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?

By Chris Vogel | Boston Magazine |

St. Patrick’s Day has started off well enough for JP Vernazzaro. He’s thrown a party, an annual tradition with a couple dozen friends and neighbors gathering for a day of drinking on the front porch of his home on Grant Street in Beverly. Vernazzaro has stayed fairly sober for most of the day, sipping his beer and dancing with his two-year-old nephew. But now it’s 8 p.m., and Vernazzaro has disappeared.

According to family members, Vernazzaro grew up in a dysfunctional home. They say his father, a drunk, would scream at him and throw him across the room into a bannister. When Vernazzaro was 19 or 20, the relatives say, his mother packed up and moved to Florida, leaving him with abandonment issues and a reliance on drugs and alcohol.

Police arrested Vernazzaro nine times from 2001 to 2005. Once, he was caught with marijuana (packaged for sale) and a knife. Another time, he was arrested for breaking and entering. In July 2001 he attacked his eight-year-old niece, Mariah Tower. According to the court report, Vernazzaro dragged the girl by her hair into his house and emerged with a butcher’s knife in each hand, threatening to slit her throat. He received probation. Four years later, police charged him with rape, witness intimidation, and giving alcohol to a minor, but the case was never prosecuted. Somehow, he’s never spent time in prison.

Vernazzaro is also a member of the Underground Backyard Wrestling league, fighting under the name “Johnny Blaze.” The “matches,” which have been uploaded to YouTube, often consist of wrestlers talking smack, hitting each other in the face with industrial-size light bulbs, beating each other with nail-ridden planks, and setting each other on fire.

More recently, though, Vernazzaro has found a calling of sorts. Unable to get work for years because of his criminal record, he’s landed a job working a booth at a traveling carnival. He likes the job. For the first time in his life, he feels like he fits in.

A half-hour after he’s disappeared from his own party, Vernazzaro returns, drunk and screaming into his phone about a fight. According to grand jury testimony, he stumbles into a fence and starts ripping at his shirt. He asks the group whether anyone wants to come with him to the park for a fight. Steven Arroyo, his 25-year-old friend, agrees to join him. Vernazzaro gives his nieces a bear hug and a kiss and tells them that he loves them. Then he heads off with Arroyo for the playground.

As they walk in silence, Vernazzaro amps himself up. His pace quickens. The two friends cross the park’s baseball diamond and see a crowd. Two guys are standing in the middle, both of them short and skinny. Approaching, Vernazzaro slows down and tenses, his hands shaking. Then he tears off his shirt and crouches down into a grappler’s stance.

“Do you really want to do this?” he asks Sage and Adam.

“Are you sure you really want to do this?” one of the teens replies.

Vernazzaro charges, swinging wildly. He misses. Using one hand, Adam wheels the aluminum bat around and smashes Vernazzaro in the skull. The blow sends a loud “ting” through the park, like a batter cracking a line drive. Vernazzaro staggers backward.

What happens next is in dispute. Some witnesses will later tell a grand jury that Sage moves in close and punches Vernazzaro. Sage will tell police that Vernazzaro hits him with a forearm and then falls on top of him. Prosecutors will say that Sage plunges his blade once into Vernazzaro’s lower left back and twice into his chest, piercing his heart — a claim Sage denies.

Vernazzaro somehow snatches the bat away from Adam and, bleeding, wobbles backward. “Who has the bat now?” he says. Then he briefly props himself up with the bat before collapsing onto the grass. He cries out for help. Several people rush to him while Sage and Adam flee, running back the way they came, through the parking lot, across the train tracks, and over to Blaine House. Along the way, they shed their blood-stained shirts. Arriving home, they enter through a side door. It’s 13 minutes past their 9 p.m. curfew.

Adam’s hands are dirty, he smells of alcohol, and he’s bare-chested. He tells the confused staff that he gave his shirt to a girl who was cold. Sage slips into the bathroom and turns on the faucet. When he emerges, his face is flush and he’s wearing fresh clothes. Sage and Adam go outside and sit on the front stoop.

Minutes later, a police cruiser pulls up. In the back are eyewitnesses who identify the two teens. According to the police report, an officer notices that Sage’s hand is injured, covered in dried blood and a bandage. A bloody paper towel is tucked inside his pocket.

Vernazzaro, an officer says, is dead.

 

  • 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.