The Stranger at Comins Pond

Date Published 08.13.07
June 27, 2000. Warren, Massachusetts.

When Magi Bish saw her daughter’s flip-flops she knew something was wrong.

Molly didn’t like to walk on the beach without her shoes. She wouldn’t go in Comins Pond, where she was a lifeguard for the summer, without them because she didn’t like the way the ”icky” bottom felt.

Now her flip-flops were on the beach, along with her chair, two-way radio, and lunch her mother had packed her - but there was no Molly. Magi had dropped her daughter off at the pond at 10 a.m. A witness saw her at 10:07 a.m., but by the time the first batch of swimmers showed up at 10:15 a.m., Molly Ann Bish, 16, was gone.

Molly was the feisty, adored youngest daughter of the Bishes - a honey-blonde athlete who was ”fun and full of love.” But she was also responsible and conscientious, and her parents knew she’d never leave her lifeguard post willingly.

Molly Bish

The only clue was the first-aid kit that lay open by her chair. Had someone approached Molly seeking assistance for some fake injury? When Molly began rummaging through the kit, her guard down, had he grabbed her?

Magi believed she might have seen the man who abducted her daughter. The day before, when she dropped Molly off at the pond, she noticed a man sitting in a white sedan in the parking lot, smoking a cigarette. He was out of view of the pond and without any seeming purpose. Something about the man made Magi uneasy, she later said, especially when he stared at her with what she described as a cocky look. She waited in her car until he drove away.

Investigators agreed with Magi that the suspicious man was their best lead, especially after witnesses came forward and said they saw a similar white car in the parking lot just moments before Molly and Magi arrived on the day Molly disappeared.

A police artist produced a composite sketch of the suspect with Magi's help.

Bish Suspect

Despite a $100,000 reward and hundreds of tips, investigators were never able to identify the suspect. Three years later, in the spring of 2003, a hunter discovered a torn one-piece bathing suit in the woods about five miles from where Molly went missing. John Bish, Molly's father, said he knew right away his daughter had been found. Searchers recovered the arm bone of a teenager near the bathing suit; more bones, in the end 26 of them, were recovered and later positively identified as Molly's. "Molly has come home," the Bish family announced to the public.

Still, the puzzle of who killed her remained. In Warren, population 4, 700, a rural, closely-knit community tucked into green hills, talk inevitably turned to another troubling matter that's long haunted the small towns of central Massachusetts: the other girls.

The Other Girls

For a small area that s relatively sparsely populated, central Massachusetts has experienced a large number of unsolved homicides and abductions of young girls in recent years, by one account as many as ten.

One of the better-known cases is that of Lisa Ziegert, 24, who was abducted from her part-time job at a card shop in Agawam on April 15, 1992. Agawam is roughly 30 miles from Warren. Lisa’s body was discovered in a wooded area four days later. She’d been stabbed to death. A witness reported seeing a blue truck on the night Lisa was killed near where her body was later found. The case remains unsolved.

But the case that gripped the area, launching a book and a lifetime obsession in at least one retired police officer, is Holly Piirainen’s. Holly, 10, was visiting her grandparents at their country home in Sturbridge on August 5, 1993 when she went with her little brother to see puppies at a neighbor’s house. Her brother returned, but Holly didn’t. One of her shoes was found on the side of a dirt road. Two months later hunters came upon her remains in a wooded area in the nearby town of Brimfield.

In an eerie coincidence, the story of Holly’s disappearance touched another 10-year-old blonde girl who lived in the area: Molly Bish. Molly wrote Holly’s parents a sympathy letter.
I am very sorry. I wish I could make it up to you. Holly is a very pretty girl. She is almost as tall as me. I wish I knew Holly. I hope they found her.
Six years later Molly would disappear just miles from where Holly was found, and her remains would be discovered in woods frequented by hunters, as Holly’s were.

Holly Piirainen

Mounting similarities between cases led to speculation about a serial killer, but solid leads proved maddening, with investigators chasing promising suspects only to encounter dead ends.

That is, until last month, when a man named Robert Burno, 54, was charged with annoying and accosting a person of the opposite sex, and assault with a dangerous weapon (a car) after police said he followed a young woman jogging on Brimfield’s Little Alum Road and tried to pin her against a guardrail with his car. The victim said Burno passed her several times, staring at her, and directed his car so close to her she felt like he was going to grab her.

None of this would have been too newsworthy were it not for Burno’s appearance. Below is Burno’s mugshot next to the sketch of the Bish suspect. Magi Bish calls the similarities between Burno and the man she saw the day before Molly disappeared ”frightening.”

While the Bishes and police caution against jumping to conclusions, reminding the public how they’ve been burned in the past by potential suspects, intriguing pieces of information continue to leak about Burno, raising questions about his connection to not just Molly, but other unsolved murders -- the other girls -- as well.

1) Like the Bish suspect, Burno's a smoker.

2) Neighbors in his apartment complex recall him having an unregistered, light-colored vehicle in 2000, the year Molly was murdered.

3) One article mentioned that Burno had recently been staying in Ware with his brother. Ware is not far from where hunters found Molly’s remains. A little research and use of an online map show that Burno’s brother lives approximately 3.2 miles from where Molly was found.

4) The jogger in Brimfield allegedly resembles Molly.

5) Before Burno moved to his latest address, he lived in the town of Agawam - where Lisa Ziegert was abducted and killed.

6) Little Alum Road, where Burno attempted to accost the jogger, turns into Five Bridge Road, the road where hunters found Holly Piirainen.

The following map shows the location where Holly was found (A), the approximate site of the recent attempted abduction of the jogger (B), and Comins Pond (C), where Molly disappeared. From "A" to "B" is about two miles, from "B" to "C" about five miles.

Bob_Ward's Blog at
BOB, robert burno brother jon burno has a seasonle campround at yogi bear campground in sturbridge, MA. my neighbor who use to be seasonal at yogi bear campground said robert use to come down to the campground and my neighbor also talked to him.
If the information is correct, that means Burno was familiar with and may have spent time in Sturbridge, the town where Holly was abducted. The campground in question is about five miles from the site of her disappearance.

Robert Burno is currently in jail under $500,000 bail. Prosecutors say he has a lengthy criminal record, including charges of assault and battery. Whether or not he holds the key to the mysteries that have long unsettled the small towns of central Massachusetts remains to be seen. But comments on local message boards indicate locals are optimistic:
I hope we finally have the answer. It’s been worrisome raising a girl around here.

The Feed

RT @emilynussbaum: The artful @hodgman's straightforward case for Hillary:
@Twaikuer @pattonoswalt @daveanthony Know what he does believe in? PAC $. Took 10K from HRC pac 2006. That means he's in her pocket.#BSLogic
@Twaikuer @pattonoswalt @daveanthony Good one. Unfortunately Bernie on record as not believing in charity.
@johnlevenstein Thanks for asking, btw. That's the kind of elevated discourse missing lately. A lot of mud slinging. #I'mNotAboveItEither
@johnlevenstein Can't convey it all thru Twitter but yes, she has flaws. Too poll-driven, burned needed bridges, trouble owning mistakes.