gentleman who hardly picked a fight. “We would go to country bars and he never would say a rude thing to a woman,” Masters said. “He’d try to dance with them and if the woman wouldn’t want to dance Devin would say, ‘Okay.’”
Howell only turned violent when he thought his life was in danger, Masters said. “The only time he fight with guys was when there was no chance of walking away,” he added. “But I’ve seen him walk away from plenty of fights.”
The suspected killer has long maintained his innocence, Masters said, and allegedly described to his friend what happened the day he picked up Arizmendi.
“He said he was in a parking lot and he seen this girl and this girl and guy fighting, she was fighting with her boyfriend,” Masters recalled Howell telling him. “She was crying and upset and Devin asked her if she wanted him to give her a ride somewhere down the road.”
So Howell gave her a lift, Masters said. “He told me she got out of his van and she started walking down the road and he never saw her again.”
“This is a kind-hearted man who I’ve known all my life and I believe it’s bogus,” he added. “Cops up there [in Connecticut] have no suspects and to make themselves look good, they want to pin it all on Devin.”