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Police had to sift through tangled family ties to solve a big murder in a little town in 2011.
"Homicide" wasn’t a word often uttered around the likes of Bridgeville, Delaware, a small town in Sussex County dotted with familiar faces and apple orchards. But that changed on Nov. 30, 2011, when officers with the Delaware State Police were called to do a welfare check on 61-year-old John Charbonneau, a man with a heart condition who lived alone in the outskirts.
There was no sign of Charbonneau at his home, but police took notice of a pile of tires in the backyard that seemed to be out of place. Investigators dug through the dirt and came upon a bound body wrapped in bed linens. They wondered, was it the body of John Charbonneau?
But then, authorities found a wallet on the body, with identification that didn’t belong to the homeowner. Instead, it belonged to a man named Billy Sproates, who disappeared several weeks earlier from Magnolia, Delaware, some 30 miles away.
Was the body that of John Charbonneau or Billy Sproates?
William “Billy” Sproates was raised in rural Magnolia, working the farms for as long as the day allowed. He grew up to become a worker in the sawmills, a man who kept to himself through the live-long workday. But Cupid’s arrow struck, and in 1997, a woman named Linda came into Billy’s life.
“When Linda Lou come along and started batting eyes at him, he sort of took ahold of that,” Billy’s brother, David Sproates, told "Buried In The Backyard," airing Thursdays at 8/7c on Oxygen. “The next thing I know, my brother married her. That was the first girlfriend he’d ever had in his life and he was stuck like glue.”
But on the morning of Oct. 18, 2001, Billy failed to show up to meet his brother for a deer-hunting excursion. David grew concerned, and when David called Linda, she claimed she hadn’t seen Billy in weeks and that the pair separated.
In fact, Linda said Billy was off with another woman.
David filed a missing persons report with the State Police. When they interviewed Linda, she said she was staying with her ex-husband, as she and Billy dealt with struggles in their marriage. Linda and Billy eventually reconciled, she said, but when she returned to the marital home, he was no longer there. Instead, she said, Billy had left a note stating he’d left Linda for a younger woman.
“In speaking to Billy Sproates’ family, there was suspicion that something was really wrong,” said Delaware State Police Sgt. Pete Fraley. “We had to find out who this woman was.”
The pursuit of the mystery woman led to nowhere, and there was little-to-no movement in the case.
Weeks later, officers got the call to do the welfare check for John Charbonneau in Bridgeville, Delaware, where they found the body of a man in a shallow grave. The medical examiner concluded it was missing man Billy Sproates, who was bound with his hands tied behind his back. He sustained blunt force trauma and multiple stab wounds to his upper body and head.
More terrifying was that Billy’s cause of death was asphyxia and dirt found in his lungs in the post-mortem examination proved he was buried alive.
“He didn’t deserve this,” said David Sproates. “He didn’t deserve any bit of this.”
Inside John Charbonneau’s home, detectives found the curtains had been taken down and the cabinets were stripped from the walls. What happened there?
When officers revealed the tragic news to Billy’s wife, Linda, they were taken aback by what she said next: Billy Sproates was John Charbonneau’s nephew.
But that wasn’t all — Linda was also married to the Vermont-born John Charbonneau before she married Billy.
“I was pretty upset over it,” said David Sproates of the union. “But they were happy.”
David Sproates told "Buried in the Backyard" that John Charbonneau also wasn’t happy about Billy and Linda’s relationship. After all, John and Linda were together for nearly 20 years, and he helped raise Linda’s daughter, Melissa Rucinski, as his own.
As authorities continued to search for John Charbonneau, they questioned his stepdaughter, Melissa Rucinski, and Melissa’s boyfriend, Willie “Tony” Brown. Melissa and Tony said John Charbonneau was away for jury duty, which checked out, but John’s movements thereafter remained unknown.
Investigators wondered if Billy and Linda’s marriage was a motive for murder. Linda did tell police she was staying at her ex-husband’s apartment before deciding to return to Billy Sproates to reconcile. That was when she allegedly realized he was gone.
“She said John Charbonneau was upset about her moving back with Billy Sproates,” said Keith Marvel of the Delaware State Police. “And that he may be responsible for what happened to Billy.”
The investigation turned upside down when detectives found movement in John Charbonneau’s bank accounts. When reviewing video footage from ATM transactions, they found his stepdaughter, Melissa Rucinski, using his bank cards.
Soon after, Melissa and her boyfriend, Tony Brown, moved with Linda into the Sproates home. Authorities obtained a search warrant in December 2001and what they found was alarming: There was blood stained on portions of the ceiling, walls, windows, and floor molding in the Sproates’ kitchen. Outside, investigators also found blood spatter on the seats of Linda’s van.
It would take months for investigators to get the results of whom the blood belonged to.
“Billy was dead,” said David Sproates. “But where was Uncle Johnny?”
There was no sign of John Charbonneau for months, and the case began to cool until investigators with the Delaware State Police received a call from an inmate in a Delaware state prison.
Sgt. Fraley told "Buried in the Backyard" that John Rucinski, Melissa’s ex-husband, saw news of Sproates’ murder from prison, where he was serving a sentence for burglary.
“He said that Melissa and Linda Lou had propositioned him about killing John Charbonneau,” explained Fraley.
John said Melissa and her mother planned to scare John Charbonneau into having a heart attack before hitting him in the head, resulting in his death. The source claimed Linda Lou planned on collecting John Charbonneau’s disability checks after his death. John refused to help Melissa and Linda with the diabolical plot.
Finally, in the spring of 2002, investigators got the results from the blood found inside and outside the Sproates home. Lab tests concluded that Sproates’ blood was found inside the kitchen, while John Charbonneau’s blood was found inside Linda’s van.
More and more, John Charbonneau appeared to be a victim in the investigation. But although Linda Charbonneau, Melissa Rucinski, and Tony Brown were all persons of interest, there wasn’t enough to arrest them for murder.
Finally, Melissa confessed during interrogation. She told authorities that on Sept. 23, 2001, her mother planned to leave John Charbonneau’s side door unlocked so that Tony could enter, pretending to be a burglar. According to Melissa, Linda watched Tony beat John to death when he went to investigate the staged break-in.
John's last words were to his former wife when he asked, “Linda, are you going to let him do this to me?”
Melissa said her mother masterminded his murder to cash in on his checks.
“It was heartbreaking to know his last moments in life were like that,” said Ronda Jefferson, host of the "Danger on Delmarva" podcast. “And finding out Melissa was involved just took it to another level because John did love her so much.”
Tony and Melissa drove John Charbonneau’s deep into the woods and buried him. The murderous trio then began moving John’s things into the Sproates’ home, prompting Billy to ask what happened to his uncle.
That was when Linda said Billy Sproates had to die. The three of them participated in Billy’s murder before taking him to John’s home, for no other reason than they didn’t want to bury him that close to the Sproates’ residence.
That was where they buried Billy Sproates alive.
Tony, who was behind bars on a parole violation, corroborated Melissa’s story. On July 2, 2022, as captured on video obtained from "Buried in the Backyard," Brown led authorities to John Charbonneau’s buried body in the woods of Millsboro, Delaware.
Authorities had little physical evidence tying Linda Charbonneau to the murder. They relied on her daughter, Melissa, to testify against her mother in exchange for a 25-year sentence for second-degree murder.
Ultimately, Linda Lou Charbonneau was found guilty of two counts of first-degree murder. She was the first woman to be sentenced to death in the state of Delaware since 1935.
Because of a technicality, Linda’s case was overturned. She was retried and re-sentenced to 20 years for only John Charbonneau’s murder.
“We were upset about that,” said David Sproates. “Very, very, upset,”
David Sproates reflected on the lives of both his uncle and his brother.
“Uncle Johnny was a really, really intelligent man. He was good with a pen, he was good with a pencil, he would draw anything you ever wanted. He was a good person,” he said. “And Billy was the kindest person that you ever wanted to be around. We argued, we laughed, and had good times together. I’m 66 years old. He would be 67. We would still be hunting together. We would still be fishing together, doing things that brothers are supposed to do with their life. I miss him.”
Linda Charbonneau is scheduled to be released from prison in July 2022. Melissa Rucinski is expected to be released in April 2024.
Tony Brown continues to serve his life sentence at the James T. Vaughn Correctional Center in Smyrna, Delaware.
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