Our card this week is Donna Tattersall, the Queen of Spades from Rhode Island.
In 1979, 24-year-old Donna was found dead behind a bar,
a bar that she was seen alone at just hours earlier.
Thanks to eyewitnesses, police quickly zeroed in on a promising suspect.
But when the case went to trial, they learned things weren’t as straightforward as they
For more than 40 years, the sexual assault and murder of Donna Tattersall has haunted
the people of Pawtucket, Rhode Island, as they wait for the monster who committed such
a heinous crime to be held accountable.
I’m Ashley Flowers, and this is The Deck.
On April 22, 1979, before Sunday’s service began, a reverend in Pawtucket, Rhode Island
was taking a stroll in the alleyway beside his church.
As he approached the back of the building, something caught his eye in the grassy lawn
behind the Firehouse Lounge, which was a popular bar that sat right behind the church.
It was a woman.
She looked like she had passed out after a long night of drinking, sprawled out on the
ground, so the reverend called police.
But when the responding officer arrived at around 10 a.m., it was clear that the situation
was actually much more serious than that.
The woman on the ground was only half-clothed, and she wasn’t passed out.
She was dead.
Because she was only partially clothed and had some bruising, it was clear right away
that foul play was involved.
Within minutes, the area was closed off and was swarming with detectives, patrol officers,
and the medical examiner.
To everyone’s surprise, one of the patrol officers piped up and said that he knew the
In fact, he’d just seen her the previous night when he was working patrol at the Firehouse
He knew her name was Donna, but he wasn’t sure of her last name.
He said Donna had been sitting at the bar by herself for the majority of the evening,
and the last time he recalled seeing her was around 12.45 a.m., when she was standing by
the cigarette machine, still alone.
Two more officers said they’d seen Donna at the bar that night, too, but none of them
seemed to recall seeing anything suspicious or even anything useful.
Donna wasn’t with anyone, she wasn’t getting harassed by anyone, or getting into
Nothing that would have led to her ending up dead just a few feet away from where she
was enjoying a night out just hours earlier.
So police went to the public, seeking tips.
They were hoping to find someone who could help them piece together what had happened
to Donna between the last sighting of her inside the bar, seemingly having a good time,
and then her ending up dead behind the building.
And a tipster actually came forward right away, giving them exactly what they were looking
26-year-old Pawtucket resident Frank Hallworth was listening to the radio on April 22nd when
he heard reports of what police had discovered.
He heard authorities please for anyone with information to come forward, and that’s
when it clicked.
What he was hearing on the radio must have been directly related to that disturbing thing
that he’d seen the night before.
Frank called police and told them that on the evening of April 21st, he was at the firehouse
lounge having a good time, sipping a drink, and just kind of mingling, when a large man
bumped into him and made him spill his drink all over himself.
Now this wasn’t enough to make Frank like super angry or anything, or maybe he was just
intimidated by this guy because of his size, but it was certainly annoying.
Frank told police that the guy who bumped him was no stranger.
Here’s Detective Sue Cormier.
She’s with the Pawtucket Police Department, and she’s working the case today.
He said that he recognized the person from the area and from the bar.
He didn’t know his full name, but he said his nickname was something like Buzz or Buzzy.
After the spill incident, the night continued on rather uneventfully, and Frank said that
he left the bar at around 1.15 a.m.
He told police that he hopped in his car, and as he was heading home, he drove back
past the bar, and that’s when he saw the man who had bumped into him earlier.
Buzz was walking out of the firehouse lounge and into the alley beside the bar, and he
was carrying something.
Frank called out to him something like, hey man, and when he did, Buzz started walking
much faster toward the alley.
And that’s when Frank realized Buzz wasn’t carrying something, he was carrying someone.
It was a woman that he was holding in like a bear hug.
But Frank said that he honestly didn’t think too much of it at the time.
Now, you might have the same reaction I did when I first heard this, like how do you not
immediately know something is wrong when you see a man carrying a woman down a dark alley?
But Frank said that he just assumed that the woman was drunk.
I mean, he’d seen Buzz at the bar earlier that night, so he assumed the woman had been
there as well, maybe had a bit too much to drink, and she needed help getting home.
Frank also noted that the woman wasn’t screaming or making any kind of commotion, so he just
thought that Buzz knew her and was trying to be a nice guy.
But Frank’s rather innocent justification melted away when he heard the report on the
radio of a woman being found behind the bar.
Now while police were trying to figure out what Buzz’s real name was so they could
interview him, the medical examiner’s office was finishing up Donna’s autopsy.
The ME found that she’d been strangled, likely by hand, and sexually assaulted.
Her toxicology showed that she had a lot of alcohol in her system, which I’m sure
was no surprise to anyone since she’d just spent the entire evening at a bar.
As news of Donna’s murder spread, more and more witnesses started calling in.
Here’s Detective Cormier again.
She was seen by several people that night.
It appears that she was in there for several hours and was drinking quite a bit.
Some people who saw her in the bar that night said she was drunk, but not to the point that
she wouldn’t know who she was with.
Once police had spoken with the family, friends, and people who’d seen her at the bar, they
nailed down a timeline of Donna’s movements the night before her body was found.
She’d arrived at the Firehouse Lounge sometime before 8 p.m., and she sat at the bar drinking
by herself for a few hours.
There was a live band that night, and Donna seemed to be enjoying the music.
And by the way, the Firehouse Lounge wasn’t some little dive bar, it’s this huge place
with multiple levels and a big dance floor and stages for bands.
At some point during the evening, Donna was seen talking with a group of people.
Then later that night was when the officer saw her standing by the cigarette machine alone.
And around 1.15 a.m. is when she was seen leaving the bar, but not alone, and not of
her own volition.
Just like Frank had told police, other patrons reported seeing Donna leave with a big, tall
man being carried by him, in fact.
Unfortunately, none of the officers who were there at the bar on duty that night witnessed
this, which surprised me, but maybe they were making rounds through the crowds when Donna
was taken out of the doors, maybe they weren’t paying attention, who knows?
Either way, now that several other people had confirmed Frank’s initial statement,
investigators were sure that this mystery man existed and likely had something to do
with Donna’s murder, but they still needed to figure out his identity.
So they called up their initial tipster, Frank, and asked him to come down to the station
and look at a photo lineup to see if he could ID the man that he saw carrying Donna that
And sure enough, he could.
Frank confidently pointed to a photo of the man that he saw that night who he knew as
It was 20-year-old David Bland.
Within a few days, police had tracked down David, or Buzz as he was known, but there
was one small problem.
Even though he was their prime suspect, he had an alibi.
Buzz told investigators that he couldn’t have been the guy seen carrying Donna out
of the bar in the wee hours of the morning on April 22nd because he wasn’t even in
town that night.
He told police that he was in Providence, about a 10-minute drive away at a bar called
Lupo’s Heartbreak Hotel.
Buzz also said that he’d never even seen Donna or interacted with her before in his
But investigators weren’t buying his story, partially because his body was covered in
marks consistent with someone trying to fight him off.
There were noticeable scratches and cuts on his legs, but Buzz had an easy explanation
for those scrapes.
He said that while he was at Lupo’s, he’d gotten into a fight with some guy.
As suspicious as they were of Buzz, police let him go since they didn’t have enough
probable cause to arrest him.
That is, until police set out to try and confirm his alibi.
They interviewed 22-year-old Manuel Pimentel, a good friend of Buzz’s, and Manuel claimed
that he was out with Buzz that night, but the story he told police completely contradicted
the tale Buzz had told.
Manuel said that he was taking a taxi cab from Providence to Pawtucket when he spotted
a friend of his, Buzz, and Buzz was standing on the side of the road, appearing to be having
Wanting to help a friend, Manuel had the taxi driver pull up to the broken-down car and
pick up his friend.
Buzz hopped in, and then he and Manuel took the cab to Pawtucket, specifically to a restaurant
called Howard Johnson’s, where they got milkshakes and french fries.
Once they finished at the restaurant, the night was still young, so they agreed to go
to a popular nearby bar, the Firehouse Lounge.
But what’s more, Manuel confirmed that they actually saw Donna at the bar.
Now Manuel says that he wasn’t at the bar too long because he decided to go to another
pub with his other friend.
They invited Buzz to join them, but Manuel said he declined.
Manuel estimated that he and his other friend left the Firehouse Lounge at around 1245 in
the morning, and that’s the last that he saw of Buzz that night.
Police showed Manuel a photo array to see if he could identify his friend Buzz, who
he picked up in the taxi that evening.
And sure enough, he pointed to the picture of David Beland.
Police also reached out to Lupo’s Heartbreak Hotel to see if they could talk to the doorman
who was working the evening of April 21st.
And just as they suspected, when police located the employee and showed him a picture of Buzz,
he said that he’d never seen that guy before in his life.
What’s more, the doorman said that on the night in question, there was only one fight
that he knew of that went down at Lupo’s, and it certainly didn’t involve the guy in
So now, armed with Frank’s statement, along with Manuel’s story and the doorman’s account,
investigators were more confident than ever that Buzz was their guy.
I mean, police didn’t really have any other viable suspects or even persons of interest.
All signs were pointing toward Buzz.
And Donna wasn’t the kind of person who had a long list of enemies.
By all accounts, it seems she was very well liked.
You know, nobody has a bad word to say about her.
Just kind of your average 20-something-year-old kid, and I say kid because that just seems
so young to me.
And, you know, to have her life taken from her like that, she was just out to have a
fun time, you know, at a local bar with friends or even just by herself.
She obviously felt comfortable enough being there, whether she was by herself or ran into
other people from the neighborhood.
Everybody seemed to kind of know each other a lot back then, you know, from the city and
In order to avoid getting tunnel vision for Buzz, police did all the routine interviews
with Donna’s friends and family members to make sure she hadn’t been targeted by someone
Investigators learned that Donna lived most of her life in Lincoln, a smaller town just
five miles outside of Pawtucket.
She then moved to Pawtucket in 1978, just one year before her death.
She was between jobs and shared an apartment with a random roommate who didn’t know Donna
But Detective Cormier said that Donna’s family was well-known and well-liked within the Providence
The more police learned about Donna, the less likely it seemed that anyone had it out for
And the more likely it seemed that the only scenario that made sense was that she was
killed by their prime suspect, Buzz.
Authorities knew that they could place Buzz at the firehouse lounge at around the time
Donna was killed, and they also had a witness who actually saw Buzz carrying Donna down
So you might imagine they were pretty confident that they’d win in a jury trial.
That is, if Buzz didn’t just confess or plead guilty first.
But Buzz wasn’t flipping.
So not long after that, he was formally charged with first-degree murder, and Rhode Island
Assistant Attorney General Maureen McKenna prepared to bring the state’s case against
Buzz’s trial was held in Providence at the Superior Court with a jury of seven women
and five men.
The state presented their case first with a solid lineup of witnesses, Manuel, Frank,
the ME, and others.
Manuel was called to the stand first, and he told the court the same story that he told
police when he was initially interviewed.
He was taking a taxi, he spotted Buzz on the side of the road, and asked the taxi driver
to pick him up.
Manuel testified that Buzz didn’t look like he’d been in a fight, which the prosecutor
used as a way to prove that Buzz’s injuries must have occurred later, perhaps while he
was assaulting Donna.
Manuel went on to say that after he picked him up, they went to the popular restaurant
and then ended up at Firehouse Lounge to, quote, pick up a couple of broads, end quote.
Manuel noted that Buzz reeked of liquor and was having trouble walking straight.
According to local coverage of the trial, Manuel described Buzz as, quote-unquote, bombed.
Now remember, Buzz initially completely denied ever even being at the bar the evening that
Donna was killed.
And it was important for the prosecution to prove that Buzz’s initial story was a lie,
that he was at the Firehouse Lounge that night, not at Lupo’s, as he had claimed.
Because here’s the thing, if he was flat out lying about that, what else was he hiding?
As a mudslinging tactic, Buzz’s attorney, Joseph Caponieri, made sure that the jury
knew that Manuel had a criminal record.
He’d previously been convicted of breaking and entering and larceny.
The judge told the jury that just because someone has a criminal record doesn’t mean
that they’re not telling the truth.
But he did let them know that it was something that they could take into consideration when
evaluating the credibility of a witness.
Now to further prove that Buzz was lying, the prosecution called the doorman at Lupo’s
to the stand.
He told the jury then exactly what he told police, he’d never seen Buzz at Lupo’s before.
And Buzz certainly didn’t get into a fight at the bar that night, as he had claimed.
The prosecution had done their best to prove that Buzz was lying about where he’d been
But they still needed to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Buzz was the one who strangled
And that’s where Frank came in.
Frank got on the stand and recounted to the jury what he’d seen that evening, Buzz carrying
Donna down the alleyway in what he described as a bear hug, and then picking up his pace
when Frank called out to him.
Finally, the prosecution called to the stand the M.E., Dr. Anthony Burns.
He testified to the findings of the autopsy and the fact that there was evidence to support
that Donna had the pressure of hands on her neck.
He was asked if the neck injuries could have been from an impact such as a fall, perhaps
meaning that Donna’s death was an accident, but Dr. Burns said there was no way her injuries
were sustained from a fall.
When it was the defense’s turn to call witnesses, the first person Buzz’s attorney called to
the stand was actually a bit surprising.
It was Buzz himself.
It’s common for attorneys to discourage their clients from testifying at their own hearing
for fear that they might say something incriminating on the stand or melt under the pressure of
It’s unclear if Joseph Kapaneri discouraged Buzz from testifying or not, but whatever
the case, Buzz was now taking the stand in his own defense, and it’s obvious from the
headlines in 1980 that local newspapers were eating it up.
Some reports from the Providence Journal stated that, just like he had months prior when police
were questioning him, Buzz recounted to the court his whereabouts on the evening of April
21st through the early morning hours of the 22nd.
Only this time, his story was different.
According to those same local newspaper reports, Buzz told the jury that he was not drunk that
night as Manuel had suggested.
And despite the testimony of the doorman, Buzz said that he was at Lupo’s that evening.
He said he had one or two beers and then left after getting in a scuffle, again contradicting
what the doorman who was working that night said.
After leaving Lupo’s, Buzz said that his car stalled on Interstate 95, where he was
picked up by his friend Manuel in the taxi cab.
Buzz now said that the two of them went to a local restaurant for a shake and fries and
then dropped by the Firehouse Lounge.
But where his story diverges from Manuel’s is that Buzz says after he was at the bar
for just a few minutes, he decided to walk home.
He flat out denied ever seeing Frank at the bar that evening or bumping into him, and
he swore up and down that he didn’t know Donna at all and didn’t so much as see her
that night, let alone kill her.
But Buzz didn’t stop there.
He said that he couldn’t have sexually assaulted Donna because he was unable to have sex due
to a sexually transmitted disease that he was battling.
After Buzz testified, the next witness he called to the stand was a woman named Denise.
She says that she was upstairs at Lupo’s Heartbreak Hotel in Providence on the evening of the
21st when she saw Buzz walking in.
Once again, this conflicted with the doorman’s testimony that he’d never seen Buzz in his
life and that he wasn’t at the establishment that night.
But here’s the thing, Denise didn’t just tell the jury that she’d seen Buzz.
She actually said she went up and talked to him for about five minutes.
She said that Buzz showed no signs of being inebriated, which, again, contradicted Manuel’s
testimony that Buzz was completely wasted.
After this, the defense pretty much rested their case, and it was time for closing arguments.
Mr. McKenna was up first, and she reminded the jury of Buzz’s pattern of lies, his
changing story of where he was the night that Donna was killed.
And she also argued that Buzz’s sexual condition wouldn’t have prevented him from forcing
himself on Donna as Buzz had insinuated on the stand.
She agreed that sexually assaulting Donna might have been painful for Buzz, but not
impossible, especially if he was drunk like Manuel had testified.
In Joseph Caponeri’s closing arguments, he focused on chipping away at the state’s
He called Frank, the man who saw Buzz carrying Donna out of the bar that night of the murder,
a quote, wise guy.
And he reiterated that another key witness, Manuel, had a criminal record and wasn’t
telling the truth about Buzz being wasted that night.
Joseph implied that Frank and Manuel were likely getting a sweet deal from police in
exchange for their stories about Buzz.
Once the closing arguments were finished, the judge sent the jury off for deliberation.
He reminded them that should they find Buzz guilty, they could bring a verdict of first-degree
murder, second-degree murder, or manslaughter.
According to reporting by the Providence Journal, after 12 hours of deliberation, the jury had
reached a verdict.
With everything from manslaughter to first-degree murder on the table, they found the defendant
Across the board.
Buzz was a free man.
But even though he was found not guilty in the court of law, the community of Pawtucket
wasn’t so quick to acquit.
Most of the locals that are still around from this case are still adamant when you talk
to them today that he was responsible.
By the time Buzz’s trial was over in November of 1980, the investigation into Donna’s murder
came to a screeching halt.
I mean, going into the trial, police were confident that they had their guy.
So when the trial was over, they didn’t even have any other leads to follow, let alone
any other viable suspects to look into.
So with that, not even a year after her murder, Donna’s case went cold.
And it would stay that way for decades.
In 2019, Detective Cormier inherited the case.
And even though Donna’s murder was one of the coldest cases Pawtucket had at this point,
she wanted to take a shot at warming it up.
She revisited several witnesses who were interviewed all those decades ago to hear their stories
I have talked to some people that were named back then, including Frank, that still stand
by their story and still are adamant that that was the truth and that they did see him
They saw him with her in the alley.
Detective Cormier told us that she managed to get the samples from Donna’s sexual assault
Even though the slides were four decades old at that point, she was hopeful that they’d
preserve the DNA.
But unfortunately, some parts of the samples were degraded, making it impossible to do
Detective Cormier says that she’s still working on the possibility of sending the slides to
a private lab that has newer technology available.
But like all DNA testing, it comes with a pretty big price tag.
And securing the funds is no quick or easy task.
Donna’s died in 2005, and it’s possible that the truth of what happened in the early morning
hours of April 22nd, 1979, died with him.
But that doesn’t mean Detective Cormier is giving up.
She said that despite Donna’s case being decades old, the young woman whose life was snuffed
out far too soon hasn’t been forgotten by the community.
On my Facebook page, I get a lot of private messages.
So I post things and people will comment, you know, they remembered her, oh, you know,
she babysat me or whatever years ago.
But then I get a lot of private messages from people.
Detective Cormier says she looks into every message about Donna that lands in her inbox.
Because you never know when the person holding the key to the truth will come forward.
Sometimes people sit with these things, and whether they were young at the time, and their
families told them, you know, don’t get involved, or, and sometimes people were in fear of the
suspects, so they didn’t come forward.
And now, you know, 20, 30 years later, they’re not afraid of these people.
They don’t even live in the same state.
So sometimes people come forward or call my tip line and say to me, listen, I don’t know
if this helps or not, but this is what I remember from then.
So, you know, I like to hear from everybody.
And I do like to hear from people who knew the victim, because I want to know just as
much about how they lived as I do about how they died.
That’s just as important to me, because you can’t figure out who killed them if you don’t
know what their lifestyle was.
Just recently, Detective Cormier received a message from someone who wanted to be a
They said that they were just a teenager when Donna was killed, but they had information
that they wanted to share with her.
Detective Cormier wouldn’t share with us what the informant said, since the lead is
still being actively investigated.
But she said that the person has provided quite a bit of new information about Buzz.
Information that could prove useful to the investigation.
I’ve been asked before why I work on cases where the suspect is dead.
And again, it’s not for the sense of prosecution.
It’s because I can go and tell a family, put a face to it, that this is who took your loved
one from you.
And sometimes I can’t give them the why, because a lot of people want to know why.
Why my sister?
It’d be great to be able to provide that, but you can’t always.
But if I can at least say who, that would help.
The fact that somebody got away with it and was still walking around while the victim
lost their life.
And the other part of it for me is, if that were my mom, my sister, my child, I would
want to know that somebody was still working on that case and not just letting it go because
new cases come in.
That victim and that family deserve justice.
And that’s kind of what motivates me.
Donna’s life was just beginning when it was snatched away from her more than 40 years
She still deserves justice, whether her killer is roaming free or not, her family deserves
It’s so sad to think that someone got away with sexually assaulting and killing her,
let alone just steps away from a crowded bar.
If you know anything about the murder of Donna Tattersall in the early morning hours of April
22nd, 1979, please call the Pawtucket Police Department at 401-727-9100.
Or you can call the Rhode Island tip line at 877-RI-SOLVED.
The Deck is an AudioChuck production with theme music by Ryan Lewis.
To learn more about The Deck and our advocacy work, visit thedeckpodcast.com.
So what do you think, Chuck?
Do you approve?