The Lost Boys

The small bedroom to the left of the staircase, with its dark green walls and stained gray carpet, is suffocating. It’s the size of a large closet, but that’s not the only thing about it that would make a visitor uncomfortable. On the disheveled twin bed in the corner of the room, where Toby Kerns used to sleep, is a pile of books. Among the titles: Xombies, The Path of Daggers, Legacy of Blood, Vampire: The Complete Guide to the World of the Undead, and Angels & Demons. On a pillow at the other end of the bed is a tattered teddy bear.

On a cluttered shelf in the closet is a terrarium with a rose hair tarantula. Kerns used to be afraid of spiders. He told his girlfriend a bizarre story that cannot be confirmed. When he was younger, Kerns said, his mother locked him in a closet full of spiders to discipline him.

In the adjacent bedroom, there was once a swastika fashioned from duct tape on one wall. The tape has been removed, but its outline remains. Across the room are posters of heavy-metal bands and an assortment of books, DVDs, and PlayStation games. Another boy named Joe Nee sought sanctuary here — in this bedroom, in this rambling, 18th-century Cape off Main Street in Marshfield — after a fight with his father. Nee’s shoes are still in his room at the Kernses’ house, along with a small, pathetic wooden sign that says, “Joe’s Room.” He showed up in early May with all his worldly possessions in five black garbage bags. It was a month-long stay that forever changed the lives of two families and everyone else who lives in this rustic town by the sea.

The relationship between Toby Kerns and Joe Nee shifted like the tide, from friendship to suspicion to rage. On September 16, Nee and two other Marshfield High School students, Dan Farley and Joseph Sullivan, told police officers assigned to the school that Kerns had conceived a plot to slay classmates and school officials using guns and nerve gas hidden in a school locker. The planned date was reportedly on or around April 15, just days before the sixth anniversary of the Columbine High School slaughter in Colorado, in which 15 people died. Kerns, 16, was arrested the following day at his home, where police confiscated hand-drawn maps of Marshfield High in the upstairs bedrooms. They also seized a computer hard drive that had recorded visits to websites about Columbine, places to buy weapons, and material from The Anarchist Cookbook, a primer on how to assemble bombs and wreak havoc.

Within minutes, Denise Lunn — mother of Kerns’s girlfriend, Bethany, and a neighbor of the Nees — raced to the house. Police had alerted her of the arrest. “If these charges are coming from Joe Nee,” she said, “you need to look deeper.”

More than a dozen other witnesses offered similar warnings, and Nee, 18 — son of Thomas Nee, president of the powerful Boston Police Patrolmen’s Association — was arrested on October 18. Farley and Sullivan ultimately modified their stories, with Farley telling police that Nee and Kerns were “equal partners” in the plot but that Kerns seemed to defer to Nee, who appeared to have “the more powerful personality.”

Farley also told police that Nee had recruited him for a group Nee had created to protect students who were being harassed. The group was called the Natural Born Killers. Nee had been taunted many times himself, friends say, and once came to the defense of a gay student who had been picked on. Farley said that when he joined the group, Nee asked him, “What would you do if I shot up the school?” He assumed Nee “was just talking stupidly,” Farley said in a police report filed in Plymouth District Court. However, when Nee told Kerns of his plan to attack the school, Farley told police, Kerns replied, “I’ve been planning on doing that for a while.”

Kerns and Nee have been indicted on charges of conspiracy to commit murder, promoting anarchy, and threatening to use deadly weapons in a school. Both have pleaded innocent. Many close observers believe the plot was just a fantasy, born out of emotional distress. But where Joe Nee and Toby Kerns are concerned, it’s hard to separate what is fantasy and what is reality.

Raised in hard-knuckle sections of Boston before moving with his family to Marshfield several years ago, Joe Nee — the third of Tom Nee’s nine children —
has long been a bit of a loner, a tough kid who craved the attention and affection of his father. He was never popular, fellow students say, but was street savvy, sometimes getting into fights and skirmishes. He had no police record — until now.

Classmates say Nee liked skateboarding, playing video games, and listening to punk rock and German heavy-metal bands. He likes to shock people. He reportedly wore a shirt with a swastika to class. Toby’s father, Ben Kerns, claims Nee wore a T-shirt to a school dance that displayed the date of the Columbine attack. On the back of the shirt in German, Ben Kerns says, were the words “Remember the Heroes.”

Nee recently began wearing dark, Goth clothing and cut his hair short, almost to the skin. According to some, his classmates called him Hitler because of his haircut.

But there was a soft side to Nee, who walked into his former girlfriend’s kitchen last spring and began to cry. “Joe was constantly crying about his dad, about how he wished he loved him,” Danielle Conant, the ex-girlfriend, told the Boston Globe. “He had lots of issues with his dad.”

In contrast, Toby Kerns had difficulties with his mother, Jean Tracy, according to his father. (The two are divorced, and Ben has full custody of Toby and their other son, Andrew; Tracy did not return calls seeking comment.) Toby was in therapy from the time his parents separated, when he was 12. He suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder because of a troubled childhood, his father says, and has taken “mood-stabilizer” medication for years. He is studious, a voracious reader, and never excelled at sports, his father says. He showed little enduring interest in baseball or soccer but attended summer computer camp a few years ago at MIT.

Ben, Toby, and Andrew, who suffers from Down syndrome, moved to Marshfield three years ago. When Toby was young, living in Washington State with his mother, he was obedient to a fault, Ben says. “There was a rule in the house that you couldn’t leave anything [lying around]. You couldn’t wear shoes in the house, and you couldn’t leave any personal items or a toy on the ground.” When Toby was 8, he fell out of a swing at a friend’s house, fracturing his arm. “The bone was sticking out of his arm,” Ben says, “breaking through the skin. Toby raced to get the father of his friend. At the door, he stopped to take off his shoes.”

On another occasion several years ago, Tracy, who now lives in Arizona, reportedly became angry and wouldn’t let Toby into the house after he had stepped in a puddle while walking in the woods. “It was 15 minutes of [Toby’s] being sprayed down with a hose outside in 40- to 50-degree weather,” Ben said in a Boston Herald interview. “Why I didn’t call the police, I’m so sorry to this day.”

There were dealings with the police at the Kerns house even before the school plot was exposed, however. Between 2001 and 2002, Toby was charged with one count of vandalism and two counts of breaking and entering. He was placed on probation, which he was serving at the time of his arrest.

He would write angry, confused diatribes on the Kernses’ home computer. In one, entitled “Tobin’s theory about god,” he wrote: “To find god you do not need to go to church, or pray, or silence yourself for the rest of your life. Who benefits from that? You sure as hell don’t. So what is god? All god is, is just the initials of life. The word god is like the word fuck if you really think about it. Fuck is just the initials for condoned sex. Fornication Under Consent of the King.”

Bethany Lunn says Toby has the letters DOS — for “Disciple of Satan” —
tattooed on his back. He once told his father that a demon helped him with his homework. Ben told him it was an angel. “He looked at Satan as this person who was going to help people,” Lunn says. “His view was that God basically had given up on society. He didn’t understand why God would let the horrible things happen to him.”

Two days after Joe Nee showed up at the Kernses’ door seeking shelter on the night of May 6, Ben Kerns called the Nee home. He says Joe’s mother told him Joe had punched his father and that Joe was the abusive one. “We don’t want him back,” Ben quotes her as saying. “If you don’t want him, throw him out on the street.” Tom Nee declined to be interviewed for this story.

Two weeks after Nee arrived, Ben, a fashion photographer, left home on assignment; a friend stayed with Nee and Ben’s sons. When Ben returned, Nee had shaved his head, and Toby had a mohawk, which he later shaved to the skin. The swastika was on the guest room wall, and Nee was sporting a large swastika on his back and one on his arm, both drawn with a marker.

Ben says he immediately challenged Nee about his views on Hitler. “Joe was talking about how Mein Kampf was the best piece of literature ever written,” Ben says, “and that Hitler had it right. He talked about how we had to stop immigration, that immigration has ruined this country, that there should really just be white people.”

In response, Ben downloaded graphic pictures from the Internet that showed dead Jews in a ditch during the Holocaust. He tore down the swastika from the wall, pasted the pictures in its place, and wrote above them, “Swastikas equal this.” When he checked the following day, he says, the words had been changed to read, “Swastikas equal cleansing.”

Lunn says she, too, heard Nee’s rantings about Hitler and often confronted him about it. “Joe doesn’t believe
that the Jews were ever prosecuted — exterminated — by the Germans,” she says. “We would get into arguments about that and how [he said] Jews were bad.”

Eventually, according to Ben, Toby slid deeper into emotional crisis and began displaying suicidal tendencies. He developed a nervous twitch, snapping his head repeatedly to the side. Ben asked his son in the car one day in late May, “How’s your mental state?”

“It’s crashing down,” Toby replied. “I’ve lost the will to live. I only have 36 more hours.”

Ben says he immediately called a suicide hotline. He took his son to a crisis center in Plymouth the next day, then to his therapist. Days later, after Toby’s mother arrived at the home unannounced to see her other son, Andrew, graduate from a special program at Marshfield High — Ben characterizes it as an unsettling visit for Toby — Ben says he discovered a knife in Toby’s pocket. That night, June 4, Toby was taken by ambulance, under the supervision of the Marshfield police, to the high-security McLean center at Franciscan Children’s Hospital in Brighton for a week of treatment in a lockdown ward. He was then released for three weeks of residential mental-health care at another McLean unit on the grounds of the Veterans Administration Medical Center in Brockton.

Nee, who, according to Ben and Lunn, had left the Kernses’ house to stay with his girlfriend before eventually returning home, visited Toby in the hospital. That afternoon, sitting at a picnic table on hospital grounds, Nee told Toby, “When we get you out of here we’re going to cut your hair again.” Ben, his sister who was visiting from Oregon, and Lunn witnessed the conversation.

“Joe, I like my hair growing out,” said Toby, who appeared to be on the emotional mend.

After the visit, Ben told Nee in the hospital parking lot that he could not visit Toby again. “I barred him from the visitor’s list.”

While Toby was still in the hospital, Lunn drove Nee, her neighbor, to school periodically, and he had disturbing things to say in the car. “Joe mentioned to me that he wanted to blow up people in Boston Common on one occasion,” Lunn says. She never took him seriously. “He tends to lie a lot. He overexaggerates the truth.” As it became clear that Toby was distancing himself from Nee, Lunn says, “Joe began spreading rumors that he was sleeping with me.”

When Toby returned to school at the end of the summer, he confronted Nee. “I hate your fucking guts, don’t come near me again,” Toby told Nee, according to a typed statement Ben says Toby wrote after his arrest. “Someone is going to find out about your plan and I hope you rot in jail you crazy piece of shit.”

The written statement also recounts that Nee, Farley, and Sullivan had warned him that if he talked about the plot to attack the high school, “they would cut my tongue out.”

Weeks later, Nee, Farley, and Sullivan went to police assigned to the school to tell them about the alleged plot. When police arrived on September 17, he was preparing to go to dinner with Lunn, who was in the kitchen. He submitted without a fight.

Toby’s arrest set in motion rounds of recrimination that will likely go on until both youths go to trial sometime next year — Nee in Plymouth District Court, Toby tentatively in juvenile court. Ben went on the offensive, calling school officials, police, reporters — anyone who would listen to his assertion that Toby was not the mastermind of all this. He spoke to Boston magazine for more than 10 hours for this article, even providing a personal escort to Humarock Bridge, which spans the South River, the dividing line between Marshfield and Scituate. Toby had taken his father there while briefly free, pending the assignment of formal charges. He showed Ben epithets spray-painted on the concrete girders beneath the bridge: “Niggers Suck,” “Fuck Cops,” “Kill Mongrals [sic],” and “Naturitch Gebaren Morder” — roughly “Natural Born Killers” in German. Toby said NBK members met there. “Dad, you need to know this stuff,” said Toby .

A short distance away is the Ferry Hill Thicket, a densely vegetated area above the river where there sits a crude rock hearth. There, police allege, Nee and Toby tested a homemade bomb. Farley reportedly told police Nee and Kerns had talked about napalming school hallways before the experiment. The experiment “did not really work,” Farley told police.

The Nees have taken a different approach. Tom Nee told reporters, “There was no Columbine because my son had courage and conviction to seek out a police officer.” Joe’s attorney, Thomas Drechsler, also takes issue with Ben’s version of events. “Whose version are you going to believe?” Drechsler says. “Who knows what went on in there? It’s easy for [Ben Kerns] to say that now, because his son is under arrest, but the facts are that all this physical evidence, all this documentation, is in his house, not Joe Nee’s house. . . . In my opinion, Mr. Kerns has launched this PR campaign, and most of it is trying to distract attention away from the focal point in the case, which is the fact that Joe Nee came forward, not his son, and there is no evidence his son was planning on coming forward. I’m not in the business of proving the case against his son, but I am pointing out that my client is in a much different category because of his efforts to reveal this plot.”

Meanwhile, Toby Kerns sits quietly in his cell, writing letters to Lunn, expressing thoughts Joe Nee may also be feeling: “I cannot believe what has happened to me. I cannot understand how the whole world is all of a sudden looking at me as a monster. . . . I just keep getting hit by life’s fly balls, and the truth has been lost. Lies run rampant.”