It takes compassion and a genuine desire to help people to work with the homeless community – and Joseph Shaw had those qualities and more. He’d been homeless himself, so he knew how tough it could be. Joseph had worked in the construction trade but he was a natural people person who wanted to help those in need, so he was a regular volunteer at homeless shelters in Brockton, Massachusetts.
He was always looking out for vulnerable people and took the time to sit down with them and talk through their problems. Everyone noted how the 44-year-old instinctively knew when people needed assistance.
It was through his volunteering that he met Kathryn Podgurski in 2017. The 33-year-old was homeless but after they started dating, she moved into Joseph’s apartment. Those who knew Podgurski said she was nice but she had a temper.
After they had been living together for a few weeks, Joseph’s family grew concerned that they hadn’t seen him for a few days. He had three children from a previous relationship and he was unlikely to just disappear without telling anyone.
On 17 July, they reported Joseph missing. As police made their enquiries, no one could think where he had gone.
When family went round to his third-floor apartment, Podgurski wouldn’t let them in. Other times when they turned up, there would be no answer – and on one occasion, Podgurski started to cry and said she didn’t know where he was.
The community pulled together to look for Joseph. Then, on the night of 21 July, the police had a call from a relative of Podgurski. They had some shocking information they wanted to share that potentially explained why he had vanished.
The informer claimed that Podgurski had sent them a text saying two men looking for money and drugs had gone to Joseph’s apartment to rob them. They said Podgurski claimed the raiders had killed Joseph for making too much noise and then demanded that she clean up the blood and hide his body.
The concerned relative sent police to the Elm Court Hotel, where Podgurski was apparently hiding out. When officers went there she was nowhere to be found inside but as they left she flagged them down in the street.
Podgurski told the officers to go to Joseph’s apartment – and said they needed to look in the wardrobe.
Stabbed over 42 times
The first thing the police noticed as they approached Joseph’s apartment was the strong stench of a decomposing body. Inside, they found his remains, shoved in the wardrobe. He had been buried under several items of clothing, some bedding and a chair.
He had also been covered in cat litter – presumably an attempt to absorb the seeping body fluids and combat the foul odour. It was a truly horrific discovery.
Joseph had been stabbed more than 42 times and then partially dismembered. Officers couldn’t find one of his lower legs and an arm. It was clear he had been dead a significant length of time and he had to be identified by his tattoos.
The mattress on the bed had been turned over and there was a significant amount of blood soaked into it, as though Joseph’s body had been lying on it while bleeding heavily.
Investigators had a complex case on their hands. Who had broken into Joseph’s home? Why had they targeted him? And despite Podgurski claiming she was terrified that the attackers would come back and kill her if she talked, why hadn’t she called the police? Why, instead, had she been living with her boyfriend’s corpse for a week?
Joseph’s devastated loved ones held a candlelight vigil for him outside his apartment. He’d given so much to others – and now he’d been murdered in his own home. There were personal messages of grief and mourners gathered to pay their respects.
From the start, it was clear that Podgurski would face legal consequences of some form for her actions. She should have reported the attack, so she was charged with accessory after the fact of murder.
But as the case was investigated, there was no sign anyone else had been at the apartment and no sign of a break-in. The attack and Joseph’s injuries also seemed unnecessarily brutal for a spontaneous killing during a robbery – instead, they had the hallmarks of a personal attack.
Claims started to come in that Joseph and Podgurski were unhappy in their relationship. A police report stated that a witness recalled Joseph had told them Podgurski was pregnant and he wasn’t happy about it. There was, however, no evidence she’d been pregnant.
Family’s grim discovery
There were other witnesses who said they had heard arguing, while one claimed Joseph had told Podgurski he wanted her to move out.
Later that month, Podgurski appeared in court, where she was charged with murder and held without bail. The prosecution said there had been no “botched robbery” and accused her of killing Joseph and trying to cover it up.
When the court was told the gruesome details about how Podgurski had butchered Joseph’s body, it was the first time some of his family had heard of him being mutilated. It was so distressing for them that many ran from the court crying.
After the harrowing hearing, relatives went to Joseph’s apartment to collect some of his things. While they were there, Joseph’s niece Jacinda Shaw spotted a backpack that had blood on the zipper. She noted it was heavy as she lifted it and put it on the bed. Peering inside the backpack they found, to their utter horror, Joseph’s missing lower leg.
“When I opened the bag, his foot popped out,” Jacinda told local media. “There was another bag that we assume was his arm. We couldn’t figure out why the police didn’t find it. It was in plain sight.” Joseph’s body parts were sent to the medical examiner’s office and the police department was criticised for not searching the crime scene thoroughly.
In December last year, Podgurski finally went on trial. She had pleaded not guilty, which meant that it was up to a jury to decide whether she had been telling the truth about the mysterious attackers.
The prosecution told the court that Podgurski was the one who had stabbed Joseph repeatedly, mutilated his body and then hidden it in the wardrobe.
The medical examiner said Joseph’s lower left leg had been severed below the knee while his right arm was severed below the elbow.
They determined that none of the stab wounds would have been a fatal blow and it was more likely that Joseph “bled out”. It meant there had been a chance of him being saved if Podgurski had called for help.
Instead, she had used cat litter to absorb the blood pouring from her boyfriend’s body and used disinfectant to try to cover the smell.
Relatives had even heard Podgurski spraying something before she opened the door to them while they searched for him.
The prosecution said she had dismembered Joseph because she was trying to dispose of his body piece by piece.
At the end of the five-day trial, the jury deliberated for 15 hours before finding Podgurski guilty of first-degree murder.
In the same month, Podgurski, now 38, was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. She continued to insist she was innocent – so Joseph’s family will never know why she killed him.
They must simply live with the knowledge that kind-hearted Joseph met the cruellest and most gruesome end at the hands of one of the people he had tried to help.