BOSTON — Holly Piirainen.
Everywhere I go, the mere mention of her name produces the same response: "What happened to her?"
This year, Holly's name brings up another reaction: "Has it really been 25 years?"
Recently, I returned to the corner of Sturbridge's South Shore Drive and Allen Road. It is the place where it's believed Holly was taken.
It is, as it's always been, a peaceful place of tall trees, a wide dirt road, and rustic homes.
But it's also a place scarred by unimaginable brutality.
Twenty five years ago, when I worked for another New England television station, I stood in the same place. It wasn't so quiet then; police and teams of news crews invaded the spot where Holly was last seen, apparently on her way to see a litter of collie pups at the farmhouse on the corner.
The crime didn't make any sense then, and it doesn't make any sense now.
I've always wondered how Holly could be in the absolute wrong place at the wrong time at the very moment her killer happened to drive by. How does that happen on this stretch of road? In Sturbridge?
Holly was taken on August 5, 1993 from Sturbridge.
Her body was found on October 23, 1993 in nearby Brimfield.
That's basically where the case has stood for a quarter of a century.
Starting in 1993, and over the years, I've interviewed Holly Piirainen's family many times, always hoping that justice is within grasp.
This year, Holly's family has renewed hope, as Hampden County District Attorney Anthony Gulluni, fresh off the success of making an arrest in the long unsolved Lisa Ziegert murder, is now focusing on Holly's case.
In many ways, the investigation is going back to square one, challenging old assumptions and theories. One of them, is the idea that Holly's abduction was a crime of opportunity with a very narrow window. Under this scenario, the killer's decision to grab Holly was made in an instant, just as he drove by and spotted the ten year old at the side of the road, looking for those puppies.
Supporting this theory is the fact that Holly Piirainen didn't live in Sturbridge, she lived in Grafton. On the day of the abduction, Holly and her family were staying in a family owned lakefront cottage just around the corner from where she was last seen. Indeed, the abduction took place on the second day of a weeklong vacation. The theory goes, the abduction had to be random, because very few people knew Holly was in the area, and fewer knew she was with her five-year-old brother trying to look at the puppies.
Recently, I interviewed DA Gulluni and we talked about that.
And he reminded me that, while Holly had just begun her vacation, over the years she and her family had stayed in that cottage many times. The cottage belongs, even today, to Holly's grandmother, Maureen Lemieux. The DA said it's possible Holly's killer had seen the little girl earlier in the day, because the killer could also have been very familiar in the neighborhood and could have been watching her.
It's a chilling scenario.
But it would make sense if it all happened that way.
And it explains why Massachusetts State Police investigators recently returned to the area, seeking DNA samples from neighbors.
The truth is, no one knows what happened to Holly.
There were no eye witnesses to Holly's abduction.
The only publicly known piece of evidence recovered at the scene was one of Holly's shoes.
The shoe was located on South Shore Drive, about where Holly would have been standing to see those puppies.
Rick Piirainen, Holly's dad, tells me Holly's then five year old brother, Zachary, returned to the house alone, telling the family that Holly told him to go home. Whether Holly did that to get him away from a predator, or whether the little boy was overcome with hunger (it was lunchtime) and wanted to go home, is not clear.
It was Zachary's return that set in motion the desperate attempt to find Holly, that sadly, only ended when Hunters found Holly's body in the fall.
When I returned to that corner of South Shore Drive and Allen Road to produce this New England's Unsolved report, I was struck by how much time had passed since Holly was taken. The fence where Holly would have stood to see the puppies is collapsed, there's a community mailbox at the corner, and some of the area is now overgrown.
Still, the questions of what happened to Holly Piirainen and who is responsible are still hanging in the air. You can feel it.
Holly's family is optimistic they will have justice soon.
But the family has suffered a great deal with the burden of not knowing these answers.
The Piirainen family is offering a $40,000 reward for information.
If you can help, call (413) 505-5993.
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