Episode 034: Nilsa Arizmendi

April 4, 2022

The search for a missing woman turns into much more than investigators bargained for, and the hunt for a sadistic killer begins…

Episode Media
Nilsa Haydie Arizmendi (Legacy)
Wooded area behind the shopping mall (Google Maps)
Howell’s van (Connecticut State Attorney’s Office)
William Devin Howell (New Britain Police Department)
Episode Sources
Episode Transcript

Welcome back to Bite-Sized Crime. This week I’m bringing you a missing persons case that turned into much more than investigators ever expected, revealing a sadistic killer with more than one victim. This episode includes graphic descriptions and discusses sensitive topics, so listener discretion is advised.

Nilsa Haydie Arizmendi was born in Long Island, New York, in January of 1970. Referred to affectionately as “Coco” by her family, Nilsa was especially close to her three siblings.

By the early 2000s, Nilsa was living in Hartford, Connecticut. She now had four children whom she loved dearly. But Nilsa’s life wasn’t easy. She struggled with substance abuse and sometimes turned to sex work to get money for drugs. But no matter where she was or what she was doing, Nilsa always stayed in contact with her family and made sure her children were taken care of.

So when Nilsa didn’t check in for over a week, her family was concerned. On July 31, 2003, her sister Brenda called the Wethersfield Police Department and reported Nilsa missing. Brenda told police that Nilsa had been living in a Wethersfield motel with her boyfriend. Brenda said that she knew her sister was involved with drugs and sex work, but she would never willingly abandon her children.

Police began the investigation by looking into Nilsa’s boyfriend. Angel Sanchez was a convicted drug dealer who was known to police in the area. But Angel claimed he hadn’t seen Nilsa since July 25th. According to Angel, he and Nilsa had been smoking crack with a man they only knew as “Devin”. They had let Devin stay overnight in their motel room. In the early morning hours of July 25th, Angel said Nilsa got into Devin’s van in the parking lot of the Stop and Shop. She never returned.

Angel submitted to a polygraph test, which he passed. He was ultimately cleared of any suspicion in Nilsa’s disappearance, but he gave investigators a crucial piece of information: a description of Devin’s van, a 1985 Ford Econoline, dark blue, with two broken windows covered with plywood.

Detectives managed to track down the vehicle and identify the owner as 33-year-old William Devin Howell. Originally from Virginia, Howell had been in and out of jail over the years, serving time in several states along the east coast on drug-related offenses. He had been living in Connecticut for the past few years, working for a roofing company and doing landscaping jobs to make ends meet. In 2003, he was living with his girlfriend Dorothy Holcomb in New Britain.

But when New Britain police knocked on Dorothy Holcomb’s door in November of 2003, she claimed that Howell wasn’t home, even though officers could see him peering through the window. By the next day, Howell had skipped town.

A few weeks later, a North Carolina sheriff’s deputy pulled over Howell’s van for a traffic violation. Officials in Connecticut convinced North Carolina police to hold Howell until they could get there. He was eventually extradited back to Connecticut on charges of violating probation for a previous conviction. Howell seemed surprised that officers from Connecticut would drive all the way to North Carolina to get him on a probation violation, but when they showed him a picture of Nilsa Arizmendi, he clammed up and refused to talk without a lawyer present.

Howell was eventually released from custody, but investigators kept an eye on him while they worked on obtaining a warrant. Finally, in April of 2004, police were able to seize Howell’s van. During their search, they discovered that several of the seat cushions had been removed, and underneath the carpet was a large bloodstain.

DNA testing revealed that the blood belonged to Nilsa Arizmendi. But it also revealed a match to another unidentified female. William Devin Howell had more than one victim.

Investigators now had a potential serial offender in custody, but Howell could only officially be connected to Nilsa’s disappearance. On May 16, 2005, nearly two years after Nilsa was last seen, Howell was arrested and charged with first-degree manslaughter.

While awaiting trial, Howell told another inmate that he hoped his case would move quickly, before they could find a body. At the moment, prosecutors only had circumstantial evidence; a body would be “a big problem”.

Shortly after the trial began in January 2007, Howell entered an Alford plea. Under US law, a defendant who enters an Alford plea asserts their innocence but admits that there is enough evidence to convict them in a court of law. Howell’s plea put an end to the trial, and he was sentenced to 15 years in prison. But the case was far from over.

A few weeks after Howell’s sentencing, a hunter walking through a wooded, marshy area behind the WestFarms shopping mall stumbled upon a human skull. When authorities searched the area, they uncovered 50 bones belonging to three unknown individuals. Sadly, it would be years before anyone knew who they were.

In January of 2011, officials announced that one of the victims had been identified as 55-year-old Diane Cusack of New Britain, Connecticut. She had last been seen on July 9, 2003. Like Nilsa, Diane had struggled with substance abuse, but she had lost contact with her family years before her disappearance. When she vanished, no one reported her missing.

In September of 2013, the second victim was identified as 23-year-old Joyvaline Martinez. She went missing on October 10, 2003, but wasn’t reported missing until five months later when she didn’t show up for her own birthday party.

It would be yet another year before the third victim was identified. In September of 2014, officials announced that the third set of remains belonged to 40-year-old Mary Jane Menard, a substance abuse counselor who was last seen on October 4, 2003, when she went out to get cigarettes and didn’t return.

At this point, the state of Connecticut put forth a reward of $150,000 for any information about the victims that might lead to an arrest. The three women found in the woods were seemingly only connected in death, not in life, and officials were under pressure to find out who was responsible.

Then, on April 28, 2015, a bombshell: four more sets of human remains were found in the woods behind the WestFarms mall.

This time, it only took a few weeks for the victims to be identified. The first was 29-year-old Melanie Ruth Camilini, a mother of two who went missing on January 1, 2003. The second was 26-year-old Marilyn Gonzalez, who left her home on May 16, 2003 and never returned. The third was 44-year-old Janice Roberts, a transgender woman who was last seen getting into a dark blue van on June 18, 2003. The fourth was Nilsa Arizmendi.

In September of 2017, William Devin Howell pleaded guilty to six counts of murder in the deaths of Diane Cusack, Joyvaline Martinez, Mary Jane Menard, Melanie Ruth Camilini, Marilyn Gonzalez, and Janice Roberts. Because he had already been convicted of manslaughter in the death of Nilsa Arizmendi, he could not be charged again in that case.

According to court documents, Howell told his cellmate that there was a monster inside of him. He described himself as a “sick ripper” and gave graphic details about his crimes, referring to his blue van as the “murder mobile”. He would drive his victims to a remote parking lot, duct tape their mouths, then rape and strangle them.

Howell told his cellmate where he buried the bodies and even drew a diagram of the wooded area behind the mall, outlining the shallow graves of his seven victims. This map would be the key to finding the last four bodies.

In conversation with true crime author Anne K. Howard, who wrote a book about Howell’s crimes, Howell admitted to going back to the woods in 2004 to check on the graves. When he discovered that one of the bodies had seemingly been dug up by animals, he panicked and tried to find the remains so he could bury them again. But with the site being so close to the mall and to the main road, he was afraid of getting caught, so he left. Those remains were the ones discovered by the hunter in 2007, the ones that led to the recovery of the other victims’ remains.

William Devin Howell is believed to be the most prolific serial killer in Connecticut history, murdering at least seven women in the span of nine months. He targeted victims who were defenseless, often in need of money or a ride. Many of them struggled with substance abuse and lived on the fringes of society. According to Howell himself, he wouldn’t have stopped killing if he hadn’t been arrested for Nilsa’s murder. There’s no telling how many more victims would have fallen prey to his sadistic fantasies.

Howell is currently serving six consecutive life sentences in the Cheshire Correctional Institution. At his sentencing, Janice Roberts’ sister April spoke directly to Howell, saying, “Your size and force ripped away lives that didn’t belong to you. I hope that the words that you hear today resonate in your soul for the rest of your life. You may be able to protect yourself physically in prison, but there is no weapon that will protect you from your own thoughts.”

Nilsa Arizmendi, Diane Cusack, Joyvaline Martinez, Mary Jane Menard, Melanie Ruth Camilini, Marilyn Gonzalez, and Janice Roberts did not deserve the terrible fate that awaited them. They deserve to be remembered.