Inside the Harvard murder mystery ‘solved’ by a student sleuth

It was a whispered secret that made the rounds at Harvard for decades: A professor beat to death his student in 1969 in her university apartment, then sprinkled red ochre dust on her body in a macabre postmortem ritual.

At least that was the story Becky Cooper heard when she was a sophomore there in 2009, exactly 40 years after the unsolved slaying. The motive, she was told, involved a lovers quarrel. The suspect had seduced his victim, 23-year-old Jane Britton, then killed her to keep their affair hidden.

But the professor was never charged and he continued to teach at Harvard all this time later, a tenured faculty member in the university’s elite anthropology department, Cooper learned.

So she vowed to solve the crime, launching a nine-year probe she chronicles in “We Keep the Dead Close: A Murder at Harvard and a Half Century of Silence” (Grand Central), out now.

Cooper read up on the sensational case, which got front-page coverage in The Post and Boston papers but soon dried up. Many believed that cops had botched the investigation and Harvard had muzzled the press. In 2012, Cooper began attending classes led by the professor, C.C. “Karl” Lamberg-Karlovsky, who was 74 at the time. He lived under a cloud, never having been arrested or cleared in the savage slaying.

Karlovsky made a compelling suspect. The prof, who claimed to have discovered Alexander the Great’s lost citadel, was known to be pompous and imposing — he sometimes roamed the halls in a cape — and was Britton’s faculty adviser at the time of her death. There was tension between the two. He failed her on the school’s all-important general exams and warned Britton, a graduate student in Near East archaeology, that her career could be in trouble if she didn’t pass the next time.

In 1968, just six months before her death, Britton went on a dig in Iran with Karlovsky, joined by her boyfriend and a handful of others, during which the professor disparaged her work but took a keen interest in the free-spirited beauty, who had several lovers at Harvard and one clandestine abortion. The married Karlovsky was not against pursuing female students, though he was up for tenure at the very moment Britton died.

Did he use his position to get her into bed? If so, could she have blackmailed him, demanding a passing grade in exchange for keeping quiet?

A Ph.D. student, Peter Rodman, told Cooper he recalled hearing that “Jane had threatened one member of her Generals committee that she would expose the affair they had been having if she didn’t pass. Karlovksy … was the professor at the heart of this rumor.” Cooper found that Karlovsky didn’t seem all that bothered by rumors that he was a murderer, which only enhanced his dark, intimidating aura.

Dozens of people at Harvard’s Peabody Museum, where Karlovsky’s classes were held, portrayed him as a “complicated, mercurial man: brilliant, imposing, hot-tempered, ambitious, inspiring, flamboyant, charismatic, exploitative, even paranoid,” Cooper wrote. “Some knew to stay away from him.” Britton’s friends were convinced that she had hooked up with a Harvard professor, though no one was sure if it was him.

Cooper could find no evidence that Karlovsky and Britton ever slept together. And while the spreading of red ochre, which could be found in abundance at the dig in Iran, suggested the killer had knowledge of ancient burial rites, no one could place the professor at the crime scene. A grand jury heard all the evidence and didn’t indict him.

So Cooper pursued other leads: Could it have been Britton’s boyfriend, Jim Humphries, she wondered?

Their relationship had become strained during the dig — both were plagued by dysentery amid brutal conditions — and Britton found Humphries to be aloof on their return. On the night of her murder, the two had dinner together but she went home alone, then briefly visited with a friendly couple, Don and Jill, who lived down the hall, before turning in. Her exams were the next day.

Evidence showed that Britton had had sex within hours of her death — so who was in her bed later that evening? Cops figured the killer was someone she knew well. Two windows were left open in the apartment, yet nothing was stolen, and they saw no signs of forced entry. But they eliminated Humphries, who discovered her body, as no evidence implicated him. Cooper crossed his name off her list as well.

A complicated, mercurial man: brilliant, imposing, hot-tempered … exploitative, even paranoid

Then another suspect came into view: Mike Gramly, also a Harvard graduate student in anthropology. He knew the victim — Britton once had him over for tea. What put a target on his back was another murder seven years after Britton’s. Gramly was suspected of killing an attractive female student during an archaeological excavation.

Anne Abraham mysteriously vanished in 1976 while she and Gramly worked by themselves at a desolate, remote bay in Labrador, Canada. Though the body of the 19-year-old Abraham was never found, her parents were convinced her death involved foul play.

Police in Canada concluded that Abraham likely died in a tragic accident, tumbling from a steep cliff and into the water. Gramly never saw or heard anything, he told cops. As for the Britton case, he was happy to talk with Cooper. He denied having an affair with the young woman. What’s more, he’d also become passionately involved in trying to solve Britton’s murder, peppering the police with requests for information.

As Gramly began to fade as a suspect for Cooper, he gave her a tantalizing new clue. He’d found a box in storage in a lab at Peabody that was filled with red ochre and had one missing handful. Gramly believed the box belonged to the museum’s lab director at the time, a troubled man who spent at least one evening alone with Britton.

And so it was that Cooper focused on Lee Parsons, an anthropology professor who came to Harvard in 1968 on the promise he’d eventually run the Peabody.

Cooper learned that Parsons battled demons after leaving Harvard, which never gave him the promotion. He came out as gay, drank heavily and was prone to raging outbursts. His close friend, Stephen Loring, told her that he guzzled booze and acted erratically during a dig they went to one year later in Guatemala. It was there that Parsons revealed that he’d been accused of murder. “I’m very comfortable with Lee Parsons as the culprit,” Loring told Cooper.

Parsons was now dead, having succumbed to AIDS in 1996, but Cooper pursued every angle, scouring the interviews Parsons and others gave to Cambridge police. She connected with a friendly sergeant, Peter Sennott, who worked the case for 21 years, and she demanded that cops release the entire case file. They refused.

Still, the intrepid Cooper found some of Britton’s case files, which she trawled for clues, and got to know Britton’s brother, Boyd, who handed over his sister’s journal, photos and documents.

Finally, the Boston Globe’s vaunted Spotlight team decided to do a story — and Cooper agreed to help them.

With pressure mounting, Cambridge police eventually stepped up their efforts. It turned out there was DNA evidence, after all — Cooper’s underwear stained with semen — though investigators doubted they would get a hit.

All signs suggested Parsons was the likeliest killer, especially after Cooper took another look at an interview he gave to a detective, who quizzed him about the scratches he had on his hand. (Parsons claimed they came from a cat.)

In 2018, Prof. Karlovsky agreed to be interviewed by Cooper about the crime. He revealed that the Harvard dean who gave him tenure “didn’t even ask me if I did it!” Cooper finally ruled him out and then, months later, came a bolt from the blue.

Parsons’ DNA didn’t match that found on Britton’s underwear. But pressure from the Spotlight team led cops to finally take the step of checking for any suspect whose DNA would provide a match. From that search came a hit: Michael Sumpter, a violent career criminal who spent his life in and out of jail. He was a serial rapist and killer who stalked and attacked young women in the Boston area, including murdering a 23-year-old brunette who resembled Britton in 1972.

The working theory was that Sumpter, out on parole, had been watching Britton and when she went into her apartment, he climbed up a fire escape, opened the window and killed her.

He too was dead.

The DNA match didn’t explain the red ochre, however. And how could he have done it without anyone seeing him or hearing what happened? Cooper wondered: “The DA’s version made the ending seem neat and definitive, but the story was too big at this point for any clear resolution.”

The closing of the case was unsatisfying to many. Former suspect Gramly was angry and dubious about the cops’ conclusion. “All we know for sure is Michael Sumpter had sex with her,” he told Cooper. “That still doesn’t prove who did the murder.”

But eventually Cooper, after nearly a decade investigating the matter, came to accept that Sumpter was the killer. At the same time, she drew other conclusions.

She blames the Cambridge PD — for misconduct and ineptitude — as well as Harvard, which refused to install locks on the front door of Britton’s building despite a separate murder having occurred there previously. Cooper also believes the university did much to quiet the coverage of Britton’s killing.

But mostly, she felt a kinship for the victim.

After cops solved the case, they handed over Britton’s entire file to Cooper. It included more than 4,000 pages of police notes — as well as the dead student’s diary from her summer dig in Iran.

Some of the entries are written as if they were letters to her boyfriend, Jim Humphries.

One note, dated June 6, 1968, was addressed to him, but felt like a chilling plea to Cooper from beyond the grave:

“Be my chronicler so that the tale of the Brit is told throughout the land,” Britton wrote, “or at least that one person remembers me the way I am instead of the way they see me.”

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