On Monday morning I was perusing the Albany Times Union, as I do a few times a week so I can catch up on what’s happening in my old neck of the woods.
This headline caught my attention and made my blood run cold. Lewis Lent linked to the death of another child. His name gives me shivers.
I was just about 10 years old when things started going a bit haywire in my rainbows-and-butterfly world. Sara Anne Wood from Frankfort, New York, was missing. This was after another child, Jimmy Bernardo, of Pittsfield, Massachusetts, had gone missing and was found dead in upstate New York a few years before.
We basically lived right in between Franklin and Pittsfield. And when kids went missing, it was big news. While one child may have been a fluke, two children got people seriously concerned. There was a standard school photo of Jimmy that flashed on the TV screen night after night and a photo of Sara Anne in her cheer-leading outfit in the newspaper, one pom-pom up in the air. There was worry that these two events were connected.
I loved my after school freedom. We had a trail behind our neighborhood that went over the Kill (Dutch for river) and my friends and I would routinely ride bikes back there and sit by the water and talk–spring, fall, winter…whenever. We’d play in the woods in the evenings after getting off the bus and then walk to the gas station across from our neighborhood to buy penny candy. Our bus route was mobbed with kids in the afternoons and early mornings–many with no parents home to send them off or pick them up–many with parents waiting on front porches.
When Sara Anne Wood went missing in 1993, it frightened my mother. She told us later she was scared out of her mind for us and the other neighborhood kids. Many a conversation with other stay-at-home moms in the neighborhood, after the bus was gone and a second cup of coffee was poured while dinner sat marinating, revolved around how to protect children. What could they do besides lock us inside?
We noticed bits of my mom’s fear. Normally, she wouldn’t have batted an eyelash at us walking the less than half mile from the bus stop home. But after Sara Anne was missing, she’d be mysteriously “taking a walk” and happen to meet us at the stop as the bus came around the corner. Other times, she’d be, “on her way to the market” and pick us up in the car from the stop. Other moms from the neighborhood who had been trusting their kids to be latch-key were taking afternoons off from work so they could be home. The neighborhood got…quiet. Mom needed help with dinner. Mom bought a movie we could watch as a family. We were going out for pizza. We were meeting Dad in Albany.
This lasted a while. Days turned into months then years and Sara Anne wasn’t found.
To this day, my mother is convinced Lent was driving his truck around our block and up and down the streets of Kinderhook and Valatie, just waiting for the perfect opportunity to snatch a child. More and more, I know she is right.
These rural pockets of life in the Hudson Valley and Berkshires and Northern New York are an ideal place to raise children to respect nature and nurture families. But they are also the perfect place to be caught alone at dusk or even in broad daylight because there is an air of trust. We have volunteer firefighters and Rotary clubs and charity pancake dinners when families fall on hard times. We are all neighbors. The same people have lived for generations on their family land. Back doors are left unlocked and car keys remain in the ignition.
Lent was caught a few years after Sara Anne Wood vanished. A little girl my age, Rebecca Savarese, was walking to her middle school in Pittsfield when Lent tried to lure her into his vehicle. A quick thinker, as the story goes, she feigned being hurt and then wriggled out of her backpack, grabbed by Lent, and ran to seek help. She had a good description of the truck and he was caught, with her backpack in the cab.
Lent admitted to Jimmy Bernardo’s torture and murder as well as the killing of Sara Anne Wood. Authorities are absolutely convinced he’s responsible for many more missing children than he’s admitted and believe he had accomplices.
Sara Anne Wood’s body was never recovered, though Lent did lead police to a desolate area of the Adirondack park years ago. He had them dig in the woods in freezing cold weather for weeks before he told them it was all a prank and that he’d never tell them where her body was. Lent will never leave jail and is already serving a life sentence. He keeps himself in the news every few years by making a statement like he made Monday. He admitted to killing then 16-year-old James Lusher in 1992 and told investigators his body was dumped in a pond in Becket, Massachusetts. Now, dive team police in two states are searching the pond for any remains.
I often wonder how Chris and I will parent when it comes to looking out for our children’s safety. Chris grew up differently than I did – as a latch-key child of a single mother who was working full time. He often talks of running with a gang of neighborhood kids after school, causing a ruckus in the blocks surrounding his house, all harmless fun. But he also talks about sometimes being scared after school, alone in the house before his mom came home when it was dark outside. We want our children to have the freedom of unlocked doors and friendly neighbors. We don’t want them to be unnecessarily frightened. But what is the best medium? Where can we strike it in the middle – a healthy fear followed up by the notion that most people are good and kind?