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?

Sage Christensen

Sage Christensen. (Photo Illustration by Josue Evilla)

Sage Christensen hurries across the railroad tracks toward Balch Park. It’s St. Patrick’s Day 2011, and Sage is wearing a dark-green T-shirt that nearly matches the color of his eyes. As he makes his way down a narrow side street under the glow of the almost-full moon, his heart is hammering inside his chest. He’s just 5-foot-7 and around 120 pounds, but he’s on his way to a fight.

Two hours earlier, Sage had been hanging out with his ex-girlfriend Melissa Hicks and his friend Adam Martin, both fellow residents of the Blaine House, a rickety two-story Victorian in Beverly that operates a program for troubled teens who are working toward independent living. Melissa is 17, a pretty girl with light-brown hair, fine-boned features, and almond-shaped eyes. She and Sage, who’s 18, had recently broken up, but she’d convinced him to come to a friend’s apartment for a St. Paddy’s Day get-together. Adam, 17, had tagged along.

At the party, Melissa and Adam drank heavily from a bottle of raspberry Smirnoff, though Sage, at least by some accounts, took it easy. Melissa had gotten the alcohol from a man named JP Vernazzaro, a 26-year-old occasional drug dealer and known tough guy who was sometimes called the “king of the neighborhood.” Vernazzaro also seemed to have a thing for Melissa. In fact, the three teens hadn’t been at the party long before Melissa got a call from him asking her to come to his place, where people were drinking and listening to music. Sage eventually ended up on the phone with Vernazzaro, and the conversation quickly escalated into swearing and threats. There was an agreement to meet at nearby Balch Park to settle the dispute. Sage and Adam left the party and made their way to the park. On the way, they stopped at a Burger King and asked a group of guys from the neighborhood for help. There were no takers. Vernazzaro was a feared brawler who had seven inches and at least 100 pounds on Sage. Everyone figured it was going to be a short fight.

Sage and Adam departed the Burger King and headed to Blaine House, where they stopped for a couple of minutes before setting out for the park. Adam was carrying a baseball bat, and Sage had a knife.

Sage Christensen entered the world on January 26, 1993, as Igor Odnohorchenko. He was born in the Ukraine, the youngest of Volodymyr and Olena Odnohorchenko’s five children.

The Ukraine at the time was not easy living. The Soviet Union had collapsed two years before Igor’s birth, disintegrating into 15 chaotic countries. Food shortages were common, and law enforcement was sporadic at best. Inflation was rampant, and the economy got so bad that astrophysicists were making just $3 a month.

Ukrainian court documents state that Igor’s parents were addicted to alcohol. They were also violent. According to accounts Igor would later give, his mother and father would often strike each other and his four older siblings, and they once taped him to a chair and beat him. One time, when Igor tried to defend a sister from his parents, his mother leaned in and bit him on the hand, leaving a permanent scar.

In 1998, when Igor was five, his parents took him to an orphanage, a desolate, concrete Soviet-style building. The caregivers there, according to his later accounts, made switches from tree branches and caned the bottoms of his feet. Once, while Igor was in the infirmary, someone poured scalding-hot water on the backs of his calves, resulting in permanent scars.

Igor had been at the orphanage for two years when a stranger turned up one day in 2000. He was American, a teacher named Stephen Myers, and he was looking for a young boy to adopt. Officials at the orphanage would hardly have been surprised by the sudden appearance of a foreigner like Myers. Owing in part to lax regulation, Eastern Europe at the time was overrun with westerners looking for kids. Between 1990 and 2005, more than 70,000 children from the former Soviet Union were adopted by Americans. Myers chose Igor and brought him to his new home in Denver. The adoption was made official in July 2000.

Myers named his new son Sajan, Hindi for the “loved one.”