Sarah Pryor, age 9, went for a walk in Wayland, MA in 1985 and vanished into thin air. 10 years later, a man walking his dog through a wooded area found a skull fragment, later identified as that of Sarah. While there is a main suspect in her case, no one has ever been charged in her abduction and murder.
The Disappearance of Sarah Pryor
Sarah Pryor was born on January 13, 1976 to Andrew and Barbara Pryor. She has two older siblings, Byron and Meg. The family relocated from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania to Wayland, Massachusetts in late summer 1985. Sarah was a sweet, happy girl with blonde hair, hazel eyes and a gap between her two front teeth. Sarah loved her family and her dog, a border collie named Katie. She enjoyed spending time outdoors and performed well in school.
On Wednesday, October 9, 1985, Sarah returned home from school, made herself a bowl of Jell-O and watched television. When she finished eating, Sarah told her father she was going for a walk in the neighborhood.
“Aren’t you going to clean the dish of Jell-O?” asked Andrew.
“I’ll clean it when I get back home,” the young girl replied.
“Why don’t you take the dog? her father asked.
“He’ll slow me down,” said Sarah. She put on her Walkman, and headed outside.
Around 4:45 p.m., Andrew took Sarah’s older brother, Byron to football practice at the high school. When he returned home around 5:00 p.m., Sarah was not there. Barbara, Sarah’s mother, pulled into the driveway at 5:50 p.m. Waiting for her at the screen door, Andrew told her that Sarah left for a walk at 4:00 p.m. and had not returned.
Andrew and Barbara Pryor never saw their daughter again.
Search and Investigation
Police with tracker dogs and 2,000 volunteers searched through fields and woods for Sarah, but did not find her. Police used an airplane with infrared detection, but no luck there either. Witnesses reported seeing Sarah walking north Concord road.
Yellow welcome home ribbons decorated mailboxes and trees, and missing posters of Sarah were plastered throughout Wayland.
Other leads started coming in, but most were false and did not go anywhere. For example, an anonymous source from Rhode Island wrote that Sarah was in an abandoned well, but there was no body there. A man in West Virginia claimed he saw Sarah, but it wasn’t her.
A few months later, police had a woman in custody who claimed she and two men kidnapped Sarah and took her to a Boston housing project where they murdered her. Investigators rushed to verify the woman’s story. Because this lead seemed promising, the District Attorney urged local media to not report the allegation until they made an arrest.
The media ignored him and in a frenzy, prematurely reported Sarah had been raped and murdered and her body dumped in Boston Harbor.
One of the men who the woman said was with her that day just happened to be in jail with infamous crime boss James “Whitey” Bulger at the Lawrence House of Correction . FBI agents made sure that Bulger was in the same jail cell as the suspect. Bulger was working as a police informant at the time. He visited the suspect twice and grilled him about Sarah’s disappearance. Afterwards, Bulger reported back to the FBI and told them the suspect insisted he had nothing to do with Sarah Pryor’s disappearance. A short while later, the woman recanted her story, saying she lied to get the reward money.
Eventually the leads in Sarah’s case stopped coming, and the case went cold.
The Berlin Wall
In 1987, American journalist named Martin Yant was traveling in Germany, and he made a point of visiting the Berlin Wall. There was graffiti on the Western side of the Wall, which surprised Yant; somehow it had never occurred to him that there would be graffiti on the Berlin Wall. As he looked at the Wall, Yant saw something that startled him. Amid all the drawings and scrawlings and German words, there was this, in English, painted in white:
”Sarah Pryor, wherever you are, we love you. Age 9. Missing October 9, 1985. Whalen, MA., U.S.A. God loves you.” (Greene 1989)
Greene contacted Wayland authorities, but they already knew about the graffiti. The identify of the artist is unknown. The Berlin Wall came down at the end of 1989.
A Disappearance Becomes Murder
In 1995, a man walking his dog through a wooded area on the Weston border found a skull fragment. Investigators turned the remains over to the state medical examiner, but he was unable to make a positive identification, said Middlesex County District Attorney Thomas Reilly in 1998.
A forensic anthropologist examined the skull fragment in 1997 and determined it was that of a child around Sarah’s age. The anthropologist also said the skull fragment had been in the woods between three and 15 years.
The DA’s office asked the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology (AFIP) for help with DNA identification. The institute does not normally take many non-military cases, but it did take this one.
The scientists were able to retrieve several strands of nuclear DNA. But without a sample of it from Sarah’s body, they were unable to determine if it was a match. So in late November, they pulled out 12 strands of mitochondrial DNA, a type of DNA passed from mother to daughter. That’s when Reilly’s office asked Barbara Pryor and her daughter, Meg, for blood samples (Fitzgerald 1998).
Authorities sent the samples to a lab on December 22, 1997. The results showed the skull fragment belonged to Sarah Pryor.
On what would have been Sarah Pryor’s 22nd birthday, the young girl was finally laid to rest on January 13, 1998. Roughly 1,000 people attended her funeral.
Suspects in Sarah Pryor’s Murder
A couple of suspects emerged in Sarah’s case, one shortly after her disappearance and the other 14 years later.
In 1966, John Whirty then 21, was charged with attacking a 12-year-old girl in his hometown of Sherborn, MA, but he fled to Texas before his trial convened. In March 1967, Whirty took 15-year-old Rose Marie Martin to a wooded area near White Rock Lake in Dallas and raped and strangled her. Whirty was sentenced to life in prison but released on parole in 1984.
Two months before Sarah disappeared, Cathy Malcolmson, 17, went missing from Stow, Massachusetts. Cathy left home on her bicycle to retrieve her paycheck at the IGA supermarket in nearby Hudson. Cathy never made it to the store. Authorities initially thought she was a runaway, but that changed in 1987 when her bicycle was found in a wooded area off Gleasondale Road near the Stowe border. Her body has never been found.
Authorities believe that Cathy and Sarah’s cases are related. A month after Sarah’s disappearance, Wirty attempted to kidnap a young-looking 20-year-old woman at knife-point in Newton, MA. The woman managed to free herself before Whirty shoved her into his car. A cab driver witnessed the attempted abduction and wrote down the license plate number. Both the woman and cab driver identified Whirty as the perpetrator.
When police examined Whirty’s car, they noticed the interior door handle on the passenger side was missing. The local media covered his arrest, and two witnesses came forward to say they saw him on the bike path during the time of Sarah Pryor’s walk.
Wirty violated his parole in the Martin case when he attempted to kidnap the young woman in Massachusetts. After serving five years for that assault, authorities transferred him to Texas for imprisonment on the parole violation. He is currently serving a life sentence for Rose’s murder.
In December 1999, American murderer and possible serial killer, Hadden Clark told a cellmate that while visiting his father in a town near Wayland, he killed a girl named Sarah in 1985 and consumed part of her remains before burying her in Wellfleet. The details of his description of the girl and her disappearance match those of Sarah Pryor. Authorities brought Clark to the property with a recovery dog to search for remains. However, by this time, Sarah’s partial remains had already been found near Weston. Clark is currently serving two 30-year sentences at Eastern Correctional Institution in Maryland for the murders of six-year-old Michelle Dorr in 1986 and 23-year-old Laura Houghteling in 1992.
Police have not charged Whirty or Clark in this case. It remains unsolved.
Andrew and Barbara Pryor’s marriage suffered greatly after their daughter’s disappearance, in part due to Andrew’s problems with alcohol. The couple separated three years after Sarah vanished, and divorced around 1990.
In 1996, a memorial for Sarah Pryor was erected in Hanna Williams Park in Wayland.
From the website of sculptor, Nancy Schön:
9 year old Sarah Pryor had not been seen since she left her home in Wayland on October 8,1985. Her mother came to my studio asking me to create a memorial to her daughter, now having accepted that Sarah would never return. I asked her to tell me about Sarah. She told me how much Sarah loved to go sledding with her Border Collie Katie. However, when she would call her into the house for lunch, Sarah would say “What if the sun comes out and melts all the snow?” The sculpture is a living, interactive memorial. It captures Sarah’s spirit and celebrates the joy of children.
In July of 2014, Andrew Pryor was involved in a car accident that left him paralyzed from the chest down. He died from his injuries on August 3, 2014.
The investigation into Sarah’s abduction and murder is ongoing.
True Crime Diva’s Thoughts
I think it’s very possible John Wirty is Sarah’s killer. He was in the area at the time and had a criminal history. I don’t believe Hadden Clark killed her. I also wondered if this case could be related to Holly Piirainen. Her case is possibly related to the death of Molly Bish, but the similarities between the two cases are interesting:
- Both girls were around the same age – Sarah, 9 and Holly, 10.
- Each girl had blonde hair
- The abductions occurred in broad daylight.
- Their remains were found in wooded areas.
- Wayland is only 50 miles northeast of Sturbridge, where Holly vanished from.
David Pouliot, who died in 2003, was later linked to Holly’s murder, but Warren, MA police could not link him to Molly Bish’s murder. I doubt Sarah was her killer’s only victim. He got away with murder, so he most likely killed again.
Interestingly, Sarah did not take her dog with her on the walk, saying he would slow her down. Sarah was pretty attached to her dog, Katie, so it surprises me that she didn’t take her. She also didn’t want to take time to clean her Jell-O dish, saying she’d do it when she got home. Was she going somewhere in particular and had to get there at a certain time? Meeting someone, perhaps? It is possible someone lured her to a certain location and then abducted her.
There were no sightings of her abduction from what I can tell. Witnesses saw her walking north on Concord Rd for about 1.5 miles. No sightings after that. This would put her near Concord Road and Glezen Lane, and would have taken her about 30 minutes to walk there. If you turn right on Glezan Lane, that road will lead you to the Weston border I do not know the exact location where her remains were found. This is just a thought.
Fitzegerald, Alison. “Skull Fragment Identified as Pryor’s”. South Coast Today, 1998.
Greene, Bob. “The Wall’s Secret of a Missing Girl.” Chicago Tribune, 1989.
Murphy, Shelley. “Crime Boss Reportedly Aided FBI in Pryor Case “. The Boston Globe, 1997,
Sandel, Carroll. “Enough”. Hippocampus Magazine, 2015.