NORTH BERGEN, N.J. — Forty-two years ago this week, 17-year-old Mary Ann Pryor left her house on 2nd Street in North Bergen, New Jersey, telling her older sister, Nancy, she was going shopping for a bathing suit.
Mary Ann had a gift certificate from Macy’s and was looking forward to a vacation on the Jersey Shore.
Pryor was planning to meet her friend, 16-year-old Lorraine Kelly, for the shopping trip.
“We always had to carry a dime for a call,” Nancy Pryor recalled of August 9, 1974 — when phone booths were still the norm and cell phones were non-existent.
But Mary Ann and Lorraine never called, and they never came home.
Five days later, their bodies were discovered on a hill in Montvale, New Jersey — 20 miles away from their hometown — on August 14, 1974.
“They were found completely naked,” Nancy Pryor remembered. Her mother collapsed when police told them the news.
Nancy Pryor had to identify her sister at the morgue.
“They took us to a room where we saw jewelry,” Pryor told PIX11. “They opened the curtain. I only saw her head; it was badly bruised.”
Nancy Pryor knew the jewelry belonged to her sister, so a positive identification was made.
Lorraine Kelly’s parents were both deceased, so one of her older siblings had to identify the 16-year-old.
Forty-two years later, Bergen County police have never made an arrest in the case, although there’s been plenty of talk about sabotaged evidence in Hudson County, where the girls lived and may have been killed, before their bodies were dumped in Montvale.
“Those girls went through a horror,” retired Detective Bob Herb from Bergen County told PIX11 during an interview earlier this year.
Herb is 82 years old and some of his memories are fading with time. But he remembered a lot of the details in the case, and his wife, Joan, kept an extensive file of Herb’s work on the case.
The cause of death was listed as strangulation, but there was evidence the girls had been raped and tortured with cigarette burns, before they died.
Detective Herb was assigned to work with psychics, who pointed him in the direction of the Meadowlands in North Bergen, not far from where the girls lived.
“He goes out there and sees this half building standing and there’s this red truck that she described,” Mrs. Herb said of one psychic. Joan Herb recalled her husband wrote a report about it, which could be accessed by North Bergen authorities. “The next day when he went back, it was gone,” Joan Herb said of the red truck.
Detective Herb said he also wrote in another report about a spot where the teens’ clothing may have been discarded in the Meadowlands, inside a cinderblock structure.
When he got to the approximate location, Herb recalled he discovered a burned mattress and charring all over the walls.
“The fire was probably so hot that it burned everything,” Detective Herb said.
All these years later, theories about why the case remains unsolved abound. A retired police chief from Bergen County thought a now-caught serial killer may have been behind the murders, while others felt suspects eluded capture because of political connections.
In late May, PIX11 spoke to one of the retired case detectives from North Bergen, Carmine Balzano. Balzano was 79 years old at the time.
We asked Balzano about case files that were reportedly destroyed in a fire. Balzano said he had heard about a fire. When asked if he found it suspicious that files may have been severely damaged, he said “Not really, because this is North Bergen. This is Hudson County. That means it’s very, to a point, corrupt.”
We talked to Balzano in detail about the case. He died six weeks after we met him outside his home in North Bergen.
Nancy Pryor has been a primary force pushing for answers in the case. She still keeps all of her sisters personal letters and photos, including those of Mary Ann’s boyfriend, Sal, who was serving in the U.S. Army down south, when the murders happened. Nancy keeps in touch with Sal to this day.
“I believe it was someone they knew. Actually, someone Lorraine knew,” Nancy Pryor told PIX11. “A lot of names have been mentioned over and over again.”
The unsolved murders are listed on the website for the Bergen County Prosecutors Office, which calls the case “active,” — even as it remains a mystery after 42 years.