Around Bennington, Vermont, no fewer than seven people disappeared between the years 1945 and 1950. There was no evidence to suggest murder (only one of those to have vanished was ever found - dead, but in a place where it is almost certain that her body would have been found by earlier searchers) but the citizens of Bennington could explain the mysterious events only by inventing a particularly cunning madman, a killer who emerged from nowhere, killed and returned to obscurity until his perverse passions once again drove him to prowl for a fresh victim.

To some people, this mysterious killer was known as the 'Bennington Ripper', but other people called him (or her) the 'Mad Murderer of the Long Trail'.This killer derived his name from a hikers' footpath running 422 kilometers along or not far from the crest of Vermont's Green Mountains. One of the lesser peaks of the mountain chain is Mount Glastonbury, and it was somewhere on the 13 kilometers of trail that goes over the peak that seven people mysteriously vanished.

First to go was a 75 year old woodsman named Middie Rivers. He is said to have known the Long Trail better than most people know their own living room, yet on 12 November 1945, he set out to hunt deer and was never seen again. The last that anybody ever saw of him was about thirty kilometers from the town of Bennington, near the Mount Glastonbury entrance to the Trail.

Hundreds of people joined the state police in the search: hunters, townsfolk, boy scouts, and ninety soldiers from nearby Fort Devens spent a month scouring the region, but the search ended without a trace - without even the slightest clue - of Middie Rivers' fate.

The winter of 1945 came and went. The citizens of Bennington, involved in the year that passed, forgot about Middie Rivers and ceased to ponder his fate. On 1 December 1946, however, they were forcibly reminded on the bizarre and tragic disappearance when 18 year old Paula Welden, a student at Bennington College, vanished without trace. Again there was a search and again no clues to her fate were forthcoming.The 'Mad Murderer' struck again on 1 December 1949, the third anniversary of Paula's disappearance. This time the victim was a man named James E Telford.

There was an extended but, once again, fruitless search; Telford had vanished like the others - without trace. Early in 1950, an eight year old boy named Paul Jepson was left in his father's truck while Mr Jepson conducted some small errand. He was gone for only a few minutes, but it was long enough for the 'Mad Murderer' to strike. When Jepson returned to his truck, his son had vanished. Once again there was a search, and this time blood hounds were employed, but there occurred a very mysterious thing: the bloodhounds lost Paul Jepson's scent at the exact spot where Paula Welden had last been seen.

Two weeks later, an experienced woodswoman named Frieda Langer set out on a hike along the Long Trail with her cousin. She disappeared. Again the police and state police were joined by volunteer searchers and a month was spent searching the snow-covered woods, but without trace of Frieda being found. However, several months later, on 12 May 1951, Frieda's body was found, but it was found on an open and easily visible part of the forest; it couldn't have been overlooked by the searchers, yet searchers had overlooked it - or the 'Mad Murderer' had brought the corpse back to the Green Mountains!

On 6 November 1950, a girl named Martha Jeannette Jones disappeared from home. The police were not told for some time because the girl's parents believed that she had run off with a soldier stationed in Virginia. When it was learned that he was as concerned by Martha's absence as were her parents, the police were notified and a search was launched on 12 December.

By this time. however, the 'Mad Murderer' had claimed his seventh victim, a girl named Frances Christman. She had set out to walk five kilometers to a friend's house, but she never arrived. She was last seen on 3 December and nobody has seen her since. Of the seven people who vanished on the Long Trail, it is the case of Paula Welden which seems to have attracted the most attention, being widely reported in the press at the time and still presenting a baffling mystery. Numerous theories have been advanced: she ran away to escape real or imagined troubles at home; she ran off with a boyfriend; or she was the victim of the 'Mad Murderer'.

All are possible, none are proved.

Her disappearance presents a challenging mystery. Bennington College lies in a tranquil 160 hectare campus about six kilometers from the town of Bennington. In 1946, it boasted a student body of roughly 300 girls aged between 17 and 22.18 year old Paula, a soft spoken and polite girl, the eldest of three daughters of Archibald Welden of Stamford, Connecticut, an industrial engineer employed by the Revere Copper and Brass Company, was not a particularly bright student. Her favourite subject appears to have been botany and she often indulged her interest with long, solitary walks/ Police later described her as a blue-eyed blonde, about 1.65m tall and weighing 56kg.

Paula seems to have nurtured a belief that her father cared more for her younger sisters than for herself and resented paying for her expensive education at Bennington College. So far as is known, Paula was not justified in thinking as she did. She seems to have been a sensitive girl and may well have felt dissatisfied with herself as a person. She was no doubt bitten by the same bug that attacks most teenagers: she was 18 years old, neither a child nor yet an adult, and she probably thought a lot about herself on those long walks, her brooding searching introspection breeding a deeper depression that eventually turned her against her one place of security - her home.

Indeed, at Thanksgiving, she refused to return home and spend the four day holiday with her family. Maybe that decision made her feel like a martyr, or maybe it was some kind of masochisticpenance. Perhaps it has an even deeper significance? Paula's problem, whatever they may have been, seem to have been forgotten on Saturday, 30 November 1946, the day before she disappeared. That night, she attended a house party in the students' quarters and appeared in good spirits - she even grabbed the spotlight with an exhibition of Indian wrestling. Had she therefore come to terms with her problems; was she a manic depressive; or had she seen a solution, in running away, to all her cares?

At midday the next day, Sunday 1 December, she turned up for work at the Commons, the Bennington College dining hall where, like several other students, she waited on tables to earn money to help finance her college tuition. At 2.30, she had her own lunch, then returned to her dormitory, where her roommate, Elizabeth Johnson, was studying. Paula did not get out her own books and join her friend, but instead changed into blue jeans and a red parka with a fur-trimmed hood, and announced that she was going for a walk. It was a particularly gloomy day.

The biting rain of the last few days had turned to sleet and the sky to grey, threatening a snowstorm. Very little is known about Paula's movements after she left Elizabeth Johnson. She did not return to the college for her evening waitress duties and still had not put in an appearance by her usual bedtime. This was most unusual and Elizabeth Johnson grew concerned, but she did not want to get her roommate into trouble with the college authorities and so said nothing. By dawn the next day, there was still no sign of Paula and Elizabeth decided to see the Dean.

The Dean suggested that maybe Paula had applied late the previous evening to stay away overnight; it was an unlikely suggestion and a check of the records proved that Paula had not made such any such application. The Dean and Elizabeth Johnson then went to the home of Lewis Webster Jones, the President of Bennington College. He made a cautious telephone call to Paula's parents, thinking that she might have gone home for some reason, but Paula was not at home and her parents could not suggest where their daughter might be.

Lewis Webster Jones phoned the police. First to arrive at the college was Clyde W Peck, the local sheriff. A short time later, he was joined by Almo B Fronzini, a 25 year veteran of the Vermont State Police. They searched Paula's room and Elizabeth Johnson confirmed that all Paula's clothes were there except for those she had been wearing when she left. $8.26 was found on Paula's bureau and an uncashed cheque for $10 was found in a drawer. Paula rarely possessed more money than this, so it must be assumed that Paula vanished with at most very little money and without taking any extra clothing.

Detective Fronzini took charge of the investigation and rushed off to check the local rail and bus stations., thinking that Paula might have had enough cash to buy a ticket. The only interesting shred of information came from the ticket seller at the rail station. On Sunday afternoon, he had sold three hunters tickets to New York city. They had subsequently changed their minds and demanded tickets to Stamford instead. The alteration had caused the ticket-seller to waste considerable time adjusting his records and he therefore clearly remembered the incident.

However, apart from the fact that Stamford was Paula's home town, Detective Fronzini could see no connection between Paula and the hunters other than the coincidence of Stamford.Fronzini returned to Bennington College and joined Sheriff Peck in questioning the students. Had Paula talked about meeting anybody that afternoon? Did she have a boyfriend? Did she have any friends in Bennington with whom she might have gone to stay overnight? Did anybody know of any reason why Paula might have run away? The answer to all their questions was always the same - no.

Paula Welden had not been a particularly inconspicuous figure that wintry afternoon - a lone girl inadequately dressed for the weather, her blonde hair, red coat, blue trousers and white sneakers adding a colourful relief to the drab, rain-misty scenery - but few people had left their firesides that day and only three people came forward to aid the police. An attendant at the garage opposite the gates of Bennington College recalled having seen a girl dressed in red and blue leave the college gates and run up the path leading to a nearby gravel pit. A few minutes later the girl had reappeared, run back down the path and walked on down Highway 67A, which ran outside the college gates.

At about 3.15 that afternoon, a contractor named Louis Knapp, driving home along High-way 67A, saw a girl fitting Paula's description hitch-hiking, and offered her a lift as far as his home, about five kilometers from the Mount Glastonbury entrance to the Long Trail. Knapp and the girl chatted but she restricted her conversations to questions about the Long Trail. According to Knapp, she did not volunteer any information about herself and when Knapp reached his home, she thanked him for the lift and walked away.

Paula Welden - for it is unlikely that two girls fitting the same description were wandering around that afternoon - left Louis Knapp at about four o'clock. She was next seen about thirty minutes later when she stopped to ask directions to the Long Trail from Ernest Whitman, the 73 year old nightwatchman at The Banner, Bennington's local newspaper. From about 4.30 onwards, Paula's movements are unknown. Nobody saw Paula after Ernest Whitman. Nobody, that is, except perhaps the 'Mad Murderer'.

By Wednesday 4 December, en ever-growing band of volunteers had joined the police searching the Long Trail but the weather was hampering the search. It was cold and beginning to snow heavily, and it promised to get worse. By now, few people entertained hopes that Paula would be found alive. It was at this point in the investigation that a new and distinguished character made his entry into the mystery: District Attorney William Travers Jerome Junior, a blood relative of Winston Churchill, whose mother had been Jennie Jerome; Jerome's father had been one of the greatest prosecutors in the legal history of New York City.

Another arrival in Bennington that day was Archibald Welden, Paula's father, who had traveled up from Stamford to be near the heart of the search. That night he gave an interview to several newspaper reporters. "We have not heard from her and have no idea where she could have gone," he said. "She was in a mental snarl at the time." He did not elaborate, nor was he asked to elaborate on what he meant by a mental snarl, but it is probable that he was referring to the problems I have already discussed.

Asked the inevitable question about boyfriends, he replied: "It is true that Paula knew many boys, but they were only chums and accompanied her to socials and dances. I knew none were serious with her." On Thursday 5 December, seven marine aircraft from the Naval Air Station at Squantum, Massachusetts, planned to fly over the search area, but low-hanging clouds soon forced them to return to base. Meanwhile, Detective Fronzini had been questioning the handful of people who lived along the Long Trail during the winter months. The Trail was lined with holiday cottages and cabins, but these were left empty during the winter when their owners moved to warmer climes. Only four families braved the bleak, blizzard-prone Trail during the winter and Fronzini received information from two of them.

The first scrap of information was far from exciting; on Sunday night a truck with New York registration plates thundered down the trail. This was not a particularly rare occurrence and the vehicle had not attracted much attention, but Paula Welden could have been on the Trail at the time and may have accepted a lift. The second lead was more hopeful. A woman walking along the Trail late Sunday night had been forced to step aside to let a maroon hatchback pass by. She had seen a blonde-haired girl in the passenger seat, but had not peered to closely into the passing car because the Long Trail had a reputation as a 'lovers' lane' and middle-aged folk considered it prudent not to stare too closely at the occupants of cars on the Trail at night.

Was Paula the blonde in the maroon hatchback? She had already accepted one lift that day and could have accepted another.That night, William Travers Jerome told newsmen that he had ordered a description of the truck with New York registration plates to be broadcast on the radio and published in the press. On Friday 6 December, thirty-five employees of the Revere Copper and Brass Company arrived in Bennington to help their colleague to search for his daughter. They joined students from Bennington College, boys from nearby Williams College, Boy Scouts, woodsmen, hunters, townsfolk and the police in a massive search of the 13 kilometers of the Long Trail which stretches over Mount Glastonbury.

A reward for information leading to Paula's discovery had been offered. Contributions from the people of Bennington and elsewhere swelled it to such an extent that it became necessary to start a fund. Over the next seven days, the fund reached almost $5,000. Newspaper coverage of the search for Paula Welden increased as the days passed, especially in New York where she was dubbed the 'Blonde Soph', and pressmen began to uncover all sorts of clues, most of them of doubtful reliability.

It was said that two girls had narrowly escaped the clutches of an amorous male on the Long Trail in 1944; it was rumoured that a Bennington man with a dubious reputation did not have an acceptable alibi; and, of course, the disappearance of woodsman Middie Rivers was discussed again. The weather grew progressively worse and eventually not even the prospect of the reward could tempt cold and weary searchers to brave the misery of the bleak, grey, snow-covered Long Trail. The students of Bennington and Williams Colleges were still enthusiastic, but officials were forced to return them to the classrooms, so only a diminishing band of adults remained to comb the LongTrail.

Hope was revived for a while when a pair of panties were founds. It was hoped that they might be Paula's, the first clue to the girl's fate, but the police, by methods that we can only wonder at, established that they did not belong to the missing student and people could only speculate about who it was who had lost them on the wintry Long Trail.

During the search, which lasted for over a week, the Bennington police and the State police fol-lowed up every lead and drew a blank each time. Detective Fronzini, William Travers Jerome and Lewis Webster Jones all reluctantly expressed the belief that Paula Welden was dead. Archibald Welden believed - perhaps clung to the hope - that Paula had been kidnapped, but the absence of a ransom note made this a remote possibility. The police admitted defeat and the search ground inexorably to a halt. A public outcry followed this admission of failure and it was alleged that the Vermont police was adequate and antiquated.

Help was sought from the FBI, but they had no jurisdiction in the case unless or until there was definite evidence that Paula had been kidnapped or murdered, and they were forced to refuse. Governor Dewey of neighbouring New York State was also approached, but he too refused assistance. Governor Baldwin of Connecticut, Paula's home state, was responsive to the appeals, however, and sent two expert detectives to Bennington. Robert N Rundle and Dora C Scoville began their investigation by asking all the witnesses to retell their stories. Nothing new was forthcoming. In fact, nothing new resulted from their investigation.

On Sunday 15 December, Archibald Welden returned to Stamford with his daughter's belongings. He told newspaper men that he would not return to Bennington "unless something important comes up". That night, William Travers Jones admitted that the search had ground to a halt. "All clues have been run down and found unavailing," he said. Detective Rundle, who had interviewed the attendant at the petrol station opposite the gate of Bennington College was satisfied that the attendant had seen Paula Welden run up the path to the gravel pit. Rundle also learned that several people had heard a landslide at the pit at about the same time that Paula was seen heading up the path. Rundle therefore suggested that Paula may have precipitated the slide by attempting to scale the 25 meter bank of the pit.

He was obviously clutching at straws since his theory did not account for the fact that the attendant had seen Paula return down the path from the pit, and that Knapp and Whitman had both met the girl long after the landslide. However Rundle's theory gave the police something constructive to do and that night Distract Attorney Jerome announced that the gravel pit would be excavated the following day.

On Tuesday 17 December, a large mechanical digger slowly headed up the path towards the gravel pit and began its laborious task of sifting. Paula Welden's body was not found and nothing of interest to the investigators was revealed. On 23 December, Stamford radio broadcast a poignant pleas from Archibald Welden to his daughter: "Paula, in just two more days it will be Christmas. If this appeal reaches you, know that we love you. Whatever prompted you to leave us, if you have gone of your own free will, be sure that we can find a better answer to your problems by working on it together. Wherever you are, just pickup the nearest phone and ask for me. You won't need money. Just ask the operator to reverse the charges. I will come for you immediately, wherever you are, and bring you home to your mother and sisters who love you and miss you terribly."

Mr Welden's plea was greeted by silence. Christmas passed and a miserable one it must have been for the Welden family. In May, Archibald Welden returned to Bennington and again organised a search of the long Trail. For two days, searchers plodded through incessant rain and splashed through muddy puddles left by the thawed winter snows in the hope of finding some clue overlooked during the bad weather. Nothing was found. A despondent Mr Welden left Bennington and did not return. He said that he was satisfied that everything that could be done had been done.

The last possible clue to Paula's fate came in the spring when a maroon hatchback was found abandoned in upper New York State. A check with the State Motor Vehicle Bureau revealed that the car had been stolen from Troy, New York, late the previous year. Could that maroon hatchback have been the one with a blonde-haired passenger seen on the Long trail on the day Paula disappeared? Nobody knows. The car bore no clues. What happened to Paula Welden? The mystery deepens when we try to attach some logic to Paula's behaviour that afternoon.

She left the college inadequately dressed for the weather, suggesting that she did not intend to be away for long, and headed up the path towards the gravel pit, indicating that the Long Trail was not her original destination. A keen botanist, Paula was surely familiar with the countryside around Bennington and it seems inconceivable that she was unfamiliar with the Long Trail, one of Vermont's principal attractions, yet she questioned both Knapp and Whitman about the Trail, asking questions to which she surely knew the answers. What explanation is there to this behaviour?

She may simply have changed her mind about going to the gravel pit and could merely have been making polite conversation with Knapp, but setting aside the possibility that she was genuinely unfamiliar with the Long Trail, she had no possible reason for questioning Ernest Whitman. I cannot help but wonder if Paula had a secret assignation that afternoon. Let us suppose that Paula, feeling starved of affection and seeking approval, met a man, one of Bennington's 11,257 residents or one of the summer visitors who holiday on the Long Trail.

This man was probably older than Paula (maybe even married), which would explain why his presence was kept a secret - neither Paula's father nor the college authorities would approve of her association with an older man. At Thanksgiving, when Paula refused to spend her holiday with her parents, Paula's behaviour may not have been out of spite, as her parents thought, but so that she could meet her new friend. Perhaps they talked about running away and starting a new life together. They may well have arranged to meet that Sunday afternoon near the gravel pit, which would explain Paula's high spirits at the house party the previous evening.

Let us suppose that this man grew tired of Paula's attentions or afraid that their relationship would be discovered by his wife. He tried to end their friendship but Paula became upset and maybe made some kind of threat. He back-pedaled, saying that he would arrange for them to runaway together. That Sunday afternoon, he met Paula at the gravel pit and told her to head for the Long Trail and drew attention to herself by asking directions from everyone she met, deliberately laying a false trail. At the entrance to the Trail, they met and drove off together, perhaps in a maroon hatchback. But instead of driving her off to a love nest, Paula's man took her to a hole in the ground.

This is one theory of many. It takes into account the peculiarities of her behaviour that afternoon, but it also assumes a great deal. It may be simpler to assume that Paula, depressed again, went for a walk, heading for the gravel pit, and decided to run away. Maybe she planned to walk the Long Trail, staying overnight in the hikers' huts which line the Trail no more than a day's hike apart. She might even have planned this move, hiding some food and extra clothing at the gravel pit. Maybe she succeeded and is now living, or maybe she fell and injured herself in some remote spot, dying from starvation or exposure. Other theories suggest that she was killed in a hit-and-run driver who hid her body; that she was kidnapped and killed when her abductors grew alarmed by the publicity; or that maybe a homicidal maniac did roam the Long Trail.