MIDDLETOWN, New York – New York State Police from the Criminal Investigation Division and Forensic Identification Unit surrounded a small grave in Orange County this week, performing a rare exhumation of a female homicide victim from 1970.
PIX11 was there, exclusively observing the scene, because of a series of reports we did in 2014. An Orange County judge had to grant permission for the exhumation.
Investigator Yan Salomon told PIX11 there could be a connection between this unidentified victim—a black female of about 30--and 20-plus women who went missing from a house at 222 Brooklyn Avenue in the 1960’s and 1970’s.
They were seduced into the household of a phony bishop, Devernon Legrand, who fathered up to 50 children with them and forced the women to dress up as fake nuns and beg in the subways and at popular tourist spots.
Those that didn’t make at least $100 a day were beaten. When they tried to run away, they were often kidnapped and brought back. Witnesses said a number of women ended up being stomped to death.
Legrand was raking in $250,000 a year in the mid-70’s, when he was convicted of rape and murder.
One of the “nuns” never accounted for was 32 year old Ernestine Timmons, one of Legrand’s wives who gave birth to eight of his children.
“Ernestine was missing in May of 1970,” Investigator Salomon told PIX11 by the Orange County gravesite, as back hoes moved the dirt. “Our victim was found in October 1970. And our victim had been in the woods at least four months.”
That time frame would make it possible that Timmons is the unidentified woman in the Orange County grave. The victim’s decomposing remains were found in the woods off Route 94 North in Chester, a road that leads into Sullivan County, New York, where Devernon Legrand owned a farm.
In the 1970’s, witnesses testified a number of female homicide victims were brought to the farm, after they’d been dismembered, and paint thinner was used to burn the remains in a tub. The bones were then scattered in Lake Briscoe.
The unknown homicide victim died from a gunshot wound, so investigators don’t know if she’s a woman from the Legrand household. A source told PIX11 one of Legrand’s wives, Ana Sorise, had been fatally shot in 1963.
It’s remarkable that police on October 19, 1970, were able to retrieve fingerprints, to begin with. Hunters who were in the woods of Chester found the victim.
“She had actually been laying on her hands,” Investigator Salomon said, “and parts of her hands still had skin left on them. And we were able to get latent fingerprints.”
The prints were put into a state database in 1970, but it wasn’t until a new database was installed decades later that police got a break.
“Christmas Eve 2015, we got a hit,” Salomon told PIX11. “We found a criminal record, a criminal history in New York City…..and Atlantic City.” One 1960 arrest in New Jersey was for “contributing to the delinquency of a minor.” There was a 1967 drug arrest in Atlantic City.
The problem was, finding mug shots that were actually tied to the victim—and something else.
“She used many aliases,” Investigator Salomon told us. “She used the name ‘Fanny Hill’…..the last name, Dixon, in one of her cases. A.C. Moore and Evelyn Moore.”
Salomon added, “We have not been able to find a birth record for Evelyn Moore, in multiple states, that would coincide with this lady.”
At some point, after DNA is retrieved from the bone fragments of the victim, police may ask now-adult children of women who vanished from 222 Brooklyn Avenue to provide DNA samples.
New York State Police have asked anyone who has information that could help the investigation to contact them at (845) 782-8311.