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?

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.