By Shawn Regan
---- — HAVERHILL — It was a case that went unsolved for more than a decade.
Hairdresser Beverly Autiello, 30, was murdered in her Haverhill home in the early morning hours of April 9, 1977. Investigators believed the killer’s weapon was an ax.
Autiello’s 4-year-old daughter was the only witness, but she was severely beaten. Because of the girl’s injuries and her age, she was unable to help police identify her mom’s killer.
The case went cold until 1989, when investigators were able to link Autiello’s death to Gary Lee Colby, who was then living in Virginia. He was convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison.
But now Colby is about to go free, after spending 23 years behind bars.
The Massachusetts Parole Board voted unanimously May 13 to grant Colby his release. Caitlin Casey, the parole board’s chief of staff, said Colby is set to be released as soon as he completes a prerelease cognitive behavioral program and the Virginia Department of Corrections approves his new residence. Colby plans to live in Roanoke, Virginia, with his wife, Mary Ellen Colby, the board’s decision said.
As of yesterday, Colby was still in prison, Casey said. The terms of his parole require that he live in Virginia for the rest of his life and that he may only leave that state with permission from his parole officer, Casey said.
Colby, now 65, was sentenced in 1991 to life in prison, with the possibility of parole after 15 years, for beating Autiello to death and violently assaulting her 4-year-old daughter, Gina Marie Autiello, after breaking into their home. The young girl witnessed her mother’s murder and spent 10 days in the hospital recovering from injuries she suffered in the attack.
Autilello, a widow and hairstylist, died 90 minutes after she was found beaten in her home at 24 Fairlawn Ave.
Autiello’s daughter, who is now 40, opposed Colby’s release, along with two other family members and Essex Assistant District Attorney Elin Graydon at Colby’s July 10, 2012, parole hearing.
“Mrs. Autiello was still alive when police arrived,” according to the parole board’s decision, which includes a summary of the case. “Her breathing was labored as she lay on the floor, clawing to the carpet. The autopsy revealed that she had suffered from multiple fractures of the skull and lacerations to the brain caused by at least two powerful blows to the head.”
The board’s decision said it is believed Colby attacked Autiello with an ax.
Colby fled the murder scene and left Massachusetts a short time later for Virginia, investigators said. The murder went unsolved for 12 years until the investigation was revived during a “cold case review,” the parole board’s decision said.
As a result of that review, police interviewed Autilello’s surviving child, Colby’s then-fiance Linda Ellenwood and a woman named Majorie Brown Freer.
As a result of those interviews, the investigation focused on Colby. Massachusetts police eventually asked Virginia authorities to interview him. During that interview, Colby confessed to the murder, the parole board decision said.
Colby told police he broke into Autiello’s home looking for Freer, who had been baby-sitting there earlier in the night. In his confession, Colby told Virginia investigators he went to the home looking for Freer, whom he said he had “taken a shine” to.
“Something just snapped and I lost control,” Colby told police.
In 1989 newspaper stories, investigators said Colby seemed like a changed man after fleeing to Virginia, where he eventually married. Co-workers and others who knew him in Haverhill described him as hot tempered. In Virginia, neighbors described Colby as a caring father who walked his son to the bus stop every morning.
In its decision to free Colby, the parole board stressed that he maintained an “exemplary record” while in prison. The board said he was transferred from a Massachusetts prison to one in Virginia in 1997 to allow him to be closer to his family.
“Virginia reports that he has been a model inmate,” the board’s decision said, noting that Colby participated in various behavioral and anger management programs, religious services, vocational training and veterans support groups.
At his July 10, 2012, parole hearing, Colby said he would live with his wife, Mary Ellen Colby, in Roanoke upon his release. He told the parole board he would continue with “spiritual support from his church and look to family and friends for additional help.”
“Mr. Colby reports a strong support system of family and friends,” the decision said.
The board said Colby described his attack of Autiello and her young daughter in a manner that did not deflect or avoid responsibility. The board’s decision said Colby did not advance in school past the ninth grade and that he suffers from “cognitive limitations or impairments.” The decision said Colby tried to obtain his General Educational Development degree in prison, but was unable to complete the program because of difficulty in math and reading.
While in a Virginia prison, Colby held the position of dog handler for four years and became certified with the American Kennel Association of America as a dog trainer, the parole board’s decision said. Colby served in the Army from 1966 to 1969 and received an honorable discharge, the decision noted.
“He reported that his first wife died due to complications related to diabetes,” the decision said. “He said, ‘I felt sad and lonely when she died; I got depressed and at times I did increase my drinking some.’”
After leaving Haverhill after the murder in 1977, Colby told the board he got married and settled in Roanoke, where he worked as a hotel clerk. He said he drank beer regularly, but did not use drugs.
He told the board the 1977 attack was “the only incidence of violence in my life.” The decision notes that prior to the murder, Colby was given probation for stealing a credit card in Florida.
At the parole hearing, Mary Ellen Colby told the parole board Colby has been “a loving, supportive husband.”
Autiello’s daughter described to the parole board the physical injuries she suffered as a child at the hands of Colby. She said she still lives with fear because of the attack.
The board’s decision said Gina Marie Autiello has made “a courageous recovery” and that she has four children with her husband, who has served 23 years in the Army.
“Gary Colby presents an unusual history,” the board’s decision concludes. “He committed murder and injured a child, but otherwise has lived a peaceful and seemingly productive life. ... He has served 23 years in prison and has used that time productively to demonstrate that he has good self-control, is not violent, and has pro-social thinking and conduct.
“The parole board concludes that that Mr. Colby shows no present capacity to re-offend violently, and that he would be highly likely to carry into the community his current good habits or pro-social thinking and conduct, cooperative attitude, and flexible responses in interacting with others.”
Colby’s parole is conditional on his not using alcohol or drugs. He also must participate in one-on-one counseling for a year and have no contact with the victim or her family.
The board’s decision said Colby was denied parole in 2004 and 2009.