Among the dozens of homicides that I’ve researched and written about over the years, there is a Berkshire murder that has haunted me in a particularly proximal way. It’s not the most shocking, or the most gory. There was no great mystery or sensationalist trial associated with it. It wasn’t even the most famous murder in town that year.
The 1990 slaying of Louise Wright stands out to me because it was the first time that someone I actually knew was murdered. And because it all took place barely 200 feet from me, as I slept in my childhood bedroom in an adjacent house.
I didn’t know Mrs Wright well. I’m not sure I even knew her name, until after her death. I knew her face. I had interacted with her in about the same way I interacted with any neighbors that would come upon me skulking and hiding in the wooded perimeter around my parent’s fencing- a smile and half-wave friendly enough to allay any suspicions about my meanderings, but not so friendly as to invite conversation. She had a kindly face, but that’s all I knew of her.
At 75 (I learned later), Louise was a widow living alone, after retiring from a long career working at the Elmvale Worsted Company. She was very active in the Methodist church, and a prolific poet in the local Senior Citizens Poetry Club.
Around dinner time on a warm Friday evening in September, the avenue stretch just behind the backyard where I was lurking about began to fill up with police and emergency vehicles. More and more vehicles arrived, as uniformed officers taped off the Wright house. I first assumed some sort of accident, and even my 6th grade mind was able to process that the number of people encircling the property meant it had probably been a fatal one. Nothing more extreme ever occurred to me, on its own. The reality of homicide was not entirely abstract to me by then, but it certainly inconceivable to me there, in that seemingly safe and quiet neighborhood above Springside Avenue that I had lived in for nearly 11 years.
But life is sprinkled with such transitions in what is conceivable to us, and childhood doubly so. While it would not become public until the 11 o’clock news aired, already by twilight there was an ambient buzzing of rumor in the surrounding houses and streets, a detail-fuzzy murmur with only one clear thread: Mrs Wright had been murdered.
Thanks to prompt tips from multiple sources, including his own brother, 20 year old Mark Banister was taken into custody less than 24 hours after her body was discovered. As news and photos hit the front page of the Eagle over the coming days, it turned out to be a face that was by no means unknown among Wright’s neighbors. Mark Banister had been coming and going from the house for years in the company of Wright’s grandson, Gerald.
At Banister’s trial the following year, Gerald would testify that during that time the duo had repeatedly stolen cash, checks and jewelry from his grandmother to purchase beer, cocaine and marijuana. Banister was found with blank checks from Wright and with two of her rings on his person when he was picked up.
The trial ran for two weeks in May 1991, during which D.A. Gerard Downing and first assistant David Capeless presented mountains of damning evidence, from his blood, fingerprints and shoeprints at the scene to supporting testimony from multiple friends and associates. They maintained that Banister had methodically planned the nighttime break-in, during which he tied Wright to a chair, stabbed and then strangled her with an electrical cord. It was countered only by Banister’s dubious testimony blaming his brother and a friend, and an attempted motion by his public defender to block testing of Mark’s blood.
On May 24, the jury returned a verdict of guilty, and Judge Daniel Ford sentenced Banister to life in prison without parole.
On October 6, 1998, the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts rejected an appeal by Banister for a new trial.
For me personally, it was upsetting, but not what I would call a life changing event. In itself it was not a major emotional trauma (I think?), and I went on with life more or less as I had before. Three decades later, what most stands out to me is that it was simply the first time I can remember really sitting down to read about such a thing in a local newspaper… and clipping it out.
The horrible fate of poor Mrs Wright made me perk up my ears and pay attention to local news, at a strange time when violent crime was spiking again in the region. 1990 – 1992 would see 12 people murdered in Berkshire County within a 3 year period, two thirds of them in my own town of Pittsfield. Just weeks after Louise Wright’s slaying made me pay attention, a boy my own age with whom I shared various mutual friends, vanished from another pleasant residential neighborhood across town. Only years later would we learn, in heart-breaking detail, how he had become the first known victim of a serial killer living quietly among us for years. By that time, my youthful perception of small quiet rural neighborhoods had changed considerably- and in some ways, permanently.