Sage Christensen, The Loved One

In 2002, Amherst principal Stephen Myers is accused of making sexual comments to a student, and loses custody of his adopted son. Nine years later, a man named JP Vernazzaro is killed on a Beverly playground. Are the events connected by an awful secret?

Myers had been on the job for only a few months when the school committee gathered on January 15, 2002. Parents waiting for the meeting to begin spoke in hushed voices and circulated copies of a letter that superintendent Gus Sayer had written to the mother of a male student. According to Sayer’s letter, Myers had asked to see the student’s nipple, and had told him that he had a hot tub. The superintendent wrote that Myers had also invited the teenager to go to the movies with him and his adopted son. After the meeting was called to order, parents stood up and expressed their outrage, but no resolution was reached that evening.

News of the scandal traveled quickly through town. Newspaper accounts of Myers’s alleged conduct split the community. Many residents feared for their children and wanted Myers gone. Others stood behind the principal. Petitions supporting Myers were signed by nearly 600 students and 100 teachers and staff members. Myers, for his part, denied any wrongdoing.

As they debated how to proceed, school officials and parents held a series of follow-up meetings that lasted for hours, with participants shielding themselves from television-news cameras. Then, before the school came to any conclusions, Myers resigned on January 21, 2002.

Two weeks later, the Daily Hampshire Gazette published a front-page story headlined “Report Reveals Myers Abused Minors.” The article detailed a 1996 Santa Cruz, California, police investigation in which Myers admitted to molesting two teenage boys.

The police investigation had been launched after a man named Dan Thiel filed a complaint in late 1995. Thiel was 12 years old when he first met Myers. It was 1978, and Myers was the principal of a school Thiel was attending in Carbondale, Colorado. Thiel came from a broken home headed by his overwhelmed mother.

When I contact Thiel for this story, he tells me of a camping trip he says Myers took him on when he was 13. “He convinced me to sleep naked in my sleeping bag,” Thiel, now 45, says. “When I awoke, he was fondling my genitals. I told him to stop and he did. It wasn’t until years later that I realized I’d been molested.” When I ask Thiel why he told the police a different version of this story in 1995 — saying that he was wearing clothes when Myers groped him — he says it was because he was still embarrassed.

Not long after that camping trip, Myers left Colorado and moved back to northern California. Over the next two years, Thiel’s family life deteriorated, and in 1982, when Thiel was 15, Myers offered to take him in. “I lived with Steve for years,” Thiel tells me, “and I probably know him better than anyone. He would do drugs with me, smoke pot, take acid.” Thiel says Myers would also talk about his own troubled past, even sharing that a family member had molested him when he was young.

Thiel says that even though Myers touched him during the camping trip when he was 13, Myers made no sexual advances during the time he was living with him. (Through his attorney, Myers refused my requests for interviews.) Still, Thiel says, “He told me he liked boys. I saw him grooming other boys. For me, there is a sense of guilt and responsibility. My role was that of a beard — like, ‘Look at Dan, my foster son. He’s a good athlete, a good student, gregarious and kind.’ Adults trusted him because of me. I was used on so many levels.” And, Thiel says, Myers seemed to target children from troubled families.

Thiel moved out of Myers’s home in 1986, when he was 19. He decided to go to the Santa Cruz cops in late 1995, when he learned that Myers was foster-parenting a four-year-old Romanian boy he was trying to adopt.

Officers met with Myers less than two weeks after Thiel filed his report. According to the police report of that interview, Myers appeared nervous and fidgety, taking frequent breaks. He admitted there had been an incident with Thiel on a 1980 camping trip in Colorado, but downplayed its severity. He also admitted that in 1991 he and a boy, 15 or 16 years old, had engaged in mutual massage and masturbation for about 30 minutes during a Traveling School trip to South Africa. Myers told police that he used to be attracted to boys between 14 and 16 years old, and that he’d been in therapy for four years. He said his therapist had told him he was “cured” and would make a good parent. The police concluded in their report that it was “apparent” that Myers had molested Thiel and the teen in South Africa, but they couldn’t do anything about it because the alleged incidents took place beyond their jurisdiction.

According to the Santa Cruz police report, the Romanian boy was removed from Myers’s care and placed with another foster family. Six months later, the foster mother contacted investigators to report the four-year-old’s disclosures that Myers had engaged in oral sex and sodomy with him and had watched pornographic movies in his presence. According to police documents, officials were unable to file charges because the foster family was moving out of state and decided they did not want to put the boy through the trauma of a prosecution.

As these allegations were reported in newspaper articles, support for Myers quickly dried up in Amherst. The Massachusetts Department of Social Services opened an investigation, and police officers showed up at Myers’s home and removed Sage in January 2002, three days before his ninth birthday.