NIAGARA FALLS – Dustin and Kyle Mattoon hadn’t seen their mother much over the last decade.
The teenagers last spent Christmas with Terri Lynn Bills in 2009, about four years after they were taken from her custody.
Bills had gotten heavily into partying and drugs, starting shortly after she became involved with a man who had just gotten out of prison. Her drug habit eventually led her to engage in prostitution.
When the teenage boys found out this week that their mother’s mutilated body had been found in an abandoned house on Willow Avenue, some of the details were all too familiar.
That’s because three years ago, there was a strikingly similar situation involving another family member. Loretta Jo Gates, 30, was found murdered in 2012, with parts of her body separated from her torso. Gates was the niece of Dustin and Kyle’s father, Rich Mattoon.
“It feels like they’re going after our family,” said Dustin, 15.
Niagara Falls police had little new to say about the investigation on Thursday, a day and a half after Bills’ body was found in a vacant house at 1129 Willow Ave. by a woman who said she noticed a strong odor while walking by the house.
Police said the body of Bills, 46, had been in the house about a week before it was found, and it had been moved to the house after she was killed.
Though Bills’ head, hands and feet were cut from her body, family members were able to identify her remains because of a tattoo. The tattoo was of three dancing bears, each with the name and birth date of Dustin, 14-year-old Kyle and Nick, one of Mattoon’s two older sons.
On Thursday afternoon a K-9 unit and a dive team from the Niagara County Sheriff’s Office searched areas of Hyde Park and Hyde Park Lake near Duck Island, the same area where some of Gates’ remains were discovered nearly three years ago.
Niagara Falls Police Superintendent Bryan DalPorto said he asked the Niagara County Sheriff’s Office for help.
“It’s really just a matter of turning over every leaf,” DalPorto said. The search was not executed based on a tip, and no evidence was recovered, police said.
The pair of killings involving dismemberment – police have yet to say whether or not the two are connected – has spooked many in the city, particularly because Gates’ killing was never solved.
Yellow police tape surrounded 1129 Willow and the home next door on Thursday. Investigators are expected to remain at the scene for at least several more days as they “process the scene,” said Capt. Michael Trane.
Bills, originally from Ransomville, went to Wilson High School. She worked as a waitress at the former Whistle Pig on Military Road for about 13 years, said Rich Mattoon, who was involved with Bills for about 18 years, though they never married. Bills also had worked at area motels and restaurants.
“She was a beautiful girl,” Mattoon said.
Bills had a “special” laugh, which often involved a snort, her family said. Relatives didn’t think she was even in town recently, having last heard that she was in Ohio. It wasn’t unusual for Bills to be in Niagara Falls one day and someplace different, like in Buffalo, the next, they said.
Bills was aware of her problems and worked to distance herself from her sons, Mattoon said.
At that Christmas several years ago, Mattoon said he searched Bills’ purse for drugs before he let her in the house.
“She knew she was messed up and tried to stay away,” he said.
Mattoon said Bills’ death has been harder to deal with than if she had died another way. An overdose or being attacked by a john seemed like a possibility, he said.
Mattoon, who said Bills “got with the wrong people,” said he had last seen her a few weeks ago in a parking lot on Pine Avenue.
Even though Bills lived a risky lifestyle, she left behind many loved ones, some of whom crafted a memorial of candles and a cross near the house where her body was found.
“She was a caring person,” said Josh Highway, a nephew of Rich Mattoon.
Though she “had her faults,” Highway said, the last thing he had heard was that Bills had been clean for a while.
Police officials said investigators are continuing to talk to people as they work the case, including trying to determine Bills’ most recent whereabouts prior to the killing.
The department also is receiving assistance from the State Police, FBI and Lockport, Town of Niagara and North Tonawanda police.
Bills loved her sons, Mattoon said, and occasionally texted them or saw them at a neighborhood convenience store. He also said she was not a violent person.
“You can only give somebody help that wants help,” he said.