It was the 12th of September, 1994, when a man living in the Timber Creek condominiums in West Dover, Vermont, heard a loud banging at his door. When he opened it, he was met by 32-year-old NASA contract engineer, John Grega. John, who told him that he needed to use his phone to ring 911 after finding his wife, Christine, slain in the bathtub. John told police that he had taken his son to a playpark before taking him to the play park. When he arrived back to the condominium, he said he then discovered his wife’s body in the bathtub. An autopsy determined that Christine had been raped, sodomized, and then strangled to death.
John, Christine, and their 2-year-old son had been vacationing in West Dover near the Mount Snow Ski Area and had rented a condominium. The family were from Long Island, New York where Grega worked for his family’s window-washing business and Christine was a physician’s assistant who worked in a rehabilitation center. While Grega had no criminal record or a history of violence or mental illness, police focused on him as the prime suspect. Three months following the murder, John was arrested and charged with his wife’s murder.1 “I came to Vermont on vacation. I loved my wife. I did not come to Vermont to hurt my wife,” Grega declared.
Grega denied any involvement in the shocking murder but police claimed the couple had been having marital issues and went on vacation as a make or break ultimatum. Grega had allegedly told police that he and his wife had engaged in rough sex before her death which could have explained some of the physical injuries. Furthermore, investigators noted that he was scheduled to receive $350,000 in life insurance proceeds from his wife’s death if she were to die accidentally. Investigators noted that during their investigation, Grega had suggested that Christine fell and died. During his trial, there was no physical evidence against him and the prosecution mounted a circumstantial case.
The defence had offered a counter theory in the case that focused on two painters with criminal records who had been working at the condominium complex where Christine was murdered. On the day of the murder, Bryant Comi and Michael Carpenter were working as day laborers painting the exterior of the complex. Comi had a “substantial violent criminal record” and a history of sexual aggression towards women. He had also entered and stolen property from at least one other condominium according to records. Moreover, Comi smoked Marlboros. This was a crucial piece of evidence, Grega’s attorney believed, because a piece of a Marlboro cigarette box was found partly flushed in the toilet yet neither Gregas smoked.
Comi and Carpenter both gave false addresses and phone numbers. They gave inconsistent stories as to whether Grega’s car was parked at the condominium around the time of the murder and told inconsistent stories about what part of the condominium they were painting. Furthermore, they both lied about what time they got home that night. “Even more disturbingly, Bryant Comi himself admits that when he arrived home that night ‘he may have joked about the death of the lady and jokes that he had killed the lady’ to his girlfriend,” according to the defence.2
Nevertheless, Grega was found guilty of Christine’s murder and was sentenced to life imprisonment.
As Grega languished in Southern State Correctional Facility, he continued to maintain his innocence. While there, he was an upstanding inmate. He worked as the librarian at the prison’s legal library and aided other inmates with their legal work, while fighting to throw out his own conviction. “He’s a very well-spoken young man,” said Southern State Correctional Facility Superintendent Mark Potanas. “If I had more inmates like him, I’d be a happy man.”
In 2010, his attorneys requested that evidence collected at the crime scene be tested. The evidence included swabs taken from inside Christine’s rectum. At the time of the crime, DNA testing wasn’t as advanced as it is now. When DNA from the swabs were eventually tested two years later, it was found to not match John’s DNA. The DNA from this unknown person came from skin cells that were left behind as Christine was brutally sodomized. “Given the damage done… and the violence it suggests, you would think that the person that left the DNA was responsible for the violence that occured,” said Matthew Valerio, the state’s defender general. The DNA also didn’t match Bryant Comi and Michael Carpenter, the painters that Grega’s defence put forward as alternative suspects.
After these results, Grega’s legal team filed a motion asking that their client be freed or at least be granted a new trial.
“It is difficult to overstate the game-changing nature of this new evidence, especially in a case where, as here, the evidence of Mr. Grega’s guilt has at all times been purely circumstantial,” the lawyers wrote in the motion. “Under the reasonable doubt standard, this new DNA evidence – which was never presented to the jury and therefore was never considered in deliberations – would have not just slightly, but vastly, increased the likelihood of an acquittal or a hung jury in the original trial. Put simply, we now have compelling evidence that John Grega did not commit the crime for which he has served nearly two decades in jail.”
On the 22nd of August, 2012, Grega was released from prison.
“I always said I would walk out,” he said. “I never gave up. I feel good.” At approximately 5PM, Grega walked out of the doors of the Southern State Correctional Facility after spending 18 long years behind bars for a crime he did not commit. His mother, brother, sister and attorney, Ian Carleton, were waiting for him. He dropped his two large garbage bags which contained all of his possessions, and hugged them all. “Johnny. You look great. I brought you a Snapple,’” said his mother, Marion Grega.3
Grega’s case marked the first time a conviction had been overturned under a 2008 Vermont law that allows convicted felons to request DNA testing that may not have been available at the time of their trial. Following his conviction being overturned, the Windham County State’s Attorney’s Office reserved the right to retry him but announced that they had no plans to do so.
Following Grega’s release, he filed a lawsuit against the town of Dover, former State’s Attorney Dan Davis, and Vermont State Troopers William Pettengill, Richard Holden and Glenn Cutting. In his lawsuit, Grega accused these officials of maliciously and improperly pursuing him as the sole suspect in his wife’s murder.
Unfortunately, however, Grega never got the chance to receive that compensation.
On the 23rd of January, 2015, John Grega crashed into a tree and died. He was just minutes away from the home he shared with his elderly mother in Lake Ronkonkoma, Long Island. He had been driving his 1999 Chevrolet van when he lost control of his vehicle and crashed into a tree. He was transported to Stony Brook University Hospital where he was pronounced dead.