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The Short, Wonderful, But Ultimately Tragic Life of Lena Bruce (Part One)

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Murder victim Lena Bruce was 21, had just graduated from Tufts University and was found murdered in her South End apartment in 1992.
Delta SIgma Theta /Delta SIgma Theta
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A pretrial hearing was held this week for James Witkowski, a suspect in the 1992 murder of a 21-year-old Tufts University graduate, Lena Bruce. Until last year, her killing had been classified as a cold case; a mystery the Suffolk County District Attorney says was solved decades later by a computer match of DNA taken from the crime scene and from the suspect decades later. Who was Lena Bruce? And why do her sorority sisters in Delta Sigma Theta think this question is still so important?  

Bruce had just graduated with honors from the Tufts School of Engineering—the only black woman in her class—and was weeks into a new job at a prestigious engineering firm. The weekend of July 11 was what some call lemonade weather: hot and muggy.

That Saturday morning, she had invited her ex-boyfriend, Joe Sullivan, who was living in Atlanta, to come to Boston to help celebrate her new job. Sullivan says they planned to talk that night by telephone.

“So that evening came and she didn’t call me and I thought nothing of it," he said. "It wasn’t that serious, and if she didn’t call me that day, she would call me the following day. And the following day, Sunday, came and I didn’t hear from her all day. And that evening, I think maybe 1 in the morning, I figured, jeez, you know, I didn’t hear from her so I called and it just rang. No answering machine. It just rang. The phone rang and rang and rang.”

That was unlike Bruce. Sullivan says she was an engineer in every respect: on time and precise. Sullivan had met Bruce in 1990 at Tufts. He was a member of Omega Psi Phi, the brother organization of Delta Sigma Theta, Bruce’s sorority.

Eva Nelson Mitchell first met Bruce at Capen House, the center of African-American activity at Tufts. Mitchell, an educator in Boston, was at Harvard University in the 1990s, but she joined the same national sorority as Bruce. The Deltas form lifetime bonds and attract life-sized personalities, but few as large as Bruce’s says Mitchell.       

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Members of Delta Sigma Theta in Boston. Lena Bruce is kneeling in the foreground
Delta Sigma Theta

“Lena has the kind of personality and the kind of presence where you had to pay attention to her because she was just such a powerful, wonderful spirit—this gorgeous Philly girl with her dark glasses, her big earrings and her cool pose,” Mitchell said.

Back in Philadelphia, both Bruce and her mother were described as the go-to residents of Francisville, a beaten-down neighborhood where prison rates at the time outpaced high school graduation by leaps and bounds.  

“You have no idea the kind of things she saw growing up in Philadelphia, and how tough the surroundings she grew up in were,” Sullivan said.

He says deprivation pushed Bruce to do more. So when she was not working on complex engineering assignments, she volunteered at homeless shelters, worked with at-risk youth, and tutored students from Cambridge Ridge and Latin School.

“We were broke students, so we took advantage of anything free that we could," Sullivan said. "We would sneak into the cafeteria. Tufts had some pretty good breakfast back then and we'd either buy it, if we had the money, or if we didn’t, somebody might allow us to come in and get a meal.” 

Bruce received her diploma in May 1992. 

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Lena Bruce at her graduation ceremony with a degree in electrical engineering
Delta Sigma Theta

She was hired by Stone and Webster and immediately began sending her mother $100 a week, the same amount her mother had sent every two weeks while Bruce earned her degree. With a classmate, Bruce moved to the South End. Mitchell was concerned, but only somewhat.

“We didn't know that was considered a neighborhood where drugs and crime were a problem, but I would say that people like me and Lena that came from urban areas, we would’ve been scared of that,” Mitchell said.

In the early morning of Sunday, July 12, 1992, when Sullivan finally hung up the telephone after unsuccessfully trying to reach Bruce, he sensed something was terribly wrong. Others had also tried to reach her. On Monday morning, Sullivan in Atlanta and Mitchell in Boston and received the same distressing call.  

“I was home when I got a phone call from one of my sorority sisters from Iota chapter," Mitchell said. "She just kept saying, 'She’s gone, she’s gone.' She said, ‘Eva, Lena’s dead.'”

Someone had crawled through a rear window of Bruce’s ground-floor apartment, bound, gagged, and raped her, and then smothered her with a pillow. Her roommate, who had just returned from Philadelphia, discovered her body that Sunday night. The time was 8:30 p.m.

The horrendous violence did not come as a shock for some who knew that particular stretch of Massachusetts Avenue in 1992. Brian Napier, a still down-on-his luck South End resident, lived in the neighborhood back then.

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The rear entrance of Lena Bruce's former apartment in the South End.
Phillip Martin/WGBH News

“There would be some crackheads and addicts roaming up and down Mass Ave. asking for money, some of them already drunk from the night before,” Napier said.  

The apartment's former occupant had been a drug dealer, and customers routinely went in and out by climbing a fire escape leading to a back bedroom window.   

This is where this story takes a turn; this is where the story becomes controversial: Law-enforcement officials recall acting cautiously but diligently in 1992 to find a vicious killer. 

“My predecessors, they had three or four people they were looking at as possible murderers of Lena,” said Suffolk County District Attorney Dan Conley, who in 1992 was a young assistant prosecutor, recently out of law school, working on the gang violence that dominated the headlines that year. 

“It was probably the worst time for violent crime in our city," Conley said. "I mean, it was really really bad. We would have well over a hundred homicides a year. But this one, I remember, got some publicity because Lena was a college kid. Thankfully, those who worked on the case in '92 and in subsequent years did a good job, and they spoke for Lena Bruce as loudly as we did.” 

But while Bruce’s sorority sisters in Delta Sigma Theta applaud the Boston Police Department and prosecutors of 2016, they recall law enforcement indifference in the summer of 1992, and the sense that a black life did not matter. 

“Nobody, no matter their background, should face the kind of indignity she faced,” said Eva Mitchell. “But what was world-shattering to us was that even when you do all the right things, and even when you achieve everything you set out to do, that in an instant you can become a nobody, and we were not going to let that happen.”

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Delta sorority member, Eva Nelson Mitchell, with Tufts School of Engineering in the background. Mitchell is wearing a button on her jacket honoring Lena Bruce and Anita Griffey, another deceased Delta soira.
Phillip Martin/WGBH News

 

 

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