FBI agents have gotten inside the criminal mind of the man who New York State Police are convinced beat 20-year-old Megan McDonald to death nearly two decades ago.
The profile they created — alongside new DNA analysis and interviews — has investigators confident they've never been closer to an arrest in one of Orange County's highest profile unsolved murders.
But they're not there yet.
Megan McDonald murder investigators are close to an arrest
Peter Carr, Times Herald-Record
As the 19th anniversary of Megan's death approaches, state police are sharing details they've never shared before — details that re-create the final hours of the vivacious young woman's life, go inside the car where she was killed and into the mind of her killer. Inside the car that night, they say, Megan and her killer weren't alone. There was a second victim, one whose conscience was wracked by what he witnessed that night.
They hope those details, about their still-unnamed suspect and even the kind of car he drove, might shake loose a memory from someone who saw something that night or heard something later. A memory that seems small and insignificant, they say, might just help to make their case ironclad.
Much of the case has been told before. Megan McDonald, 20, a 2000 graduate of Burke Catholic High School, left her job at American Cafe restaurant in the Galleria mall in the Town of Wallkill on March 13, 2003. She was with friends that night in Middletown, was seen twice outside a party in her old Town of Wallkill neighborhood of Greenway Terrace, the last time at about midnight.
Then she vanished.
Her beaten body was found in a field off Bowser Road on March 15, 2003. That's the official date of her death, etched on her heart-shaped gravestone in the St. Joseph's Church cemetery in Middletown.
Megan's Mercury Sable, which was seen parked at an odd angle at the Kensington Manor apartment complex on March 14, was identified March 17. Police have conducted dozens of interviews and followed more than 800 leads in the 19 years since her death.
A name that fits
It's like something out of "Criminal Minds."
The FBI profile of the suspect was created by the Behavioral Analysis Unit made famous in that TV series, in which the team of profilers typically tracks an “unsub,” or unidentified subject.
That is no longer the case here.
State police believe they have identified their prime subject, and have been willing to take the case farther into the public, to reveal more than they ever have, but they’re holding off on the suspect’s identity. They want one last chance for the public to step forward with more damning details of their own, to ensure a conviction.
Until then, they won't say his name. They call him “the individual,” "the perpetrator," "the suspect."
But Karen and James Whalen, Megan's sister and brother-in-law, have another name for him, the only name they think fits.
What else to call a man who wouldn't take no for an answer when Megan sought to end their relationship, who ended up in the back seat of her car that night, and who attacked the tiny woman from behind without warning, giving her no chance to defend herself?
They call him "The Coward."
A pivot, then clarity
There are people in Orange County convinced they know who killed Megan McDonald.
Each March, when they see news stories on the anniversary of her murder, they phone state police investigators Brad Natalizio and Michael Corletta.
The callers are certain the investigators have been overlooking the man responsible for ending the life of the girl who had circles of friends all over Orange County.
They’re sure. They know. It was him.
Or they know it was a drug deal gone wrong.
Why haven’t they arrested him, already, they wonder?
But Natalizio, who has been working the case for more than four years, and Corletta, who has been on it for nearly three, won’t arrest the man people are sure killed Megan.
That man, a former boyfriend — while considered the original suspect — has been cleared of suspicion, they say. And the investigators are sure Megan wasn’t killed in a soured drug deal.
When the young officers turned their investigation from the original suspect to the man they now consider their prime suspect, they say the investigation shifted entirely and things fell into place.
Locations that were puzzling and had no connection to the former boyfriend — Greenway Terrace, Kensington Manor apartments, the remote field on Bowser Road — suddenly made perfect sense.
A motive, first unknown, then became clear. Megan had a relationship with her killer that, while not exactly secret at the time, wasn't widely known.
Then there's the car, the dark hatchback with the house-rattling sound system that a witness heard and then watched following Megan's car through Kensington Manor just after midnight that night. The cars circled through the townhouse complex twice. The witness remembers because the car following the white car was playing its music so loud.
And the new DNA test and the old forensics — evidence painstakingly gathered at the time — has allowed investigators to be able to place their suspect in the back seat of Megan's car.
Inside the criminal mind
The FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit agreed to take on the case in 2018, to profile their suspect and develop a theory.
After reviewing crime-scene and autopsy photos and the exhaustive case file with more than 800 leads and interviews, their theory matched the one reached at Troop F barracks on Crystal Run Road in the Town of Wallkill.
The killer, they concluded, showed all the signs of Narcissistic Personality Disorder.
The American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the DSM-5, defines Narcissistic Personality Disorder as "a pervasive pattern of grandiosity (in fantasy or behavior), a constant need for admiration, and a lack of empathy, beginning by early adulthood and present in a variety of contexts."
When someone challenges a narcissist's dominance or their sense of superiority, the resulting “narcissistic injury” can spark a violent, over-the-top reaction. That's what Natalizio and Corletta believe happened on Bowser Road that night.
A life taken as it rose
Two weeks before she was killed, Megan had moved into her own apartment in the Town of Wallkill, a big step for a 20-year-old. But she was making a fresh start, taking college classes, making steady money as a waitress at the American Café in the Galleria mall.
She had put a horrible year behind her, the year her father, Dennis, a retired NYPD homicide detective, had died unexpectedly at 47.
Three months earlier, on Megan's last Christmas, the grieving family knew they had to be together. Bereft, broken, but together.
In a family video, Megan opens a box to reveal a sweater and gushes over it. She later takes a bow from a box and sticks it to her forehead.
Everyone wanted to be with Megan, who lit up a room just by showing up. She had friends everywhere: from Burke Catholic; on Greenway Terrace in the Town of Wallkill, where she grew up; in Middletown; among her co-workers at American Café in the Galleria mall and her fellow students at Orange County Community College, where she’d started taking classes.
Police say that if friends wanted to be with Megan, her killer wanted to have her, to control her.
The car and DNA
If the man police believe killed Megan McDonald had a quieter car, he might have gone unnoticed.
But a woman in the Kensington Manor apartments was so rattled by a deafening car stereo after midnight on the night Megan went missing that she looked out her window to see the white Mercury Sable driving by, followed by a dark-colored Honda Civic hatchback or a hatchback-style car.
It was the hatchback that was blaring the music.
Minutes later, the two cars were back, having circled through the complex, back out onto Freezer Road and back into Kensington Manor. Same two cars, same deafening music from the hatchback.
Days after a man and his nephew found Megan's body on Bowser Road, police identified the Sable, abandoned at an odd angle in the parking lot at the back of Kensington Manor. That's when the witness remembered seeing that car.
Years later, Natalizio and Corletta re-interviewed the woman and asked her to elaborate on her original version of events. It was then that she detailed on the house-rattling hatchback, the same style of car their suspect owned at the time.
Investigators are also buoyed by the work of a private lab in Pittsburgh called Cybergenetics, which Natalizio says has tied the suspect's DNA to "a very important piece of evidence that was located in her vehicle."
The evidence was not the murder weapon, a blunt object of some kind that has not been recovered, Natalizio said.
Inside Megan's car
He’s out there — Megan McDonald’s killer — and he knows.
He has been living with a secret for 19 years, one year shy of Megan’s age when he beat her to death.
He knows what happened inside Megan’s white 1991 Mercury Sable with the black stripes down both sides, as March 13, 2003, turned to the 14th.
He knows because he was in the back seat of that car, after midnight, the investigators are convinced.
He knows that Megan’s friend, who was just along for the ride, was in the front passenger seat, that Megan was in the driver’s seat as they parked in that secluded field off Bowser Road, where local kids would hang out, drink beer and smoke weed.
It's so remote, you can clearly hear a far-off train whistle. You'd miss the entrance if you didn't know where it was.
The killer knew where it was, investigators say.
Natalizio says the suspect considered himself a big shot, intimidating those in his circle. He had all the women, all the power, all the friends under his thumb. That, and his spreading of rumors about the original suspect, is how he was able to stay out of the glare of suspicion for so long, the investigator says.
He and Megan had a physical relationship, like the physical relationships he was having with any number of Orange County women at the time. To him, Megan was just another, and she was lucky to have him. That's the way his mind worked.
Switching cars, a horror witnessed
Megan was never just another, her friends and family say. Megan was different.
She stood 5-foot-2 and weighed about 100 pounds, but Megan McDonald was a force of nature. She loved to laugh and was the life of the party.
She’d tell you a story, but the detective's daughter would also tell you where to go, in no uncertain terms. She was fierce and loyal and loved.
Police believe Megan picked up the front-seat passenger after leaving the Greenway Terrace party at about midnight. She was then followed to Kensington Manor by the booming hatchback.
The police timeline then has the suspect getting in the back seat of the car and Megan driving her car to Bowser Road. Natalizio says physical, forensic and circumstantial evidence puts Megan in the driver's seat, her friend in the front passenger's seat and the suspect in the back seat.
Megan was in the driver’s seat in more ways than one that night. Investigators say she was there to end the relationship with the manipulative man in the back seat. She'd heard enough, seen enough, had enough.
Her suspected killer, whom state police and the FBI have identified as a textbook narcissist — all about power and control — couldn’t permit that.
Wounded by her words, he lashed out with a blunt object and swung it over and over, as the friend in the front passenger seat watched in horror.
VIDEO: Mother talks about daughter Megan McDonald; homicide unsolved since 2003
Times Herald-Record file, USA TODAY
One investigator would call the murder overkill, a crime of passion. He'd say the killer exploded, that the nature and location of the wounds inflicted — violent, repeated blows to Megan's head — reflected the "narcissistic injury" the killer had suffered to his psyche.
The same investigator called the front-seat passenger, who died years ago, a second victim of the attack. What he witnessed that night on Bowser Road ate at him for years. He was haunted by it.
After Megan was beaten to death, her body was left in the field and someone — either the front-seat friend or the suspect — drove her car back to Kensington Manor.
The suspected killer once had the kind of power — over women and his circle of friends — to command their silence. If he was implicated, they'd be caught in the same web, he told them.
That, investigators say, is no longer the case.
"Years ago, he was a very intimidating individual, and people were scared of him. Not anymore," Natalizio says. "People were scared of him back in the day. He was very manipulative with some of his friends, the women that he dated. And people were afraid to come forward with any information."
And Natalizio is clear: Police are not interested in going after anyone in the man's circle; their only goal is to arrest Megan's killer and secure his conviction.
James Whalen has heard enough about the man who took away the girl he met when she was 16, who died before he and her sister were married.
"She was someone you would want on your side in an argument or a fight," he says. "She wasn't one to back down, which was a great character trait to have."
He knows the kind of person police are dealing with in her killer.
"He couldn't even come at her face to face. He had to attack her from behind, when she didn't have a chance to defend herself," Whalen said. "What a coward. What a loser that he couldn't intimidate or threaten Megan and he had to attack her from the shadows."
For Karen Whalen, Megan's older sister, there are memories made and memories she never had a chance to make with her sister.
"It's still hard to talk about her in the past tense," she says.
She remembers the impossibly difficult year before Megan died, when their father died suddenly, setting the family adrift in grief.
Then Karen remembers something so small, a flicker of a moment between here and there, and it reduces her to tears, 19 years later.
It was in the middle of that horrible year after their father's death, and Megan had gotten a job. The McDonald girls were going to a family event and were running early.
With time to spare, they went to get coffee.
"It was the first time she bought me a cup of coffee," Karen says, her voice catching with emotion. "She was so proud of the fact that she had money that she had earned herself and she wanted to do it."
As the 19th anniversary arrives, Karen Whalen has begun to visualize next year's milestone year, and the development the family has sought all along.
"Megan was 20 when this happened. Now it's been 19 years, and we refuse to let this coward remain free longer than she was alive," she says. "He's going to be out there living his life longer than she ever had. I'm going to write next year's headline. Next year's headline is going to be: 20th anniversary sees the coward in jail."
Even today, Megan McDonald is never far from view.
Since 2019, her beaming face has flickered from three electronic Lamar Advertising billboards along Route 17.
There's one not far from Burke Catholic, where a stained glass window, placed "in loving memory of Megan McDonald," catches the light in the chapel.
She's there as you head west on Route 17, a half-mile east of Exit 122, not far from the Troop F barracks where investigators are seeking her killer. And about 2 miles east of Exit 119. If you miss her there and are heading east on Route 17, she’ll be ¾ of a mile west of Exit 120.
Megan, and her larger-than-life megawatt smile, 14 feet tall.
Other ads flash on the electronic billboard. For hospitals. For spine surgeons and cardiologists, laser dermatology and allergists. For a discount tire center.
And then it’s Megan’s turn again. Night and day. Rain or shine.
Every 73 seconds, for seven seconds. Whether you see her or not is a matter of timing, speed and luck.
As the 19th anniversary of her murder approaches, state police are hoping for a bit of all three.
Anyone with information on the 2003 murder of Megan McDonald please contact the New York State Police at 845-344-5370. firstname.lastname@example.org.
Megan McDonald tips
Anyone with information on the 2003 murder of Megan McDonald should contact the New York State Police at 845-344-5370. email@example.com.
Reach Peter D. Kramer, a 34-year staffer, at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @PeterKramer.Read his latest stories. Local reporting like Pete's only works if subscribers support it, which you can do at www.lohud.com/subscribe.