Jane Britton missed an exam on the morning of January 7, 1969. It was unlike the 23-year-old Harvard graduate student to do so, and her boyfriend suspected something was wrong. Shortly after noon that day, he made a horrifying discovery in her apartment. He found Jane lying face down in her bed, having been beaten and strangled to death.
The anthropology student had been raped and murdered sometime that night, but the evidence collected from the crime scene would sit for nearly 50 years waiting for technology to catch up to it.
This is the story of the science that finally filled in the pieces of a sad story without an ending.
Jane Sanders Britton was born in 1945 in Boston. She grew up in Needham, Massachusetts, just a few miles outside the city.
In 1969, Britton was studying anthropology at Harvard and living in an apartment complex on University Avenue. The building sits just outside Harvard Square to the west, not far from the Charles River.
On January 6, Jane went to dinner with some of her classmates at the Acropolis restaurant – a popular old Cambridge spot that has long since closed. She stopped at home to change clothes and headed out to the Cambridge Common to go ice skating with her boyfriend.
It was a perfect January date night in New England when Jane and her boyfriend walked into Charley’s Pub, just across the street from her apartment. After walking her home around 10:30 p.m., Jane’s boyfriend left for the night. She went across the hall for a glass of sherry before finally returning to her apartment for the night at 12:30 a.m. on January 7.
According to the Middlesex County District Attorney’s Office, an autopsy found alcohol in her stomach that hadn’t been metabolized. Investigators say that means she was killed shortly after she returned to her apartment that evening.
When Jane was found the next day an autopsy revealed fractures in her skull, contusions to her head and lacerations of her brain – all contributing to the cause of death.
“She had been hit a number of times, obviously very severely, in the head and that caused hemorrhaging, breaking in the head and she was sexually assaulted as well,” said Middlesex District Attorney Marian Ryan.
DNA from the sexual assault was collected in 1969, but there was simply no technology that allowed for it to be effectively used to identify her killer at the time.
Jane’s neighbors told investigators the next day they had heard someone on the fire escape connected to her apartment earlier in the evening on the night she was murdered.
A second witness told police they saw a six-foot-tall man running in the street outside her apartment around 1:30 a.m. that morning.
This was the bulk of the evidence police had to work with for almost 50 years, despite a deluge of tips from the public.
But there was also a strange detail that distracted investigators in the wake of the murder. Red ochre, a clay earth pigment used in paints and various rituals, was found scattered all over her apartment.
Eventually, investigators say they explained its presence away as it was likely part of Britton’s anthropology studies. It simply must have been scattered around the room in a struggle.
In 2017, there were several appeals to have the case files made public with the hope that private investigators could help shed light on Jane’s killer.
But in 2018, the Middlesex County District Attorney’s Office got the break they had been waiting for.
According to Marian Ryan, it was in October 2017 the Massachusetts State Police Crime Lab was finally able to make a DNA profile from the samples collected.
“Using new DNA technology as well as good, hard investigative work, we have had a breakthrough in terms of where we are in this matter,” Ryan told Boston 25 News Monday. “DNA left in place by itself doesn’t necessarily lead you to a conclusion, it’s all the investigative framework that goes with that.”
It’s the investigative framework that led investigators to announce Tuesday they were finally closing Jane’s case.
The profile they made of DNA matched a profile that already existed in CODIS.
“This is the oldest case that we’ve been able to get a breakthrough like this,” said Ryan.
The Combined DNA Index System is a national database run by the FBI, which catalogs the DNA profiles of people convicted of crimes.
The profile made in 2017 came back to a man named Michael Sumpter.
Sumpter lived in Cambridge as a young child, dated a girl in Cambridge in the mid-1960s and, in 1967, was working on Arrow Street – just a mile from Jane Britton’s apartment.
Sumpter was arrested and convicted of physically assaulting a woman he met at the Harvard Square MBTA station three years after Jane’s murder.
But in 1975, Sumpter was out of jail and raped a woman in her Boston apartment. It was then that he was sent to prison for 15-20 years.
Just 13 months after he was paroled, Sumpter died of cancer in 2001.
After his death, Sumpter’s DNA profile was matched to the rape and murder of 23-year-old Ellen Rutchick in her Beacon Street Apartment in 1972. He was also connected to the 1973 rape and murder of 24-year-old Mary Lee McClain in her Mount Vernon Street Apartment.
He was also eventually connected to a 1985 rape, which police say he committed after escaping from work release.
In 2018, 17 years after his death, investigators finally matched the profile for Jane’s killer closely enough to Sumpter’s brother to determine that Michael Sumpter was the man who apparently scaled Jane’s fire escape on the evening of January 6, 1969, and raped and murdered her in her apartment.
“The murder of Jane Britton has raised many questions and piqued the interest of members of the community over the past 50 years,” Ryan said in a statement Tuesday. “I am confident that the mystery of who killed Jane Britton has finally been solved and this case is officially closed.”
Investigators say Sumpter had no connection to Jane Britton and they probably didn’t know each other.
About the Author
Dalton Main writes for channel 25 in Boston.