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Cold case team reopens investigation of fisherman’s killing

STONINGTON — The New London County Cold Case Task Force is reinvestigating an 11-year-old case regarding the death of a Westerly resident last seen alive in the Westerly-Pawcatuck area.

Christopher Schmeller’s body was found on a deserted embankment off Interstate 95 in Waterford in the fall of 2002, eight days after he was reported missing. The autopsy revealed that the 31-year-old fisherman, who lived on Wall Street in Westerly, died of blunt head trauma, and Waterford police labeled the death as suspicious. At the time, the police department was unable to identify the killer.

New information found by officers on the 10-person task force, however, has led them to reopen the case. “We are continuing to gather new pieces of information on a regular basis now,” said Kenneth Edwards, inspector with the Connecticut Office of the Chief State Attorney’s Office and captain of the task force.

The team, which includes an officer from the Stonington Police Department, reopened the Schmeller case in the summer of 2013. Since then, it has become a “priority case,” according to Edwards.

Working with the Waterford Police Department, which has jurisdiction, and members from the Westerly Police Department, the task force recently posted fliers in convenience stores and post offices throughout the area, requesting anyone with information to contact them.

Edwards could not disclose what information the task force has received so far, or how close they might be to making an arrest.

“It would be premature to say that the investigation is almost done,” he said. “We don’t want to rush forward, especially with this type of case, without crossing all the t’s and dotting the i’s.”

Edwards did report, however, that the Schmeller case had made “substantial progress” in recent months.

Additionally, Edwards said that the task force investigations show no correlation between Schmeller’s killing and the murder several years earlier of another area resident, Renee Pellegrino, whose body was found on the same deserted property off I-95.

Pellegrino died in 1997, and a New London man was arrested and charged 13 years later as a result of an investigation by the Southeastern Connecticut Cold Case Unit.

“We don’t believe there’s any link between the two,” Edwards said, explaining that the location was ideal for depositing a body. “It’s an isolated area that’s just off the highway.”

The task force began in 2009, and includes representatives from local police departments, as well as state and federal detectives. Edwards, who began heading the task force in December, said the team works specifically to re-examine cold cases that appear to have reached a standstill.

“Sometimes it’s just a question of getting new sets of eyes on the materials,” he said. “No one agency has all the resources to do all the given tasks in a given time needed for this kind of investigation. So we’re like a force multiplier, with readily available resources and different sources of expertise.”

The task force detectives from local police departments, including Detective Joe McDermott of the Stonington police, are paid through their own departments. The Chief State Attorney’s Office provides funding for any equipment used, such as laptops and vehicles. The task force also receives some grant funding to bring in analysts on certain cases, and for traveling out of state to conduct interviews.

The task force typically meets one or two times per week, Edwards said. Currently, they are looking into five area cold cases, with three described by Edwards as “active,” including Schmeller’s case.

Since it began, the task force has played a large part in arrests and convictions made in five murders, including the Pelligrino case. The task force includes representatives from police departments in Groton, Groton City, Stonington, Norwich and Waterford, as well as from the Connecticut State Police and the FBI.

Schmeller was last seen by a friend and Westerly resident, Heidi Hindle. He had slept overnight at her house, and she said she woke him for a scheduled hearing at Superior Court in Wakefield, according to an article in The Sun. Hindle said Schmeller became nervous when a man she believed he feared showed up at the courthouse while he was there. Nobody saw Schmeller after that, according to Hindle.

Schmeller had a criminal record dating back to 1989, with the charges including thefts, burglary, assault, and carrying a pistol without a license, according to a previous Sun article.

However, Hindle told The Sun that his record did not reflect his personality.

A fisherman, Schmeller often spent several days at a time on a fishing boat out of Stonington. When not on the water, he stayed with various friends, including Hindle.

To report any information regarding Schmeller’s case, call the Connecticut Cold Case Hotline at 1-866-623-8058.

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