The Loved One

In 2002, an Amherst principal is accused of making sexual comments to a student, and loses custody of his adopted son. Nine years later, a man 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.

 

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  • Charles Hurt

    Great article Chris. There is serious issue at the root of this situation: What child would want to report being raped or molested and what parent would want this either? Our statute of limitations has created a barrier of protection for pedophiles and we need to fix this. I suggest a closed door tribunal, where affected adult individuals can present their case to a judge in the presence of the accused. And optionally, those affected present their case collectively. This issue persists because privacy and embarrassment prevent public discussion. Why not provide a forum where these are not an issue while maintaining a fair hearing and legal representation of the defendant?

  • Alice

    It is so maddening that all these victims can’t do anything to Steve Myers because of crazy statutes of limitations. They should be able to gather together and have the law support them in making their perpetrator pay for what he did to them – and all the other victims who are still out there! Why does the law protect these pedophiles?

  • Jennie

    I was a student on Traveling School in the 80’s. Me and other girls on the trip always thought Steve was weird and gave way too much attention to the boys. He hardly talked to us girls at all. And he would have boys give him massages, without his shirt on. It was really gross. He was always creepy. Even though I got a lot of positive personal growth from Traveling School, I’m mad and sad that Steve hurt all these guys and that he’s such a dirty pig.

  • Disgusted

    It’s shocking how many teaching jobs he got. Whether or not criminal charges are brought there ought to be a way to flag sexual predators (even if only alleged) in a database that is only accessible for employers that work with children like schools. Innocent until proven guilty is the law, but asking to teach our children is a public trust that should require extra scrutiny.

  • Former GYA/ TSI student

    Wow. I am a female former student of Global Youth Academy/ Travelling School International in the 90’s. While this all shocks and disgusts me, it in no way surprises me based on what I saw & heard during my three years in the school and the times “on tour” with GYA.

    While I learned a lot and had amazing opportunities to travel, there was always something off about Steve’s relationships with the younger boys on our trips. We would talk about cults and brainwashing in order to convince us we were NOT being brainwashed, but now that I have 15 years of distance, i can see clearly that it was indeed a EST based type of cult in which we believed so strongly in the system that we were trained to report on ourselves when we broke the “agreements” and were able to rationalize Steve’s clearly inappropriate behavior.

    I am incredibly sorry for all the young men whose lives were scarred or ruined by their relationships with Steve and disgusted by our legal system’s inability to prosecute him as a predator.

  • About to puke

    I was a student at Traveling School during two years in the late 90’s. It was apparent to me as a teenager what a warped sicko this guy was. The thing is, he disguised it with his mantra of educating kids and broadening their horizons. Clearly he got into the education field to access boys, and the traveling was a way to separate kids from their families/ environments. During my second year he displayed undisguised hostility towards me when I called him out on many of his issues. He’s in the business of brainwashing kids. When I didn’t follow his rules, he’d pull every trick in the book to put me and others down, from taking away privileges, leaving us on the bus during field trips, and just general meanness in social interaction. I like to think I was smart and independent enough to not fall for his sick games or child traps. I can’t really describe what a creep this guy is in person, the thought of him still makes my skin crawl, and I’m outraged at how many lives he affected with his pedophilia. It’s pathetic that people like this aren’t put away, right away. There’s been evidence of his crimes for decades, and he’s never been convicted? Wow.

  • AnnV

    Thanks for a well thought out article.

    Successful pedophiles choose their victims well, and as it appears Steve chose with great forethought. This grieves me, for he chose to pursue his students, foster kids and then finally adopted children. Orphans. They had no one else o, no one else to ask for help. No aunts, no grandpa, no one. The children were from Russia. So there was a language barrier too. I can’t bear to think on what those children felt under his “care”. It’s cruel, so very cruel.

    Charles H you are right. My son could come forward, but I don’t know if he would. As it would embarrass him. Though he had NO ability to walk away from the abuse, that unwarranted shame shadows his life. I hope charges will be brought against Steve soon.

    I admire those coming forward to press charges, for you are taking steps to stop Steve and protect other children.

  • Robin

    This story saddens me a great deal. For me, attending traveling school was a positive experience and I consider it one of the most formative times of my life. I know of many others who have had similarly positive experiences. It was not until after the school closed that I heard about some of the improprieties discussed in this article, but as far as I know nothing like that occurred during my year or Africa Tour. I personally never felt uncomfortable with him even though I was one of the young boys he favored. When I was homesick and having a traumatic host family experience in South Africa he took me out to dinner and discussed resolutions to the situation, finding me a new host family the next day. Maybe he was “cured” at this point as he had many opportunities to engage in improprieties. I do not condone his alleged acts of pedophilia, but I think it also needs to be acknowledged that he was an amazing educator. The type of personal growth he facilitated was exceptional, as was his ability to reach even the most troubled youth. For all of you who were negatively impacted by Steve, you have my deepest condolences. But I also think he helped more than he hurt. If justice is served in this world or the next, I hope that will be taken into account.

  • Martin Leaf

    LETTER TO THE EDITOR

    I just read “The Loved One,” the article by Chris Vogel in the July 31 issue. As former legal counsel for est, I was pleased to see the est Training mentioned regarding people being responsible for their own happiness and success. The est Training was an enormously popular, sometimes controversial and frequently imitated educational program of the 70s that spawned an entire self-development and coaching industry, and many of its key concepts have earned a lasting place in mainstream culture. Furthermore, it made a huge contribution to the lives of over 500,000 people including government leaders, businesses professionals and revered artists. Top health professionals and academics alike observed and participated in the est Training and agreed that it was a safe, effective and well-designed program.

    Martin N. Leaf, Esq.
    New York, New York

  • http://www.facebook.com/chris.desimone.14 Chris DeSimone

    I did time recently in the Middlesex Jail, Cambridge and Sage is the best kid in there. My heart goes out to his family, you have a good hearted son and he’ll get through this no doubt about it.
    Sincerely,
    Christopher DeSimone

    • http://www.facebook.com/steviet.thatace Stevie Thomas

      I second that chris… I wish these assholes in the court system knew the real sage. Because I’m positive if they did… he’d be found innocent… as he is…

  • http://www.facebook.com/steviet.thatace Stevie Thomas

    I have met a lot of people in my few years I have been incarcerated throughout my life, but as far as I’m concerned Sage is probably the most loyal, genuine person you could possibly meet. He’s just one of those people you just want around you at all times. I wish him and his family nothing but the best come trial, he deserves a shot at life. I won’t say another one because he’s never had a fair chance to begin with… he’s a product of his enviorment but if you knew him you’d know he still refuses to let that defer him from who he really is!… & who he really is is an outstanding person with a heart of gold who wouldn’t harm a sould unless him or someone who he cared for was in immediate danger. He’s always been there for me when I’ve been around him & for that I’ll just say Sage Buddy If You Ever Get To Read This ILove Ya Buddy And Keep Your Head Up!!! Theycant take your soul…

  • richica43

    This story saddens me and its crazy that people viewed Jp so differently from the guy who who used to wipe away my tears hes was the worlds biggest teddy bear but he had pride because of his past… Taking someones life because of a past history is no excuse… Its a great article and gave me chills.. i was never told what happen that night i just remember the heart stopping call that my friend a guy who used to make all thegirls smile and offered to take me and a friend in was gone forever…

  • Manny Sheehan

    sage is the best kid I ever met in jail.i spent 8 months with him in Cambridge jail in 2012,he has the biggest heart I ever seen. he would give u the shirt rite of his back, he has a heart of gold…sage I love you little buddy keep ur head up kid…this system is sooo wrong,sage should of been found not guilty

  • http://supervidoqo.blogspot.com/ Eli

    I attended Traveling school in the late 80’s. At the time, I considered it a great experience – if a bit weird (only later did I learn that what had been going on was based in EST, which I now think is rather creepy. Although the intensity of our discussions did seem to challenge me and get me to examine some of my deeper motivations and actions in life.

    After reading the article, though, I must say I’m not shocked. He did at one point invite me to his house for a walk alone through the forest. I had known other kids who did the same, and I felt a mixture of boredom/awkwardness/pressure from the school culture to “go along” with what now seems odd and improper. He never made any overtures. Apparently I got lucky.

  • AnnV

    Robin, I’m thankful that you did not have any experience with abuse at Steve’s hand. Because of that you have no understanding of the fact that for those he abused there is no scale of balance with help and hurt. Those words carry little value to those that have been hurt.
    A great educator teaches. A great educator inspires. A great educator doesn’t prey upon his students.

    I’ve seen 16 yrs of my son working through his “hurt”. He got a great education and will have a great career. But that abuse is going to impact every relationship he has for a LONG time.

    As this has been reported on over the last couple years, several comments have been made like this. There is no balancing scale for determining value of a teacher once they cross the line and abuse a student. Steve is accused of molesting MANY students. Steve admitted to the Santa Cruz Police Department that he had sex with more than one student in his care.

    At that point he stopped being a great educator. So yes he gave you something great.
    He didn’t steal from you. But that does not make for a great educator. If he had never abused any student, then he’d be a great educator. Being one to be admired. As it is he’s an admitted deviant, who also teaches.

  • Dwhiting

    Martin Leaf, You are a complete heartless idiot to try to propagandize EST after reading this sad article of Pedophilia. Your response just shows me the mindset of EST and people like you associated with it.