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Story By Robert Muldoon

A gravestone etched with “Beloved Mother” is surrounded by purple, yellow and white flowers. A roadside shrine, in Harwinton off Campville Road, is bedecked with stuffed bears and birds, red roses and candles. Millie Alvarado, mother of four, is not forgotten.

“She was the best mother,” Tanya Johnson said. “A real mama bear. She was meticulous about our house, our bedrooms, our clothes, what we wore when we went to school, where we lived, who we associated with—almost OCD.”

Mildred Alvarado with two of her children.

But the rest of the world knows none of that. Mildred Alvarado, 30, was murdered January 19, 1989, her body dumped down a steep ravine in Harwinton. Press and police labeled her a “Waterbury prostitute” and “drug addict.” And 33 years after she was strangled, there has been no progress in finding her killer.

Nor has there been progress in finding the killer of Karen Everett, 24, strangled three months earlier, dumped in the same spot. Nor has there been progress in finding the killer of Jessica Marie Muskus, 22, killed in 2004, dumped in the same spot. Police believe the murders are linked.

It’s still very raw and painful for Tanya Johnson, a mother of three, army veteran, Defense Department retiree, and wife of 24 years to Colonel Herman “Jay” Johnson. Living in Virginia, but with Waterbury ties still, she can never give up her quest for justice. Despite her accomplishments (including three degrees, with a Master’s), this is how she defines her life.

“I feel like a failure for my family,” sobbed Tanya, the mother of a Columbia grad student and another at the University of North Carolina.

You’d have to know the history.

“When I was sick, my mother served me tea and toast and crawled in bed with me and we watched soap operas together,” she said of Mildred, whom everyone called Millie. They lived in the North End, in Lakewood.

Mildred Alvarado and her children in the early 1980s.

But around 1987, Millie began having personal struggles, so she sent 12-year-old Tanya and her younger brother Bobby to live with their father, who had a strong family network in New Milford. Millie seemed to sense she was becoming overwhelmed, and in a last gasp effort to save them, she moved them to a safe haven.

“She wanted to protect us,” said Tanya.

1988 was the last time Tanya saw her mother. Millie seemed to be in the clutches of something she could not wrest herself away from, something too powerful. She could not save herself, but she had saved her oldest children. In some ways, it was a last heroic act of salvation, before a desperate struggle and downward spiral.

At the funeral, Tanya learned for the first time that her mother had recently had another son who was 13 months old, and Tanya met him at the service. After the funeral, the youngest went to live with Millie’s sister in Idaho.

Despite unimaginable pain Tanya stayed on track, and Millie and her best memories stayed in her heart. In high school, she visited the cemetery with her father, and was hurt and surprised to find there was no marker.

In 1995, after joining the army, she saved money from her first paychecks. It’s not the kind of thing most newly independent, young adults put aside money for, but soon after meeting Jay at Fort Knox in 1996, she put up that stone. Jay realized he had found someone special.

But her quest for dignity and justice for Millie had just begun. And Jay signed up too. They were married in 1997, and he became a fierce and compassionate advocate for Tanya and Millie, whom he never met, but maybe saw a chip off the old block.

“We all have had moments in our lives where we have struggled,” Jay said, “but we should not be defined by them, nor should she (Millie).”

Tanya began calling the State Police Western District Major Crimes Squad for updates. She talked to the lead detective, always staying patient, not wanting to interfere. But detectives changed (retiring or moving on to other cases). She was usually not informed, and over time began to feel police were “dangling carrots,” with tantalizing hints of a possible “person of interest” and references to “a small amount of DNA.” Tanya and Jay trusted the process, stayed respectful of the ongoing investigation—but pushed and stayed persistent.

For Tanya, it became emotionally difficult and frustrating, so Jay took the lead. Every six months, at least, on Millie’s anniversary (January 19) and birthday (July 24), he called the state police. Jay was always addressed with courtesy as “Colonel Johnson,” in deference to his 32 years of service, including with the 82nd Airborne Division. But answers were rarely forthcoming.

“I feel we are in the exact same spot as we were in 1997,” Jay said, “and Tanya started before that in 1995.”

Around 2009, they pressed for DNA testing. According to news accounts, Millie had been found wearing Filippo Totti blue jeans, a black sweatshirt with Playboy logo, a jean vest, and a black rubber bracelet.

They were told there was a back-up in the state lab, that the DNA needed to be sent out-of-state, down to Pennsylvania, and as the line-up of detectives retired or moved on, they heard little else about the DNA tests.

Undaunted, Tanya and Jay pressed forward. They asked if they could offer an out-of-pocket reward; filed FOI requests; monitored the news and contacted reporters; requested Millie’s image be put on widely-circulated playing cards as had been done in other “cold cases”; wrote to State Representative Larry Butler and United States Senator Chris Murphy. There was no progress.

“We are told that active cases take precedent,” Jay said, ” and we have to stay patient.”

The desolate stretch of Valley Road in the Campville section of Harwinton.

Today, the State Police Western District Major Crimes Squad lists four open cases. In addition, there are 13 “cold cases,” listed by individual name, except for “Karen Everett/Mildred Alvarado” who are linked. In December 2021 the skeletal remains of an “Unknown Female” was found in the Campville section of Harwinton, in the same area that Karen Everett and Mildred Alvarado were found in 1988 and 1989. Jessica Marie Muskus is not listed in either the open or cold cases.

Colonel Herman “Jay” Johnson and his wife, Tanya.

After continued efforts, Jay finally succeeded in setting up a meeting in Litchfield at the Western District headquarters. He prepared to leave duty in Virginia and attend. But suddenly it was cancelled.

“Because she’s labeled these words (addict and prostitute), it’s like they don’t care,” he said, in frustration. “She has a loving family who are still traumatized by this over 30 years later. For as long as I can remember, we have been trying to assist the Connecticut State Police with trying to solve this murder. There are four kids seeking justice. No one is reaching out to them. This was a young mother, with four children, who was murdered.”

A cursory check of the State Police “Cold Case” web page—where the Karen Everett and Millie Alvarado murders are linked—reveals that Everett’s date of death is incorrect. It’s a small error, perhaps, but seems to highlight a larger problem. No one seems to care.

With a broken heart, Tanya perseveres. As the oldest child, and a Mama Bear herself, she united all four of Millie’s children in 2017 for the first time,

“We were stationed at Fort McNair in Washington, D.C.,” Jay said. “We were able to have all the siblings and their children at our home for the first time. It was a significant emotional event and the love that came through was just amazing.”

Jay said Tanya took the lead on bringing her siblings together. ” She was able to bring those siblings in and have, you know, a sort of normalcy, a normal family interaction,” Jay said. “All her life she’s leading the charge to do wonderful things.”

And there is still more to be done.

As a child, Tanya saw a need for a stone. As a young woman, she planted a stone. And as a grown woman, she leaves no stone unturned to find justice for Millie.

(If anyone has any information on any of these unsolved murders, please contact the Waterbury Police Department at 203-574-6941 or the Waterbury Observer at 203-754-4328 or e-mail John Murray at waterburyobserver@gmail.com)