Prosecutor: DNA found under girl's fingernails in Lawrence cold case murder

Sep. 28—SALEM, Mass. — DNA matching Marvin "Skip" McClendon of Alabama was found under the fingernails of an 11-year-old girl killed in Lawrence in 1988, a prosecutor said Tuesday.

McClendon, who was 41 at that time, was known as an "angry, violent drunk" who frequented strip clubs and had "relations" with women in the back of his van, said Assistant District Attorney Jessica Strasnick.

New details regarding the Sept. 11, 1988 murder of sixth-grader Melissa Ann Tremblay, of Salem, New Hampshire, were revealed during a hearing Tuesday where McClendon's defense attorney, Henry Fasoldt, attempted to get him released on $50,000 bail.

McClendon is accused of stabbing Tremblay to death and leaving her body on the tracks near a rail freight terminal near South Broadway and Andover Street. When her body was found, her left leg had been severed by a train car.

"Specifically, the defendant's DNA was found under the fingernails of the 11-year-old victim. The defendant offers no innocent explanation for this discovery," Strasnick wrote in court papers.

Judge Thomas Dreschler rebuffed the bail request and ordered McClendon, 75, to remain held without bail at Middleton Jail.

McClendon is kept in protective custody in a cell at the jail and is not permitted to leave unless a guard escorts him. As a retired corrections officer who is accused of murdering a child "he is at an elevated risk of violence from other inmates during his incarceration," Fasoldt wrote in a court document.

"In practice, this means that Mr. McClendon does not leave his cell until approximately 11 p.m. each night. At that time, he is permitted to shower followed by a short period of recreation," Fasoldt wrote.

The charge of first degree murder carries the penalty of life in prison without the possibility of parole. Dreschler said the charge "carries the highest incentive for someone to flee."

McClendon attended the hearing through a video conference from a room at Middleton Jail. He could be seen entering the video conference room using a walker and was dressed in an orange prison jumpsuit. Other than to verify his identity, McClendon did not speak during the hearing.

At the time of Tremblay's murder, McClendon lived in Lawrence where he worked as a handyman. He was also employed by the state's Department of Corrections on intermittent dates from 1970 to 2002. He receives a $35,000 annual pension from the state, Fasoldt said.

In 2002, McClendon moved to Bremen, Alabama, where he had a home at the end of dirt road on property surrounded by family members. In April, when he was arrested in the cold case murder, McClendon remarked to Massachusetts state troopers that "at least I got 20 years of my pension," Strasnick said.

An arrest in the 33-year-old cold case was made when investigators were able to use the DNA of relatives of McClendon to identify him as a suspect, authorities said.

A brother of McClendon's testified before the Essex County grand jury, which later handed down a first degree indictment against him.

Strasnick, pointing to the DNA profile in court papers, said McClendon also had connections to the city of Lawrence, is left-handed, which an expert said the killer was, and "like the killer ... drove a van like the van seen near the victim immediately before her disappearance."

In court papers, Fasoldt wrote that Tremblay's body was fully clothed and showed no signs of sexual assault when found in 1988. He pointed to two young men living in the area, her mother's boyfriend, family members, railroad employees, known convicts and parolees who were "considered over the years as suspects."

"True crime enthusiasts have suggested that Ms. Tremblay was the victim of a now-executed serial killer active at the time named Tommy Lynn Sells," Fasoldt wrote in court document.

McClendon's brother and father were both living in the Merrimack Valley at the time of the murder. He had teen-aged sons who were living with their mother in Utah, but his oldest son may have visited Massachusetts in 1988, according to Fasoldt.

"There were no known witnesses to Ms. Tremblay's murder," he wrote. "In multiple lengthy police interviews, Mr. McClendon has adamantly denied having anything to do with the murder."

Fasoldt said McClendon has significant medical needs including diabetes and sleep apnea. In 2019 he underwent "massive open heart surgery" and is currently prescribed 11 medications.

However, Strasnick said McClendon currently does not have any "acute diagnosis or is in unstable health."

Fasoldt said he plans to file a motion to dismiss in the case. A hearing was scheduled for late this year.

Follow staff reporter Jill Harmacinski on Twitter @EagleTribJill.