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?

As Sage and Adam approach Balch Park, news of the impending fight has spread. When the two teens walk through a small parking lot and into the playground, set against a hardscrabble backdrop of North Shore row houses and car dealerships, they’re met by a crowd of spectators on the lush open grass. Standing with the onlookers is Sage’s ex, Melissa Hicks.

Sage and Adam ready themselves, but several minutes pass with no sign of JP Vernazzaro. Sage scans the park. At last, Vernazzaro’s hulking figure flashes under the lights of the basketball court. Seconds later, he’s gone again, disappearing into the shadows as he crosses the unlit baseball field and heads for the group that awaits him.

On the playground grass, Sage and Adam steel themselves. The aluminum bat leans against Adam’s leg. Sage has the knife.

 

After being taken from Myers, Sage spent the next three years in a blur of foster homes. Myers fought for custody, spending more than $300,000 on attorneys and eventually filing for bankruptcy, but was ultimately unsuccessful.

In June 2005 Sage was adopted by Dean Christensen and Jane Olingy, a married couple in Wilmington. He became Sage Christensen, his third name in 12 years. A social worker told his new parents about his rough upbringing in the Ukraine and about Myers. Sage, they were informed, had recently torn up every picture he had of Myers. “When he first moved in with us,” Jane tells me, “he made sure the doors were locked 24/7, even during the day…. He told us there was always the shadow of a man outside of his window.” At times, Sage went to bed with a knife under his pillow. He had frequent nightmares, and woke his new parents in the middle of the night with his screaming in Russian. Sage’s parents say that he was generally outgoing and playful, but became quiet whenever the subject of Myers arose.

Still, the couple fell in love with the 12-year-old’s teasing sense of humor, quick mind, and desire to be part of a family. Olingy calls their first three years together “the honeymoon.” But when Sage hit puberty, the trouble started. Small and skinny, Sage was picked on. A girl shoved him into a locker during his first day at middle school. Bigger students bullied him. “We told Sage that if you start a fight, we won’t support you,” Christensen says. “But you have to stand up for yourself.”

And Sage did begin to hit back, which led to suspensions and after-school meetings with the assistant principal. By the eighth grade, he was staying out late and becoming increasingly depressed and defiant. The bullying at school continued, and he started writing rap lyrics and poetry, all of it dark and filled with themes of suicide. When Christensen took Sage to Niagara Falls, Sage, remembering that he’d been there with Myers, withdrew into an almost catatonic state and wouldn’t leave their hotel room. “Sage was terrified,” Christensen tells me. “He didn’t want to talk about anything.” Christensen believes there is something “that must have happened that we still don’t know about.”

In the ninth grade, Sage’s nightmares got worse. He began skipping school regularly, and his grades plummeted. A lifelong neat freak, he stopped showering and withdrew from the family. He stayed up until 3 a.m., escaping into the world of Xbox. Finally, in October 2008, Sage’s psychiatrist told Olingy to take him to Somerville Hospital for a two-week evaluation at the acute-care unit for teens. Sage agreed to go as long as he could take his Xbox. If he hadn’t consented, Olingy says, she and her husband were prepared for a last resort: calling an ambulance.

At the hospital, Sage was diagnosed with a raft of psychological afflictions, including depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and reactive attachment disorder, which is characterized by the inability to fit into a family dynamic. Reactive attachment disorder is rare, but psychiatrists say it’s fairly prevalent in children adopted from Eastern Europe in the early 1990s.

From Somerville, Sage was transferred to McLean Hospital, where he spent more than a month. When he moved back home and started school again, he quickly returned to his old demeanor: defiant, angry, withdrawn, and depressed. He said he couldn’t work out his issues while living at home in a family structure, so he and his parents decided that he would become a ward of the state.

The Department of Social Services placed Sage in the Brandon School & Residential Treatment Center in Natick. A year and a half later, he completed the program and was given the option of moving back in with his parents or finding another residential program while he finished high school. He settled on living at a home run by the Supporting and Assisting Independent Living program in Beverly, nicknamed the Blaine House.