Deathbed confession, DNA match lead to suspect in 37-year-old murder of school lunch lady

PEMBROKE, Mass. — Virginia “Ginny” Hannon’s bloody 1984 murder threatened to overshadow the good memories of the beloved school lunch lady, who was known for baking treats for her neighborhood’s children and taking in stray animals.

As each year passed, Hannon’s loved ones feared that they’d never learn who beat, strangled and stabbed Hannon, 59, to death in her Pembroke, Massachusetts, home.

Authorities in Plymouth County announced Thursday that a new tip, along with advanced DNA technology, has finally allowed them to answer that question.

Jesse Aylward, of Brockton, was named as the suspect in Hannon’s murder. Aylward, 58, died Feb. 3, 2020.

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“Though this investigation has spanned more than 37 years, we have identified Virginia Hannon’s killer and it is Jesse Aylward,” Plymouth County District Attorney Tim Cruz said during a news conference on Thursday. “We have exhausted all of the evidence that we currently have, and it all points in the direction of Jesse Aylward.”

Cruz said that the long cold case heated up on Feb. 4, 2020, when Pembroke police investigators received a call from a friend of Aylward’s. The caller told police that Aylward, who died the day before, had confessed to Hannon’s murder.

Detectives have since confirmed Aylward’s involvement through DNA testing.

A brutal crime

Aylward, who had no known connection to Hannon, was 22 years old on Feb. 13, 1984, when the Bryantville Elementary School cook was found slain in her home less than a half-mile from the school. Her body was on her bed, covered with a sheet.

Hannon had been stabbed once in the eye and six times in the abdomen, according to the Patriot Ledger in Quincy. Her killer had kicked her so hard his shoe left an imprint on her body.

The killing stunned the town, which had not seen a homicide in a decade before Hannon was murdered.

“It shook everyone up,” now-retired Pembroke police Detective Sgt. Ted Cain told the newspaper in 2019. “I’ve said this before, but when she was murdered, you could hear the locks across Pembroke, cars and front doors, being locked.

“I’ve lived in Pembroke my whole life, and people used to leave their doors unlocked and keys in their cars. But this changed things.”

Cruz said Thursday that law enforcement officials tried long and hard to solve the killing.

“From that day forward, members of the Pembroke police, the Massachusetts State Police, and most of all, the family of Virginia Hannon have not forgotten and have sought justice in her unsolved murder,” Cruz said.

Each year, detectives have met with Hannon’s family to mark the anniversary, the prosecutor said. For some Pembroke investigators, including Cain and former police Chief Rick Wall, the case became personal.

Both men had grown up knowing Hannon, who served them lunch as Bryantville Elementary students, the Patriot Ledger reported.

“They never gave up. They were relentless,” Cruz said Thursday. “The Hannons became like family to these investigators, and no one in this room ever gave up on finding out who committed this heinous crime.”

DNA testing was not available in 1984, but as technology advanced over the years, cold case detectives tested and retested the evidence found at the crime scene, which included broken glass from Hannon’s door, nylon stockings and some bloody paper towels. In May 2018, prosecutors began working with forensic experts at the Massachusetts State Police Crime Lab to test the items for DNA.

In January 2019, after an “exhaustive testing process,” a male genetic profile was obtained from the evidence, authorities said. Prosecutors reached out to two companies, Identifinders International and Parabon Nanolabs, to conduct genetic genealogy testing.

Parabon has become widely known for revolutionizing the field of DNA forensics, Cruz said.

Identifinders was able to provide two possible last names for the suspect.

“While knowledge of a possible surname is obviously a valuable investigative lead on a case, it is not in itself a means of identification, but must be used in conjunction with other evidence to solve a crime,” said Allison Peacock, manager of operations and communications for Identifinders.

Watch Thursday’s news conference below.

What authorities did not know is that even as they worked to identify Hannon’s killer, the man who had eluded police for so long was having a crisis of conscience.

“Last year, Pembroke police received a tip from a man who said that, approximately one year prior, a man by the name of Jesse Aylward told the tipster that he murdered someone in Pembroke many years ago,” Cruz said. “The tipster also told the police that Aylward had just died the day before.”

Detectives obtained a warrant and preserved a sample of Aylward’s blood taken at Brockton Hospital, where he died. State police analysts extracted a DNA profile from the blood and compared it to the DNA taken from the evidence in Hannon’s killing.

“It was a match,” Cruz said.

Parabon Nanolabs continued to test evidence from the crime scene and, earlier this month, notified investigators that Aylward’s DNA was the only profile found on the items.

Cruz commended all the law enforcement officers, many of whom have since retired, who worked for decades to find Hannon’s killer.

“My condolences go out once again to the Hannon family for their loss,” he said. “I am hopeful that they finally find some peace and closure with this news.”

‘She was my friend’

Hannon’s nephew, Richard Hannon, described his aunt as a good woman who enjoyed bingo and ice in her beer. Though she never had children of her own, she loved the little ones she fed each day.

“She was social and loved to have a good time. She was always smiling,” Rich Hannon told the Patriot Ledger. “She just loved having all the kids over. Halloween was like Christmas to her. That’s just who she was.”

Ginny Hannon, who lost her husband seven years before her murder, was constantly on the go, hosting parties in her yard for neighborhood children and caring for stray animals. In the days after her death, Rich Hannon said, the cats and dogs continued to show up in her yard, looking for the kind woman with the smile.

Ginny Hannon also took care of her father-in-law, who lived two doors down from her own home.

“When she was murdered, it just rattled him to the point that he couldn’t even stay here,” said Rich Hannon, who now lives in the older man’s former home. “She was his life support. It was a big loss, definitely a void. My parents died three years ago, and they never forgot her. They always wished someone would do something.”

Both Hannon and his wife, Judy Hannon, said it is a relief to finally know who killed Ginny Hannon, though it is disappointing that he will not face justice for what he did.

“She was my friend,” Judy Hannon said, according to the newspaper. “I’m so glad they finally have someone. Would I like to see him taken away in handcuffs? Yes, because that’s what he deserves.”

Aylward’s obituary described him as the owner of his own paving and seal-coating businesses.

“Jesse had a unique personality. He was creative with building, generous to homeless people, intelligent and independent,” the obituary read. “He was a skilled handyman and enjoyed working on patent development.”

Aylward’s motive in Ginny Hannon’s murder is unknown, and it is unclear if his name ever came up in the homicide investigation, Cruz and Pembroke police officials said.

“I would love to be able to tell you exactly what happened in the case of Mrs. Hannon, but I can’t,” Cruz said. “All I can tell you is the evidence we have.”

Wall, the former police chief, said there are still a lot of unanswered questions.

“We may never get all of the answers, but we’re never going to stop looking for exactly what happened,” Wall said.

The Patriot Ledger reported that Ginny Hannon’s murder happened around the same time as a number of home burglaries. Authorities believed at the time that robbery may have been the motive for the slaying.

It was also widespread knowledge around town that Ginny Hannon had recently inherited $380,000 from an aunt in California, the newspaper reported.

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Cruz said Thursday that Aylward had a criminal record but declined to detail what it entailed.

Judy Hannon said she recognized Aylward’s photo but that she did not know him.

“I’d seen his face. I didn’t know his name but sure, I’d seen him through the years,” Judy Hannon told the Patriot Ledger. “From what I know, he was from Pembroke, but I don’t know any more.”

Judy and Rich Hannon said they hope the news of Aylward’s involvement in Ginny Hannon’s death will lead people with knowledge of the crime to come forward.

“I think there is more to the story and I’m praying people come forward,” Judy Hannon said. “Tell us (Aylward’s) story. We deserve to know.”

“Maybe something will shake loose in somebody’s head like, ‘Oh, I know that guy,’ and give us a little more information of who he was, why he was,” Rich Hannon said. “Because it was senseless. They got nothing. They just killed her for whatever. I don’t understand it.”

Editor’s note: The story was updated April 1, 2021, to clarify the information provided to authorities by Identifinders.

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