Last Exit

That's the thing about time bombs. You never know when they'll go off. Alexandra “Ally” Zapp was always up for an adventure. And this night — one of those serene, balmy July evenings that seem to suck the wildness out of Boston's urban jungle — was no different. A casual acquaintance, Dan Scully, had phoned at the last minute and invited her to a charity sunset cruise for Save the Harbor/Save the Bay. “I'm game,” she replied. Zapp was always game — particularly when a charity was involved.

She met Scully, the publisher of Boston Magazine, at 5:30 p.m. under the grand arches of Rowes Wharf for the cruise. Lounging against the boat's rails, they laughed and chatted and sipped cold beers as they skimmed through the sun-speckled water toward the harbor islands. The light shimmered off her cinnamon hair and danced in her brown eyes as she recounted her plans for the near future: The day before, she had left her job at US Sailing in Newport so she could travel to New Zealand for the America's Cup. Later, as they watched the planes flying in and out of Logan International Airport, she told Scully: “That's what I'm going to do next. I'm going to fly planes.” She always had another dream to chase.

After the boat drew up to the dock, the two of them headed to the FleetBoston Pavilion for a concert. Zapp danced in the aisle, laughing at her own eccentric “Dead Head” style. She even got her date dancing to John Mayer songs, grooving to such sappy lyrics as: “I am invincible / As long as I'm alive.”

Scully drove her back to her car a little past 11 and apologized that they hadn't eaten much that night. Zapp laughed and popped open her glove compartment. Half a dozen PowerBars fell out. “And anyway,” she said, “I can always stop at the Burger King on my way back to Newport.”

An hour later, after I-93 had faded into the distance and was replaced by the desolate stretch of Route 24, Ally Zapp did stop at the Burger King rest area in Bridgewater. The overnight shift at the Burger King was busy dicing and frying. One of the workers was Paul Leahy, a repeat sex offender who had racked up 24 convictions in his 39 years. Leahy took a break around 4 a.m. and lurked around the parking lot in his uniform. He shuffled across the asphalt looking for spare change. He puffed on Newport cigarettes. Like other sex offenders, he had little to fear from the ineffective state laws targeting sexual predators. Hopelessly backlogged, the state tracks one out of 20 sex offenders. Of those deemed sexually dangerous, 85 percent roam free in society's midst.

Leahy watched as Zapp walked in her flip-flops through the door that said “Restrooms Open 24 Hours” and into the women's bathroom. Muzak blared over the sound system. When she was done, she flip-flopped her way back to the bathroom door and swung it open. Leahy stood on the other side, a knife clutched in his right hand.

That's the thing about time bombs.

This has been a frightening year to be a woman in Boston. From the busy streets of Brighton to the tree-lined avenues of Brookline to the shadowy alleys of the North End, a spree of late-night assaults has sparked a fear reminiscent of the days the Boston Strangler was at large. Barely 48 hours before Ally Zapp and Paul Leahy crossed paths, an 18-year-old Chelsea woman was gang-raped by two men, bludgeoned, and set on fire. Later, a female real estate agent was attacked by a prospective seller in his home. All of these stories, and the ensuing fear, has prompted scores of women to apply for firearm identification cards, not so they can buy guns, but just to arm themselves with something, anything, from pepper spray to mace, and have a fighting chance should they be next.

Of course, a better solution is a legal system that works.

Paul Leahy grew up with his older brother and sister in a cluster of ranch houses and Capes in blue-collar Abington. The neighborhood kids ran in packs to the corner penny-candy store and around the park, picking teams for impromptu kickball, dodge ball, and baseball games. “We kids thought it was the most boring place on God's green earth,” Leahy's sister, Christine Wiley, remembers.

Paul was the baby. He was immature, his sister says, more sheltered. Their father was a truck driver, their mother a loving, kind woman. They took the kids camping and visiting with relatives. Normal stuff. “We were well fed, we had a roof over our heads, we were loved,” Wiley says. But it wasn't long before her brother began dabbling in not-so-normal stuff.

Leahy dropped out of high school and started drinking, doing drugs, and jamming to Guns N' Roses and Metallica. By the time his mother died suddenly of heart failure when he was 18, he was a junkie. “Whatever was out there,” his sister says, “Paul was doing it.” And he was getting caught — charged with everything from property violations to breaking and entering, from drug possession to making threats, from malicious destruction of property to assault and battery with a dangerous weapon. All within a few short years after his 17th birthday.

In 1984, Leahy's destructive impulses turned sexual. One night he stuck a knife to the neck of a 13-year-old babysitter at his brother's house in Brockton. Leahy forced the girl into the bathroom and rubbed her leg, telling her he would cut her if she tried to run. He served six months in prison. Less than two months after being released, he was back at it. He entered Legion Parkway Pizza in Brockton, went around the counter, put a knife to the neck of a 21-year-old female worker, and forced her into the backroom. He made her put her arms up against the wall and fondled her breasts before pushing her to the floor, ripping off her underwear, and raping her. He was trying to strangle the woman when the doorbell rang and she bit him and escaped. Leahy pleaded guilty to aggravated rape and served 13 of the 8- to 15-year sentence. Even in prison, however, he couldn't control himself, accosting a female guard, guzzling home brew, punching out the light in his cell, and slashing his wrists in a suicide attempt. None of that prevented authorities from releasing him in 1998 without probation. No one was watching him as he moved into his sister's house in East Bridgewater. Some days he worked construction; most days he did nothing. “He didn't seem on an even keel,” his sister says. “It was like having a third teenager in the house.”

In May of 2000, Leahy was busted for drunken driving and placed on probation. Three months later, he offered to buy two girls — 13 and 14 years old — a pack of cigarettes. He lured them into the woods, lit a joint — he'd been high all day — and told the 13-year-old she was cute. Then he asked her for a blowjob. She ran away crying, and Leahy was convicted of accosting her and violating his probation. He went back to prison. This time, his criminal past did catch the attention of the Plymouth County District Attorney's Office. Prosecutors filed a petition to keep Leahy locked up as a sexually dangerous person under a civil statute meant to keep violent sexual predators off the street.

It was denied.

Superior Court Judge Richard Chin threw out the case, saying prosecutors failed to prove Leahy was dangerous. The DA persisted, asking a forensic psychologist to submit a report about Leahy to bolster their case. “There is a serious risk of his again using a potentially lethal weapon with other females in the future,” that psychologist, Ira Silverman, wrote. The judge agreed to hear the case, although the DA was sure it would be dismissed. Asking a 13-year-old for a blowjob is not on the list of sexually delineated offenses spelled out in the law.

Even as the lawyers argued over Leahy, he was released from prison and moved back in with his sister. She and her new husband, Mark Wiley, supported him, buying his cigarettes and shelling out court costs. “He didn't seem to have a sense of the overall picture, an understanding that if I do this, that is the consequence,” Wiley says. He did, however, cook and clean, mow the lawn, and care for their two greyhounds. Eventually, he landed a late-night shift at Burger King. When Mark Wiley drove him to work the night of July 17, Leahy seemed excited. It was payday, and he'd be getting his driver's license and a car within a week.

That's the thing about time bombs.

Alexandra Zapp was tucked into her little red plaid coat and little red plaid hat, holding her little red Scooby-Doo lunch pail and waiting for the bus for the first day of pre-K. The other four-year-olds were crying. Ally was smiling. She marched onto the bus and never looked back. “She just loved adventures,” her mother, Andrea Cassanova, says. Ally was an itty-bitty girl but always vibrant, vivacious, and busy, busy, busy. Her younger sister, Caroline, laughs as she remembers their first ski class as tykes at Sun Valley. “She was a total hot-dogger. She was so teeny, and there she was, in a full tuck cruising straight down the mountain, catching air. One hundred percent balls out. She was a rascal, totally mischievous.” Her mother would find her with her little fingers sticking out of the laundry chute. She had climbed in and was just dangling. “It was there; she had to investigate,” Cassanova says.

She also had a fertile mind. She started reading early — even newspaper editorials — and, one day, after Ally had devoured Charlotte's Web, her mother went down to the basement and was snared in a massive maze. “She had taken yarn and gone from doorknob to doorknob, and this entire room was Charlotte's web,” Cassanova says.

Ally and her younger sister were inseparable. They would lie in their bedroom at night, gaze at a tower atop a nearby hill, and make up stories about it. Even though her parents separated when she was young, it was a childhood marinated in love and rooted in a friendly, wealthy neighborhood in southwest Portland, Oregon, where the kids could frolic with their old English sheepdog and three cats.

Although Ally had loads of friends and coasted through school, it was always a challenge for her because “she was such a bright little monkey,” her mother says. Feeling unchallenged, Ally decided to leave home and attend Miss Porter's, a boarding school in Connecticut, and her family agreed to send her there for her junior and senior years of high school. When she graduated in 1990, she returned home, to the University of Oregon, to be closer to her family. At college, she would leave cute messages on her sister's answering machine — Ally and her friends at a bar singing “Sweet Caroline” into the receiver. But she was ready for a new adventure, and in 1994 she took a publishing job at Little, Brown in Boston. She was on a plane east five days later.

With her nuclear smile and boundless energy, 22-year-old Ally Zapp took Boston by storm. She had a gazillion jobs — selling stationery at Crane, waitressing at the Rattlesnake, helping a high-tech startup, working with an interior designer. Her favorite was her job at the nonprofit Massachusetts Sports Partnership, where she could meld her love for community service with her passion for sports. She quickly became then-president Soosie Lazenby's right-hand woman — tackling thankless jobs with old-world grace. When she learned Lazenby was lagging on her industry reading, Ally read it for her and e-mailed the highlights — even after leaving the job. She volunteered for charitable organizations — the French Library, the Boston Ballet, and the Courageous Sailing Center, among others. But she wasn't a socialite, implying as it does a partygoer for the party's sake. She cared about the missions. It was her credo: The more you give, the more you get back.

What Ally got back certainly could not be measured in her bank ledger. “The girl never, ever had money,” her mother says, laughing. Though her family was well off — and well connected — she preferred working second and third jobs, to be resourceful rather than take handouts. Besides, the girl couldn't sit still. If she wasn't racing sailboats, she was whipping up gingersnap cookies. If she wasn't sewing elaborate gowns with matching purses (never, ever in black) she was writing thank-you notes on beautiful cream-colored stationery.

Ally was the type who could walk into a room and strike up a conversation with anyone. It didn't hurt that she could expound on almost any subject. Her sister called her Encyclopedia Brown; her friends say they needed a dictionary to keep up with her. But she was no pretentious, brainiac do-gooder. “As elegant as my sister was,” says Caroline, “she loved fart jokes.” One time, while she was cheering on the Oregon Ducks football team in a bar, the bartender turned to Ally and said: “Young lady, if you don't stop cursing, I'm going to have to ask you to leave.” She was at home in a ball gown or a baseball hat scarfing down grits at Mike's City Diner.

Ally and her new roommate, Tori, called it the Preppy Party. They invited friends to their carriage house in Newport and told them to dress in, say, L.L. Bean snowflake sweaters. They served pink-and-green Jell-O shots. It was a hoot. Ally had moved to Newport a year earlier, in February of 2001, to take a job with US Sailing. She never really left Boston, though, returning for her charity work in a beat-up Jeep she drove into the ground. Still, it took her no time to create a new family in Newport. She knew everyone: the restaurateurs, the kids in the sailing program, the priests at her church.

Then, in June, she decided to chase the ultimate job in sailing: working on the America's Cup in New Zealand. She called home in a rush of excitement. Ally didn't even have a job yet but knew she'd find one. Her mother couldn't resist her enthusiasm — until she looked at a map and saw how far away New Zealand was. She burst into tears. The two were best friends, speaking several times a day — Ally even had a special ring on her cell phone for her mother's calls. They had gotten matching computers so they could e-mail daily. Ally finished her job on July 15. Two days later, she drove to Boston for the charity harbor cruise.

As Ally swung open the bathroom door at Burger King, Leahy ambushed her. Knife in his right hand, he shoved her back into the pink-tiled restroom.

Ally fought. Fought hard. She bit his fingers when he clamped them over her mouth. She scratched his forearms when he put her in a chokehold. She head-butted him. She kicked. She clawed. She screamed. But it was useless: He weighed twice as much. And he had the knife. He wielded it like an ice pick, slamming it into the right side of her neck, which he punctured half a dozen times. He jammed the blade into her chest six times. He stabbed her chin. He sliced her left arm, wrist, and the back of her right hand. Blood covered the floor. Finally, Ally stopped moving. She lay still, her eyes open, staring lifelessly up at her killer's face. Leahy dragged her body to the third stall. He left her on the toilet seat, her head wedged into the corner, her bottom on the edge of the rim, her legs splayed with her toes pointing out. Her hair was matted with blood, her lower jaw ajar. Blood pooled in her mouth. Her white shirt with embroidered flowers and seersucker pants were coated with it. Rivers of blood flowed down her arms and legs, forming lakes on the floor.

In the nearby men's room, off-duty state police Lieutenant Stephen O'Reilly had heard Ally's last muffled scream. Then two thumps. Then water rushing out of a tap. He crept to the women's room door, where he saw red puddles. His gun drawn, O'Reilly stepped inside. He saw the blood-covered floor and bloody handprints on the stalls and walls. Leahy stood beside the sink, a crazed look in his eyes.

“What's going on?” O'Reilly shouted.

“I lost it,” Leahy answered. “I lost it.”

The sky was clear, and the water, sparkling. Sailboats glided by Pier 4 in Charlestown where friends from all over the country — all over the world — had gathered. Alexandra Zapp would have loved that day. Champagne flutes clinked, Grateful Dead tunes played. People were decked out in their preppy best — Lilly Pulitzer ensembles and pink and yellow getups. No mournful black, for they were all there to remember Ally. Goofy stories were told. Touching memories hung in the air. Cassanova read St. Theresa's prayer — “May you use those gifts that you have received, and pass on the love that has been given to you” — which Ally had sent to her and Caroline less than two months before she was murdered. At the end, they tossed flower petals into the water, yelling, “Go, Ducks!”

There would be two more services for Ally, in Newport and in Portland, each a bittersweet mixture of hilarious Ally stories cleaved through with horrified shock. Through it all, Andrea Cassanova wore a smile. Tears streaked down her soft face, but she was determined to soak up the joy her daughter had brought to so many lives. “I could have gone underground,” she says. “But Ally would have kicked my butt out of bed.” Instead, she channeled her grief and rage into trying to fix a system that had cut loose such a dangerous predator.

As Leahy pleaded not guilty to the murder, Cassanova and her second husband, Steve, set up an office at the Fairmont Copley Plaza Hotel. They talked to Plymouth County District Attorney Timothy Cruz and the Sex Offender Registry Board. They read everything they could about the law. What they found was a sex-offender registry that is hopelessly backlogged.

Of 18,000 convicted sexual offenders in the state, only 1,000 had been registered — and since the legislature gutted the registry's budget one day after Ally's murder, there seems little prospect for improvement anytime soon. Ally's mother found endless red tape involved in simply classifying a sexual offender as Level One, Two, or Three. They learned how a sexual offender can appeal that classification. They discovered that, in contrast to many other criminal offenses, sexual offenders face no minimum mandatory sentencing guidelines and, once incarcerated, are not required to attend rehabilitative programs. They learned that possession of kiddie porn and forcing children into prostitution do not fall under the Sexually Dangerous Persons statute. And they found that judges deciding whether to keep deviants locked up under that statute can do so only if that person is serving time for a sexual offense. “It's enough to make you pull your hair out,” Cruz, the DA, admits. Only 15 percent of those labeled sexually dangerous have been committed.

Andrea Cassanova is determined to make changes. “I have nothing to do for the rest of my life,” she says, “than honor my daughter and work on this.”

Ally's family gathered on top of Windy Hill in Portland. It was her birthday — August 24, a little more than a month after her murder — and this is where Ally used to fly kites. So today her family members would fly kites and plant a dogwood tree and flowers. They released ladybugs; Ally loved ladybugs, making wishes whenever one would fly off her hand. They made wishes, too.

Before Ally's body was cremated, her sister dressed her in white leather shoes — “Since it was before Labor Day, I thought that was okay,” she says — and, of course, a Lilly Pulitzer dress. Caroline picked out the pink shift with lobsters embroidered on it and bought herself one with a similar print. Her relatives put a hibiscus flower in the casket along with letters to Ally, a Miss Porter's sweatshirt, University of Oregon sweats, and her favorite stuffed animal — a koala bear she'd had since grade school.

“Since she was always in several places at once, we're going to spread her ashes in a bunch of different places,” her sister says. “No matter how many years it takes.”