Tragedy in Wilmington, 1969

Tragedy in Wilmington, 1969 - The living room of the Landers home (above) shows the extent of the damage to the home from the fire of Sept. 26, 1969. Nancy Landers and five of her childred died in and today the cause of the fire is being questioned. The top right photo shows the front page of the Wilmington Town Crier on October 2, 1969.

On Sept. 26, 1969, a fire broke out in the Landers family home in Wilmington that claimed the lives of six people: Nancy Susan Landers, 37 years old, and her children David Landers, Jr., 13, William Landers, 12, Kevin Landers, 9, Lisa Landers, 6, and Kathleen Landers, 4. Father David, along with several other family members, escaped.

A report at the time claimed the fire was electrical. A story in the Town Crier on Oct. 2, 1969 said the fire “undoubtedly started from faulty wiring, in the living room, of the forty year old home on Clark Street.”

New evidence now suggests those reports were wrong.

The family didn’t speak much about the tragedy, though. They had no reason to believe anything suspicious happened that night. Not until about nine years ago when a stranger knocked on their door did things start to change. This person claimed to visit the family’s gravesite every time he passed through town.

Perhaps he had a guilty conscience, because at this point, the children learned the fire may have been set and the person who knocked on their door may have set it. But the family needed proof it was even arson to begin with, so they sought out a former fire chief for his expert opinion.

Janis Jaquith, a family member and lifelong Wilmington resident, reached out to then Wilmington Fire Chief Ed Bradbury who refuted claims the fire was electrical.

He said, in a video, “Nancy and her five kids were murdered . . . There was a second attempt on the family as they lived in a temporary trailer that was outside of the house, some weeks after the fire. (The evidence) suggests to me that this was a set fire and there was an accelerant involved.”

Now, 50 years after six members of the Landers family were apparently murdered, the remaining members seek answers and justice. A newly created division within the District Attorney’s Office may just help them get it.

DA Marian Ryan recently created the Cold Case Unit for crimes such as this. This new unit will be tasked with (hopefully) uncovering what really happened to Nancy Landers and five of her children.

According to information from Jaquith, who attended Wilmington High School with the Landers family, and who also married Harry Landers, one of the surviving Landers children, Sue Landers McNamara (another surviving member of the family) has been corresponding with David Solet at the Cold Case Unit.

“She reached out to see if the unit would consider this case,” Jaquith wrote in an email, “as well as the seemingly-related case in Wakefield.”

In March of 1974, a fire in Wakefield claimed the lives of three teenagers. The person who allegedly set the fire in Wilmington also allegedly set the fire in Wakefield.

(In 1975, during their five-year high school reunion, Jaquith and Harry Landers reconnected. After three months of dating, the pair became engaged and got married in 1976. They’re still happily married, according to Jaquith.)

Jaquith said Solet told McNamara to send her “everything she has” about the fires in both Wilmington and Wakefield. She also mentioned retired Wilmington Police Department detective Chris Neville has communicated with the Cold Case Unit.

Besides encouraging the Cold Case Unit to investigate, Jaquith has her own ideas about what may have happened and why. In a news release from 2015, it stated there may have been two points of ignition, which would lend credence to the theory that someone set the fire on purpose.

“If a fire is set intentionally, there may be more than one spot where the arsonist has set fire to the structure,” the release noted.

Jaquith pointed out, and Neville confirmed, that police did question a young man about the Wilmington fire back in 1969. However, Neville couldn’t confirm how extensive the investigation was at the time. He said all the investigators have since passed on and none of the case files could be located at the police department.

(Since the case has been reopened by the Cold Case Unit, the man’s name isn’t being released. For the purpose of this story, he’ll be referred to as “John.”)

The former police detective did say “John” was “well known to the police department at the time,” adding that his criminal record back in the 1970s includes convictions for attempted arson in Massachusetts and another for arson in New Hampshire.

In 1974, Neville pointed out “John” was “a strong person of interest” in the Wakefield house fire. One of the main reasons he may have been looked at concerned his relationship with the three teenagers who perished in the blaze.

“In 2019, with new investigative techniques and technology, I think there is no doubt that the Wakefield fire would have been deemed suspicious and a strong case could have been made against the individual,” Neville argued.

But what about Wilmington, how does “John” fit into the Landers’ story?

According to Jaquith, “John,” who had ties to the music industry, wanted to come home and establish himself in the music business. He wasn’t a musician, per se, but wanted to manage a band.

Harry Landers, she said, was in a band called The Lost Generation: “They played in the Boston area, at high school and CYO dances, at Hanscom Field Airman’s Club, etc.”

She said “John” was familiar with the band.

“Some band members were quite impressed with his personal relationships with famous people,” she added.

She continued: “At the start of band practice a band member” asked if “John” should be hired to manage the band to which Harry remarked that he didn’t much care for him.

Apparently, according to Jaquith, “John” found out he had been rejected and made his displeasure known to Harry.

She said that was the last time Harry heard from “John.”

As Neville mentioned, “John” was no wallflower. Jaquith said he had spent decades in various prisons for assault, armed robbery and attempted arson in Illinois, New York and Massachusetts. She believed his last stint may have involved an incident in the Merrimack Valley area in the early 1990s.

(Searches for information relating to such an incident didn’t turn up any results.)

Today, “John” is 69-years old and reportedly living on the north shore. He has never been charged in either the Wilmington or Wakefield case. According to Neville, all indictions suggest that he doesn’t have many friends and apparently no family.

Back in 1969, Jaquith said due to a lack of counseling after the incident and not many people (close friends, neighbors, survivors) talking about the fire, “there are countless people walking around with some degree of post-traumatic stress disorder five decades after the event.”

She mentioned interviewing two men (no relation to the family or men she’d ever met) who broke down when reliving the memory of the blaze. They both said it was the first time they had spoken to anyone about the fire.

“And those were just the two people I happened to track down and ask,” she acknowledged.

Neville, a high school friend of the Landers family, sad he’s been working with the family since 2010 in an effort to gather information. However, when he retired from the department in 2012, his official investigation ended.

“We continue to pick away with cooperation from both the Wilmington and Wakefield Police Departments, but with few records available in Wilmington we need cooperation from others who may have some recollection of what happened in September 1969,” he stated.

It was in 2012 when the family, particularly McNamara, had another run-in with the man they believe murdered their family. McNamara spoke about being at the family’s grave when “John” approached her and questioned if she knew who he was.

She told wcvb.com back in 2014: “I stood up and he said to me, ‘you probably don’t know who I am but I was hoping you would be here today.’ I said to him, ‘I do know who you are . . . and you’re responsible for killing my family.’”

McNamara also told wcvb.com she believes the ball “got dropped a long time ago.”

Since that last encounter at the gravesite, there’s no evidence that suggests “John” ever reached out and contacted the family again. There’s also no confirmation the Cold Case Unit has named him a suspect since they reopened the case.

However, according to information provided by Jaquith, in 2016 a witness emerged. A man claimed he was with the person of interest on the night of the Wakefield fire. He reportedly expressed a desire to clear his conscience and speak with the Wakefield police about this.

In May of 2016, the Wilmington and Wakefield police departments cooperated in paying the expense for this witness to fly across the country and unburden himself. The authorities reportedly didn’t offer him immunity, and suddenly he developed a very poor memory and offered nothing substantive.

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