By Lynne Baranski
July 17, 1978 12:00 PM

It was Christmas Eve 1973. As Lucille Showalter returned to her New London, Conn. home following church services, she paused on her doorstep, searching the wintry sky for the constellation Orion. It was a habit begun years before, when the divorced mother’s three sons were smaller and had scanned the stars with childish delight. But this evening’s memories would be of horror. A few hours later Mrs. Showalter was awakened by two policemen, who said her son Kevin had been hurt in an accident. At the hospital she discovered the truth. Kevin, 20, had been killed by a hit-and-run driver less than two blocks from home as he was changing a tire on his date’s car.

In her grief Lucille assumed that police were investigating and the killer would soon be in custody. But when she went to retrieve Kevin’s personal effects a few weeks later, she was told they had been lost and the case probably would never be solved. “I couldn’t believe it,” she says. “I felt if the mystery of his death couldn’t be solved, it would be as though he never existed. I knew there was a car and a driver. If I had to go to the ends of the earth to find them, I would.”

Convinced that police were not pressing the case, Mrs. Showalter, now 57 and a community college history instructor, decided to do their job for them. Following through on a lab report that dark-green paint particles had been found on Kevin’s clothing, she checked garages and used car lots and searched the streets for damaged cars of that color. She combed the accident scene for evidence that might have been overlooked and interviewed everyone she could find who had driven past the spot that night. She realized the killer “probably was someone I knew,” as there was little through traffic on the quiet residential street. She turned in her report to the police. “They feigned astonishment,” she recalls, “and then accused me of withholding evidence!”

When the investigation remained stalled, Mrs. Showalter, who had begun wearing Kevin’s high school ring, stubbornly forged ahead. She wrote letters, made thousands of phone calls and coaxed the state into putting up a $2,000 reward for information leading to an arrest. For a while she consulted an acquaintance, New London’s former mayor Harvey Mal-love, who said he had passed the accident scene moments after Kevin’s death. “I looked on Mallove as a Good Samaritan,” she explains, “someone who could help me.” To keep her spirits up she painted a stern-looking self-portrait—”like a figurehead on a ship. I needed a vision of myself as being fearless, so I propped it up behind my typewriter. Whenever I began to fall apart I would say, ‘This is how you should look, Lucille Showalter.’ ”

Finally, in December 1976 (at the instigation of Connecticut Gov. Ella Grasso, Lucille believes) a one-man grand jury was assigned to the case. Last winter, more than four years after Kevin was killed, Superior Court Judge Joseph Dannehy found that New London police had done “virtually nothing” to find Kevin’s killer. The probable driver of the death car, he concluded, was Mallove, whose testimony had been contradicted by all other witnesses. Dannehy did not recommend prosecution, however, since police had lost or mishandled so much evidence. Mallove denies his guilt, took and passed a lie detector test and has hired a private detective to carry on the investigation. “I didn’t do it,” he insists. “Now we’re trying to find out who did.”

For Mrs. Showalter, whose obsession with finding her son’s killer had caused her to be branded locally as an eccentric, Judge Dannehy’s findings brought vindication. “I’m not vengeful,” she says, “but a mother has to tend to her family. When someone dies, that need to tend does not die. I was tending to Kevin by searching for the truth.”