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Randall also a suspect in similar killing

Published Jan. 26, 1997|Updated Sep. 30, 2005

(ran SS edition of METRO & STATE)

One night in 1978, in a small town in Massachusetts, two women met James M. Randall at the Buttercup Lounge. One woman eventually became Randall's wife, Linda. The other, investigators believe, became his first murder victim.

Holly Cote, the second woman in the bar, was Linda's best friend. In 1984 her nude body was found floating near a favored fishing hole of Randall's. State police named Randall their prime suspect but said they lacked the evidence to charge him.

Now, about 13 years after Mrs. Cote's death, Randall has been named the prime suspect in the murders of four prostitutes from Clearwater thought to have been choked to death by a serial killer.

"I knew he would do it again," Mrs. Cote's husband, Joe, said last week. "He was laughing at us after Holly's murder. He saw how easy it was to get away with murder."

Randall, a 42-year-old window installer from Palm Harbor, is slated to be tried in less than a month for first-degree murder in the deaths of two prostitutes, Wendy Ann Evans, 42, and Cynthia Pugh, 27. Investigators have named him the only suspect in the murders of Ladonna Jean Steller and Peggy Darnell, but he has not been charged in their deaths.

Autopsy results and other recently released investigative records from Massachusetts show similarities in the slayings of Mrs. Cote and the four prostitutes. In the Massachusetts case, however, Randall had known the victim for five years.

While Randall and his future wife, Linda, dated, they sometimes babysat for the Cotes. After the Randalls married in 1979, the two couples socialized occasionally in Gardner, a city of fewer than 20,000 people in the woods of northern Massachusetts.

About 2 a.m. March 4, 1984, the 28-year-old waitress disappeared. Her car was found in the parking lot of Mr. D's lounge in Gardner. According to records, she was last seen drinking at the bar with a group of friends. One was Randall.

"We had a bunch of people searching for her when she disappeared, but it started snowing," Joe Cote said. "I took more than a month off from work to look for her."

On June 3, 1984, two canoeists spotted Mrs. Cote's decomposed body floating in floodwaters at Birch Hill Dam. The recreation area, about 8 miles northwest of Gardner, was a favored fishing spot of Randall's.

Mrs. Cote was found naked, as were the Pinellas prostitutes. Like the prostitutes, Mrs. Cote's clothing and purse were missing.

An autopsy concluded that the "most likely" cause of Mrs. Cote's death was strangulation. Steller, Evans and Pugh were strangled. Although Darnell's cause of death could not be determined because of decomposition, investigators think she too was strangled.

Mrs. Cote's wrists were tied together tightly with a purple sock. At least three of the prostitutes were bound, possibly with duct tape. Investigators could not determine if Darnell was bound because of decomposition.

Two of Mrs. Cote's ribs were broken. Evans and Darnell also had broken ribs.

A witness told Massachusetts investigators that the night Mrs. Cote disappeared, he saw her standing in Mr. D's parking lot with a man who looked like Randall. Another witness said she had invited Randall and Mrs. Cote to her house, but they never showed up.

Joe Cote said his wife had been arrested once for drunken driving and probably did not want get behind the wheel that night because she had been drinking. He thinks his wife got into Randall's car to get a ride, and Randall killed her.

"He was her friend's husband, so she thought they were friends," Cote said. "I think things got out of hand when he got her alone."

The first day his wife was missing, Cote said, he learned Randall had been at Mr. D's, so he called Randall to find out what he knew.

"He told me he had been at the South Gardner Motel all night, not at the bar," Cote said. "I knew right then he was lying, and I started suspecting him then."

When investigators questioned Randall, he said he had had so much to drink that night it was hard to remember. He said he left Mrs. Cote at the bar. He said he drove to a friend's house, parked in the driveway and slept in his car without waking his friend.

The friend said he was not expecting Randall and did not know if Randall parked in his driveway. The friend's house was 3 miles from the bar. Randall's home was less than a mile from Mr. D's.

Anyone who slept in a car that night must have been mighty cold; according to Cote, the overnight low was 4 degrees.

Adding to the suspicion was the fact that within days of Mrs. Cote's disappearance, Randall shaved off his beard. But he said he did that every spring.

Randall's wife, then pregnant with her third child, told investigators Randall had never before stayed out all night. He did not go to Mrs. Cote's funeral. He never again went fishing at Birch Hill Dam.

Investigators searched Randall's car and checked the clothes he had worn that night, but they found no hairs or fibers linking him to Mrs. Cote. Randall initially agreed to take a polygraph test, but then refused.

Two years after Mrs. Cote's murder, Massachusetts State Trooper Stephen Bennett wrote a report outlining the case against Randall. It concluded by stating that Randall remained the prime suspect, but "there is insufficient evidence with which to charge him with this murder."

Worcester County District Attorney John J. Conte said last year that Randall remained a suspect. He could not be reached for comment last week.

"It was so obvious how guilty he was," Cote said. "They said they could bring him to trial, but they didn't have enough evidence to keep him from beating it."

In 1986 Randall, who once told a psychiatrist he liked choking women during sex because it makes him feel "in control," was arrested for twice choking and raping his wife. She told investigators that during the second rape, he brought up Mrs. Cote's murder, demanding to know if she wanted to divorce him because of what he called "the Holly thing."

"Did you give Holly a chance?" she asked.

"No," Randall replied, according to his ex-wife.

She said Randall told her, "I didn't chase her. We had a few drinks, and she left with me."

Convicted of attacking his wife, Randall was sentenced to five to seven years in prison with eight years probation afterward. Released in 1992, he never reported for probation and instead moved to Florida.

Cote, now 44, has never remarried. His wife's daughter by another marriage, who was 6 years old at the time of the murder, lives with a relative. He has not seen her in years.

Cote says he has an abiding hatred for Randall. He wants Randall to die in the electric chair _ if not for his wife's murder, then for the deaths of four Florida women Cote never met.

"It's something you think about every day," Cote said. "This guy is not worth the money to keep him alive. I'll never be at peace the way my wife died. It sounds corny, but she was so gentle. Gentle and caring."

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