At the end of Fargo, Frances McDormand’s police chief, Marge Gunderson, captures the psycho played by Peter Stormare. He’s in the backseat of her police cruiser and she talks to him as she drives. We see that she cannot fathom the evil she’s just seen.
“And here ya are,” she says, “and it’s a beautiful day. Well, I just don’t understand it.” It’s as true a piece of acting as you’ll find—Marge really doesn’t comprehend a certain kind of human darkness.
I am not surprised by violence or horror but still sometimes find myself struck, not unlike Marge, in a kind of a daze, unable to wrap my head around it.
Why do horrible things happen? That is the question at the heart of this disquieting story from the most-talented E. Jean Carroll. Elle’s longtime advice columnist, Caroll is a former contributing editor at Outside and also at Esquire, which she wrote this fantastic column about basketball groupies. She is the author of four books, including Hunter: The Strange and Savage Life of Hunter S. Thompson and Mr. Right, Right Now!: Man Catching Made Easy. You can follow her on Twitter @ejeancaroll.
In the meantime, dig into “The Cheerleaders.” The story was published in Spinback in June of 2001, featured in The Best American Crime Writing 2002, and appears here with the author’s permission.
by E. Jean Carroll
from Spin, June 2001
Welcome to Dryden. It’s rather gray and soppy. Not that Dryden doesn’t look like the finest little town in the universe—with its pretty houses and its own personal George Bailey Agency at No. 5 South Street, it could have come right out of It’s a Wonderful Life. (It’s rumored the film’s director, Frank Capra, was inspired by Dryden.) But the thriving, well-heeled hamlet is situated on the southern edge of New York’s Finger Lakes region, under one of the highest cloud-cover ratios in America. This puts the 1,900 inhabitants into two philosophical camps: those who feel the town is rendered more beautiful by the “drama” and “poetry” of the clouds and those who say it’s so “gloomy” it’s like living in an old lady’s underwear drawer.
If you live in Dryden, the kids from Ithaca, that cradle of metropolitan sophistication 15 miles away, will say you live in a “cow town.” (“There’s a cow pasture right next to the school!” says one young Ithacan.) But Dryden High School, with its emerald lawns, running tracks, athletic fields, skating pond, pine trees, and 732 eager students, is actually a first-rate place to grow up. The glorious pile of salmon-colored bricks stands on a hill looking out on the town, the mountains, the ponds, and the honey-and-russet-colored fields stretching as far as the eye can see. In the summer, the Purple Lions of Dryden High ride out to the fields and the ponds and build bonfires that singe the boys’ bare legs and blow cinders into the girls’ hair.
In the summer of ’96, many bonfires are built. The girls are practicing their cheerleading routines and the boys are developing great packs of muscles in the football team’s weight room; everybody laughs and everybody roars and the fields around town look like they’ve been trampled by a pride of actual lions. In fact, the Dryden boys display such grit at the Preseason Invitational football game that fans begin to believe as the players do: that the upcoming season will bring them another division championship. This spirit lasts until about 6:30 p.m. on September 10, when Scott Pace, one of the most brilliant players ever to attend the school, the unofficial leader of the team, a popular, handsome, dark-haired senior, rushes out of football practice to meet his parents and is killed in a car crash.
It is strange. It is sad. But sadder still is the fact that Scott’s older brother, Billy, a tall, dazzling Dryden athlete, as loved and admired as Scott, had been killed in a car crash almost exactly one year before. The town is shaken up very badly. But little does anyone dream that Scott Pace’s death will be the beginning of one of the strangest high school tragedies of all time: how, in four years, a stouthearted cheerleader named Tiffany Starr will see three football players, three fellow cheerleaders, and the beloved football coach of her little country school all end up dead.
At a home football game, Friday evening, October 4, 1996, three weeks after the death of Scott Pace, townspeople keep talking about the team and the school “recovering” and “pulling together,” but the truth is, nobody can deal. To the students of Dryden High, it just feels as if fate or something has messed up in a major way, and everybody seems as unhappy as can be.
The game tonight, in any case, is a change. Tiffany Starr, captain of the Dryden High cheerleaders, arrives. The short-skirted purple uniform looks charming on the well-built girl with the large, sad, blue eyes. Seventeen, a math whiz, way past button-cute, Tiffany is on the student council, is the point guard on the girls’ basketball team, and has been voted “Best Actress” and “Class Flirt.” She hails from the special Starr line of beautiful blonde cheerleaders; her twin sisters, Amber and Amy, graduated from Dryden two years before. Their locally famous father, Dryden High football coach Stephen Starr, has instilled in his daughters a credo that comes down to two words: “Be aggressive!”
And right now the school needs cheering. Though her heart is breaking for Scott, Tiffany wants to lead yells. But as she walks in, the cheerleading squad looks anxiously at her, and one of them says, “Jen and Sarah never showed up at school today.”
“What?” says Tiffany.
Tiffany taught Jennifer Bolduc and Sarah Hajney to cheer, and her first thought is that the girls, both juniors on the squad, are off somewhere on a lark. Tiffany knows Sarah’s parents are out of town and that Jen spent last night at Sarah’s house. For a moment, Tiffany imagines her two friends doing something slightly wicked, like joy-riding around Syracuse. “But then I’m like, ‘Wait a minute….’”
“Being a cheerleader at Dryden is the closest thing to being a movie star as you can get,” says Tiffany’s sister Amber. “It’s like being a world-class gymnast, movie star, and model all in one. It is fabulous! Fab-u-lous! It’s so much fun! Because werule.”
The Dryden High girls have won their region’s cheerleading championships 12 years in a row. The girls’ pyramids are such a thrill, the crowd doesn’t like it when the cheer ends and the game begins.
“I’m like, ‘Hold on, Jen and Sarah would never miss a game,’” Tiffany continues. “So the only thing we can do is just wait for them to arrive. And we wait and we wait. And finally, we walk out to the football game and sit down in the bleachers. We don’t cheer that day. Well, we may do some sidelines, but we don’t do any big cheers because you can’t do the big cheers when you’re missing girls.”
Jen Bolduc is a “base” in the pyramids (meaning she stands on the ground and supports tiers of girls above her), and Sarah Hajney is a “flyer” (meaning she’s hurled into the air). At 16, Jen is tall and shapely, a strong, pretty, lovable girl with a crazy grin and a powerful mind. She is a varsity track star, a champion baton-twirler, and a volunteer at Cortland Memorial Hospital.
“Jen is a great athlete and a wonderful cheerleader,” says Tiffany. “Really strong.And she’s so happy! All the time. She’s constantly giggling. And she’s very creative. When we make Spirit Bags for the football players and fill them up with candy, Jen’s Spirit Bags are always the best. And she’s silly. Joyful. Goofy. But she’s a very determined person.”
“Jen is always doing funny things,” says Amanda Burdick, a fellow cheerleader, “and she’s smart. She helps me do my homework. I never once heard her talk crap about people.”
Sarah Hajney is an adorable little version of a Botticelli Venus. She’s on varsity track and does volunteer work for children with special needs. “She’s a knockout,” says former Dryden football player Johnny Lopinto. “I remember being at a pool party, and all the girls, like Tiffany and Sarah, had changed into their bathing suits. And I was walking around, and I just like bumped into Sarah and saw her in a bathing suit, and I was just like, ‘Oh my God, Sarah! You’re so beautiful!’”
As the football game winds down to a loss, and Sarah does not suddenly, in the fourth quarter, come racing across the field with a hilarious story about how Jen got lost in the Banana Republic in Syracuse, the anxious cheerleaders decide to spend the night at their coach’s house. “And we go there, and we begin to wait.” says Tiffany. “And we wait and we wait and we wait and we wait.”
Before the game is over, a New York state trooper is in Sarah Hajney’s house. “I get a phone call on Friday night, October 4, at about—I should say, my wife gets a phone call, because I’m taking the kids to a football game and dropping them off,” says Major William Foley of the New York State Police.
Major Foley (at the time of the girls’ disappearance he is Captain Foley, zone commander of Troop C Barracks, which heads up the hunt) is a trim man in enormous aviators, a purple tie modeled after the sash of the Roman Praetorian guard, and a crisply ironed, slate-gray uniform. The creases in his trousers are so fierce they look like crowbars are sewn into them.
Sitting with Foley in the state trooper headquarters in Sidney, New York, is the young, nattily dressed Lieutenant Eric Janie, a lead investigator on the girls’ disappearance. “I know Mr. and Mrs. Bolduc because I lived in Dryden,” says Foley. “Ron Bolduc calls me because he’s concerned he’s not going to get the appropriate response from the state police. A missing 16-year-old girl—this happens all the time. So I call Mr. Bolduc back and say I will look into it. And what I do is, I ask that a fellow by the name of Investigator Bill Bean be sent. This is unusual for us to send an investigator for a missing girl. We’d normally send a uniformed trooper who’d assess the situation, but in this case [as a favor to Mr. Bolduc], Investigator Bean is the first to arrive at the Hajney residence. And hequickly determines there’s cause for concern.”
The Hajney house, a snug, one-story dwelling with a big backyard, is outside Dryden, in McLean, a hilly old village settled in 1796. The village houses are done up in pale gray and mauve and preside over lawns so neat and green they look like carpeting. Wishing wells and statues of geese decorate the yards, flags flutter on porches, and there’s a farm in the middle of town.
“There are a lot of people, concerned family members, inside the house,” says Janie. “And the first obvious fact is: There’s a problem in the bathroom.”
“There are signs of a struggle,” says Foley. “The shower curtain has been pulled down: the soap dish is broken off.” On the towel rack is Jen’s freshly washed purple-and-white cheerleading skirt. Sarah’s skirt is discovered twirled over a drying rack in the basement.
We start treating it as a crime scene,” says Janie. “Sarah’s parents have gotten the call [they are in Bar Harbor, Maine, for a four-day vacation] and are on their way back.”
The first break in the case occurs almost immediately: The Hajney’s Chevy Lumina, which was missing, is found about seven miles from the house in a parking lot of the Cortland Line Company, a well-known maker of fly-fishing equipment. “The trunk is forced open by one of the uniformed sergeants,” says Foley, “because we don’t know, of course: Are the girls in the trunk?”
The trunk reveals that the girls have, in fact, been inside. Investigators tear the car apart and find, among other things, mud, pine needles, charred wood, blood, and diamond-patterned fingerprints suggesting the kidnapper wore gloves, meaning this wasn’t some freak accident or a hotheaded crime of passion. This was planned.
Outside the Hajney home, waiting behind the yellow police tape in the cold night, is the other flyer on the cheerleading squad, Katie Savino. Small, with sparkling dark eyes and the merriest laugh, more like a sylph than a human girl, Katie is Sarah’s best friend. She watches the troopers go in and out of the house, and waits—full of hope—to speak to an official. What no one knows yet is that Katie could have been the third girl in the trunk. She had made plans to spend the night with Sarah and Jen but, at the last moment, decided to stay home.
Saturday dawns with diaphanous skies. The day is so sunny, so clear, that the natives, accustomed to clouds, find the silver-blue blaze almost disorienting. “It’s a beautiful day,” says Kevin Pristash, a student affairs administrator at State University of New York at Cortland, which is near McLean and Dryden. “And suddenly these posters go up all over town. GIRLS MISSING! It’s very eerie. Rumors are rampant. State troopers are everywhere. Helicopters are flying overhead. I go to get gas, and an unmarked car pulls up, and two guys from different police units get out. They’re everywhere.”
Gary Gelinger, an investigator with the state police, is in McLean interviewing the neighbors of the Hajney family. The first kitchen table at which he is invited to sit on Saturday morning belongs to John and Patricia Andrews. Their six-year-old son, Nicholas, attends Dryden Elementary. From an upstairs bedroom, one can look down into the Hajneys’ bathroom.
“John Andrews is not behaving appropriately,” says Janie. “Isn’t answering questions appropriately, doesn’t seem to be aware of what’s going on in the neighborhood. Investigator Gelinger reports back and just says: ‘Nah, this isn’t good. The next-door neighbor isn’t good at all.’”
Back when he attends Dryden High, John Andrews is a bashful boy. The love of his life is cars. His old man has won a Purple Heart during one of his three tours in Vietnam: he’s a “USA all the way” kind of religious alcoholic who believes in the belt and is strict about his rules. He beats John and his sisters, Ann and Deborah.
At Dryden, John finds a sweetheart, classmate Patricia McGory. They marry, and John joins the Air Force. At his German base, John allegedly, on two separate occasions, dons a ski mask and gloves and viciously attacks women who are young, attractive, and petite. They have long, fair hair and are his neighbors. He’s found guilty of the second assault, dishonorably discharged, and sent to Leavenworth.
When John is released, he and Patricia (who, along with his family, insists on his innocence) buy a house in McLean, and he begins working the third shift as a lathe operator at the same company where his mother is employed, the Pall Trinity Micro Corporation, in Cortland. A year later, in August 1996, the Hajneys purchase the house next door to the Andrews, and John quickly becomes obsessed with their beautiful and dashing daughter.
While the troopers are trying to get ahold of military justice records and follow up leads on other suspects, the massive search has alarmed Tiffany Starr and the cheerleading squad. “We keep hearing different rumors all day Saturday after we go home from the coach’s,” says Tiffany. “The house where I live is five minutes from the place where Sarah and Jen have been kidnapped. Of course I go wild, thinking they’re coming to get me next. We’ve been imagining that they’re after cheerleaders. And Saturday night and Sunday it’s just me and my mom at home [her twin sisters, Amber and Amy, are away at college], and everybody knows that. By Sunday, I’m freaking out. And I say, ‘Mom, we have to leave now! We have to get out of here!’ And my mom says, ‘Okay, let’s go.’ And we throw our stuff in a bag. I can’t be in that house another minute. I’m terrified. I’m sure somebody is gonna break in, and we just get in the car and go.”
To fully understand Tiffany’s dread, we must turn the clock back two years, to 1994, when Tiffany is a sophomore, her sisters are seniors, and their father is the Dryden High football coach….
The Starrs live in a lovely two-story house at the end of a wooded cul-de-sac in the country village of Cortlandville, which, like McLean, feeds into Dryden High. In the backyard is a swimming pool where neighborhood kids scramble and laugh, and on the garage is a basketball hoop, where Stephen Starr shoots baskets with his girls. Coach Starr is admired; his wife, Judy, is clever and good-looking, and his three daughters are the goddesses of Dryden High.
“My family is perfect,” says Tiffany. “Besides being the Dryden High School football coach, my dad is the assistant Dryden High girls’ track coach, and he is a sixth-grade teacher at Dryden Elementary. With all his jobs, it’s years and years before he finishes his master’s degree, and I remember the day he comes home; he brings champagne, and he pops it, and my mother and he are so excited! They dream about growing old together and sitting out on our back porch. Mom wants to get one of these swings so they can sit out there while Amy, Amber, and I are at college.”
“Dad’s so funny,” says Amy Starr.
“Dad sitting at dinner—” says Tiffany, laughing.
“The hat backward,” says Amy.
“One of those mesh hats,” says Tiffany, “backward, kind of sideways backward—”
“He calls me Pinny because I was so skinny,” says Amy.
“Amber he calls Amber Bambi,” says Tiffany, “and I’m Shrimp or Shrimper.”
“And mom’s Turtle, and he’s Turkey,” says Amber.
“Dad loves cookies,” says Amy. “You come down to the kitchen, and there he is in the middle of the night, standing with the refrigerator door open. He can eat awhole bag of Oreos or Nutter Butters. He loves peanut butter.”
“He dips the peanut butter out of the jar,” says Tiffany, “and then dips the spoon into the vanilla ice cream. He’s a very happy man.”
“So I’m on my way up to bed,” says Amber, “and he’s on his way downstairs, he has a glass of milk and a plate of cookies, and for some reason this really overwhelming feeling comes over me. And I say, ‘Dad! Wait!’ And I say, ‘Stop! I love you!’ And I give him this really big hug, and he’s like, ‘I love you too, kiddo.’ And he goes on downstairs. And that’s the last time I see him alive.”
In the fall of ’94, a moody young boy from Truxton, New York, appears on the scene. A sulky rogue with dead-poet good looks, his name is J.P. Merchant and, needless to say, he’s irresistible to young women. But romance has a trick of turning ugly when it comes J.P.’s way, and his last high school love affair ended in catastrophe.
Then he meets Amber Starr. She is not like the clingy, docile girls he’d known before. Amber is a Dryden cheerleader and a queen. They start dating. He falls in love; she doesn’t. She breaks it off; a hole is burned into his life. Merchant starts calling. He shows up. He knows Amber’s schedule, her whereabouts, her friends. He tells her if they do not get back together he will kill himself. Amber is kind; she speaks with him for hours on the phone, “letting him down gently.” In late December, he threatens to kill Amber’s new boyfriend. Coach Starr is out of town, playing in a basketball tournament at his old high school, so Tiffany and Judy go to the Cortland County Sheriff on December 27 and file a complaint.
“Merchant is stalking my daughter!” says Judy. She asks for an order of protection. The sheriff arrests Merchant. Merchant’s family posts bail: $500. Upon his release, he calls Amber and threatens her. Again, Tiffany and Judy go to the sheriffs department, this time with Amber. It is December 28. Judy begs the sheriffs department for help and protection.
On December 29, a sheriff’s officer watches the Starrs’ house. The officer goes home when his shift ends. No officer replaces him.
“Our day raised us to be aggressive, says Tiffany. She lowers her voice in an impression of her father: “‘Where’s the aggression? Dive for the ball! Get in there!’”
“I don’t know bow many times I heard that!” says Amy.
“‘I don’t want to hear the word can’t,’” says Amber, imitating her dad. “‘That’s not part of our vocabulary in this house.’”
Late on December 29, Stephen Starr returns home, eats a plate of cookies, drinks a beer, and goes to bed. Early the next morning, as the family sleeps, J.P. Merchant shoots the locks off the Starr’s back door, climbs the stairs, and is startled to see Tiffany standing in her bedroom doorway.
He aims the Ithaca 20-gauge shotgun at her. “I am ready to die,” Tiffany recalls. “I think for sure this is it. But something as simple as shutting my door keeps me alive. He is not after me. He wants Amber. He just isn’t going to let anyone get in his way. And I don’t try. I shut my door and let him go.”
Forever after, Tiffany dreams of stepping into her closet, retrieving her baton, surging up behind him and striking him over the head. But J.P. Merchant moves on quickly—a matter of mere seconds—to Amber’s bedroom. As he tells Amber to wake up, her father comes running to protect her.
J.P. shoots Stephen Starr dead with two blasts of the gun.
Somehow the girls and their mother manage to flee the house in their nightclothes. Merchant reloads his shotgun and follows. He fires into the woods at the edge of their house, believing they are hiding there. But the family goes in the opposite direction instead, racing across the yard to a neighbor’s. J.P. starts to follow….
Amy Starr suddenly grabs the tape recorder out of my hand and yells into it. “This is reality, people!” she says. “This really happened! Okay? We were straight-A students! We had friends. We were cheerleaders. We played sports. We had great lives!”
The Starr sisters are visiting my room at the Best Western Hotel outside Dryden. We have been out for an Italian dinner at the A-1 restaurant, and now the girls are sitting on the huge double-king bed in my room, looking through their high school scrapbooks, doing their best to sort through the painful memories. They’ve since moved on, entered college (Tiffany is graduating this month from the University of Maryland), and they work every day. “We’ve not done one thing to mess up,” says Amy, who is engaged to marry a “terrific” young man next spring.
But the girls carry scars. They do not talk to strangers now. They do not give out their telephone numbers. They fasten their seat belts to drive one hundred yards across a parking lot. They bolt their bedroom doors. If Russell Crowe appears with a sword, they walk out of the theater. It’s six years later, and they still wake in the middle of the night, their hearts beating wildly. But the Starrs are prevailing. Not the growing-up sort of prevailing that most 21-year-olds experience, but the kind of prevailing that comes from being trampled and standing back up.
As for J.P. Merchant, he leaves the cul-de-sac by the Starr home and drives to the grave of his high school sweetheart, Shari Fitts. Shari had committed suicide three years earlier, while she was dating Merchant. There, he puts the gun to his head, pulls the trigger, and kills himself.
“The biggest mistake I made was not cutting off contact with J.P.,” says Amber, who is dating now and seems quite happy. She takes the tape recorder out of Amy’s hand and starts looking for the volume control, “Now I know, and I can tell other people.” She finds the control, turns it up as high as possible, and yells:“Cut off contact and get professional help!”
There is silence for a moment. The girls are huddled together over the recorder, surrounded by pictures of themselves in their purple and white track uniforms, basketball uniforms, and cheerleading outfits, their long Alice in Wonderlandhair tied up in white ribbons. But one picture, from early 1997, is different. It is of Tiffany’s cheerleading squad. On each of their uniforms, the ribbons are black.
So is it any wonder Tiffany and Judy pack their bags and drive all the way to Tiffany’s grandparents’ house in Pennsylvania when Jen and Sarah disappear? As they’re driving, the police are narrowing the suspects down to four—the Hajneys’ neighbor, John Andrews, and three others. The hour is now approaching 10 P.M. on Sunday. A call comes in…like hundreds of other calls. It’s a woman in her early 30s named Ann Erxleben, and she holds the key that will solve the case.
Ann is a pleasant brunette, a former class officer, yearbook editor, and member of the softball team at Dryden High. “I’m working at the hospital with Cheryl Bolduc, who is a nurse,” says Ann. “And when I hear about the girls missing, I can’t even begin to imagine the pain Mrs. Bolduc’s going through. Then something strange happens.
“My fiancé, Bruno Couture, and I own a hunting camp out in Otselic. [In this part of the country, the word camp is used to describe a cabin or lodge on rustic acreage.] A friend of ours, Marcus Hutcheon, has gone up to stay there Friday night. And when he walks in, the place is dark, but he notices a puddle on the floor. A friend of his comes in and shines a flashlight on it and says it looks like blood.
“So I say, ‘I think we need to go up there and check it out.’ So we get a hold of Marcus, and we drive up to the camp. It’s a small place—a basic hunting camp, one room, a loft, a wood stove. Marcus shows us the spot on the floor. It looks like somebody—” Ann’s voice falters.
“There’s been a puddle, a dried puddle, and I’m scared. So we drive to the troopers’ barracks in Norwich. There isn’t anybody there, so we have to call somebody to come. I’m the one who calls. I say, ‘Look, we’ve found blood in our camp.’ I feel suddenly guilty. Call it instinct.
“So a trooper arrives, and we drive back up to the camp. The trooper goes inside. He’s very nonchalant. He comes out and asks, ‘Do you know any people from McLean?’ Well, obviously, Bruno has been raised there, and I grew up around there. And he asks us if anybody from McLean has been up there. And I answer ‘friends and family.’ And the trooper says, ‘Well, I’ve called the barracks in Cortland, and we need to wait for them to come.’
“The Cortland troopers come. It’s very dark now. They take a look in the camp and start interviewing Marcus. Then they interview Bruno. Then they turn to me and ask me who I am. I say I’m Bruno’s fiancée. And one of the troopers asks if any of my family and friends live near the girls.
“Both Bruno and Marcus look at me. They’re waiting for me to make the call as to what to say. I’ve decided beforehand—it’s the only way I can live with my conscience—that I will volunteer no information unless they ask me directly. And I look at the trooper and I say, ‘Yes, my brother.’ And the trooper says, ‘Has anybody you know that lives near the girls been up to this camp?’ And I say, ‘Yes, my brother.’ And he says, ‘Who is your brother?’ And I say, ‘John Andrews.’
“And the trooper flies by me so quickly he almost knocks me down. He runs into the camp and starts screaming for the senior investigator. And at that point I just want to vomit. Because my gut instinct is right. I love him, but the kidnapper is my brother, John.”
“Ann’s done the right thing, says Major Foley from behind his oak desk in the state trooper headquarters. “When the sun comes up at the camp, of course, it’s obvious. Because we start to find….”
“Parts of the girls,” says Lieutenant Janie. “Body parts.”
Foley adjusts himself in his chair and tilts his head away with a rush of emotion. “Well, I will tell you what,” he says, quietly. “Here is something we will never go into. The details of the torture of those two lovely girls.”
“We arrested John Andrews,” concludes Janie, “Monday at work.”
Three days earlier, the day the girls never show up to the football game, John Benjamin Andrews, wearing a dark T-shirt and jeans, ducks under the Hajneys’ garage door. He cuts the phone wires. Over his thinning dark hair and fleshy cheeks, he pulls a brown ski mask. He knows there is going to be a mess, so he puts on yellow rubber gloves, the kind people wear to wash dishes. The door to the kitchen is unlocked. He enters, turns, and creeps down the steps to Sarah’s room.
What does this grotesque, greasy-eyed nightmare carrying a bag holding duct tape, extra yellow gloves, and six knife blades look like to her? He weighs close to 250 pounds. His bulk must overpower the small, vibrant girl. He binds the little flyer with black plastic ties and seals her mouth with duct tape.
Is he surprised to hear the shower running? Does he realize two girls are in the house? Does he know that Jen Bolduc—whose might and muscle have tossed entire squads of cheerleaders in the air—does he know that courageous Jen will stand and fight? He must be amazed when he lurches into the bathroom and Jen claws him, kicks him, and, who knows, slams him in the face with the shower caddy. John Andrews is out of shape, but he has many knives; she is naked and outweighed by well over a hundred pounds. Sarah and Jennifer are soon trapped in the trunk of the Lumina.
Going the speed limit, the trip to the Otselic camp takes an hour. It is a curvy, up-and-down road. One of Sarah’s greatest pleasures in life is to lie down full-length in the back of her brother’s pickup, gaze up at the stars, and, as he drives round and round, guess where she is. Now they are passing June’s Country Store in Otselic. Now they are turning up Reit Road. It is bumpy. They are passing a farm. The farmer’s dog must be barking. The girls are disciplined athletes, trained to think under pressure. Are they planning an escape? Are they making a pact? They are folded together like fawns, and no matter what, as Tiffany and the cheerleading squad say, “These two girls are there for each other.”
The cabin and its pond are about a thousand yards off Reit Road in Otselic, on the edge of Muller Hill State Forest. At some point John Andrews builds a bonfire. At some point he tortures the girls. He cuts Jen and Sarah into small pieces. He drives back down Reit Road, throwing bloody body parts out the window. He heads toward a state game land and disposes of more. He sloshes motor oil over himself, the front seat, and the dash to conceal clues and leaves the car at Cortland Line Company. He tosses the yellow gloves in a trash can.
“Well, what can I tell you?” says Major Foley. “There’s a driving force. A lust. A desire. Mr. Andrews was going to attack those girls. Whether he knew Jennifer was there, we’ll never know. But he was going to commit this crime. What drove him to do it? The easiest answer is a three-letter word: Sin. People do things that are wrong because they want to. That’s all.”
“What makes us do things?” says Ann Erxleben. “What makes us not do things? What pushed my brother over the edge? The police tell us it was some kind of woman-hate crime. Because of the way the bodies were mutilated. But Johnidolized my mother.”
In 1985, John Andrews’ father, Jack, was accused of sexually abusing young girls. He killed himself three years later with a 12-gauge shotgun. Did the son blame the girls? Was he so ashamed and angry that he took revenge against young women for his father’s suicide?
Looking for answers about her brother and father has not been easy for Ann. But she is not grim, not somber. She smiles and says what doesn’t kill her makes her stronger. She has baked delicious blueberry muffins for me to eat during this interview. She is relatively happy now, the mother of four comely young daughters—a toddler, twins who are athletes, and her oldest daughter, now in college, who was a cheerleader. “It’s a little scary for me to think that, in a lot of ways, we both were caring, giving people,” Ann says of her brother. “We both were raised the same way; we both were taught the same values, we both were told to do unto others as you would have them do unto you. I said it’s scary because I don’t know what would make him do what he did.”
When word comes on Monday, October 7, Dryden High decides to send notes to the classrooms. “Each teacher has to read to the students that Sarah and Jen have been found and that they are definitely dead,” says Tiffany. “When the teachers read the notes to the classes, people jump out of their seats and run down the hallways, screaming. Everybody gathers in the gym and just screams and just cries and cries. And then people speed out to the parking lots, and they just, like… leave.”
Superintendent of Schools Donald Trombley is quoted in The Ithaca Journal: “It is unbelievable hysteria.”
“I’ll never get over it,” says Tiffany. “As a female, it’s the most terrifying thing to imagine happening to you. Sixteen! They are 16! Young women are so protective of their bodies, about being touched… and then the way they’re killed is so bad. And the question we keep asking is: Why does it keep happening to us, our town,our group of people?”
Before the school makes the announcement to the students, Katie Savino, Sarah’s best friend, the raven-haired, high-bouncing flyer, the third girl, is taken out of class and told privately. On hearing the news, she runs toward Sarah’s locker and collapses.
On Saturday, November 2, one day after being indicted on 26 counts of murder, kidnapping, aggravated sexual abuse, auto theft, burglary, and criminal possession of a weapon, John Andrews hangs himself in his jail cell with his shoelaces.
Scott and Tiffany’s class graduates in 1997. Sarah and Jen’s class graduates in 1998. In June 1999, Gary Cassell, the young Dryden High athletic director and the man who became a surrogate father to the Starr sisters, dies of a sudden heart attack. Three days later, Judy comes home from work and softly knocks on Tiffany’s bedroom door. She asks Tiffany to get Amy and to come out to the living room. One glance at her mom’s pale, twisted face, and Tiffany is terrified.
“And we come out in the living room and we sit down. And mom just says… ‘Katie Savino.’”
Only two prisoners are receiving visitors today at the Tioga County Jail in Oswego, New York. One prisoner is a young curly-haired woman who is accused of killing her three-year-old child. The other is Cheryl Thayer, who has pleaded guilty to killing Katie Elizabeth Savino.
Katie graduated from Dryden and went on to the State University of New York at Oswego. When news of her death roared across the Finger Lakes region on the morning of June 11, 1999, the home of the Purple Lions was forced to shut down completely. Students simply could not believe Katie was dead.
“We felt like we’re living in the Village of the Damned,” says a student who described Katie as “the most popular girl who ever lived.” “We were mad,” says Tiffany. After standing strong through her father, Billy, and Scotty, this one was “just way too much”—she became physically ill upon hearing the news. “We’re like, ‘When is this going to stop?’”
Twenty-three hundred people attended the memorial service for the cheerleader who pulled a whole school back to something like normality after Jen’s and Sarah’s deaths. “She really believed Sarah and Jen were with her,” says her mother, Liz Savino. “She was always smiling. I mean, she always glowed. Katie didn’t make friends; she took hostages. She never left a room without a hug and a ‘Bye. I love you!’ I miss her terribly. I miss her horribly.”
“Before Jen and Sarah died, Katie was so innocent,” says Tiffany. “I don’t think she’d kissed a boy until she was a senior in high school. If then. She was very smart, did really well in school, and she was friends with everybody. Then when Sarah died, Katie took a lot of her clothes and wore them. She wore Sarah’s belt every day. I think it really terrified her that she was supposed to have been [at Sarah’s house the night of the kidnapping]. And then on top of it, she lost her best friend in the most painful way that you could possibly imagine.”
Katie’s killer is tall and slender with lovely, dark, deep-set eyes, black eyebrows, and dark hair pulled high in a ponytail. Long wisps fall across her forehead as she sits very straight on her stool, her narrow shoulder blades drawn back elegantly. She is 19 and pretty enough that, even in her orange prison pants and top, she looks like she stepped out of a Tommy Hilfiger ad.
“Katie was my best friend,” Cheryl says, and immediately a large tear fills the comer of her eye. “I was leaving for California the next day, so Katie stayed and partied with me at a place in Cortland that serves kids drinks.”
The tear falls against the side of her nose and begins to roll down—not down the type of burly, pockmarked face one sees in prison movies, but the face of a young girl with her hair pulled up in a scrunchy. It is disconcerting. “Katie and I were refused service because of our age.” Cheryl says. “So we both just drank out of our friends’ drinks. We left around two o’clock in the morning. When we got to the car. I could feel alcohol in my system, so I called shotgun. And Katie would neverdrive if she’s even had one sip of a drink.
“I told the three guys we were taking home that one of them should drive,” she continues. “But the guys all said they were too wasted. So that’s how I ended up behind the wheel, even though I’m from Ithaca and I didn’t know the roads. Also the seating arrangement was weird. Katie was sitting in the seat behind me. The guy in the middle was huge. Normally, Katie would have been in the middle.
“I was driving her home first. She told me to take the back roads because they were quicker. I had no idea where we were going.” It was so dark, Cheryl had the creepy feeling that if she stuck her arm out the window she would never see it again. Curves appeared suddenly, but even worse were the hills. She missed a turn. Katie laughed and made her stop the car and turn around. Cheryl lost all sense of direction but dutifully took the road Katie told her to take. A minute later….
“I didn’t see the stop sign,” Cheryl says, “and we got hit by the truck. It was sodark!” It’s half a cry, and it strikes terror in my heart to hear it. “I didn’t know the roads! I didn’t see the sign! It’s 2:30 in the morning. The roads are deserted. And here comes this truck out of nowhere! We were dragged a couple hundred yards under the truck and the car caught on fire. As soon as the truck got stopped, the three guys climbed out. There were flames. My door was wedged closed. The truck driver pulled me out. The moment I was taken out of the car, it exploded.”
“Cheryl,” I say, “people in Dryden are saying Katie’s screams could be heard as the flames shot through the car.”
“No,” Cheryl says. She waves her hand in vigorous denial. A yellow plastic ID band circles her thin, girlish wrist. Burns are still visible on her slender arms.
“I know Katie didn’t die afraid,” says Liz Savino. “But I have many, many nightmares about whether she was awake at the end. If she was, that would have been horrific. Absolutely horrific.”
“Was Katie conscious at the end, Cheryl?”
Her upper lip trembles, but she speaks with certainty. “I think she was killed the moment the truck hit us. Katie was my best friend. I loved Katie. Everybody loved Katie. Katie was always laughing or shouting. We would have heard her if she were alive.”
Liz, a small, personable woman, says she does not want to punish Cheryl Thayer. She remembers that when Katie was applying to colleges, one of her essays talked about sitting at Scott Pace’s funeral and holding Jen and Sarah’s hands. Liz Savino would like to think “that Katie’s life was not in vain,” and she believes that if Cheryl is given a chance, she will “teach others a lesson”: Don’t get in a car with someone who’s been drinking. So Liz and her ex-husband, Jim Savino, working with the Cortland district attorney, have asked that Cheryl be released from prison in six months and begin five years’ probation. (She was released last summer and is taking classes at Tompkins-Cortland Community College in Dryden.)
“I tried to do what Katie would have wanted,” says Liz. “Katie was a true, loyal friend. My way of handling my daughter’s death is to live the legacy she would have wanted… to try to open myself up to others and be less judgmental. I’m not certain I’m as successful as she was, but I’m certainly trying. I truly believe she is guiding me.”
Visiting hour is over. Cheryl must return to her cell. She stands with reluctance. She squares her slender shoulders and turns to go. There is a half moment to ask one last question: Katie escaped fate the first time by not spending the night at Sarah’s….
“But fate made sure it met Katie.” says Cheryl.
Three months after attending Katie’s memorial service, her good friend Mike Vogt, the class clown and Dryden High’s IAC Division All Star middle linebacker, walks out to a cabin in the woods. Mike is red-haired, big-muscled, fast, born to play football. He’s funny, a musician, and absolutely notorious in Dryden for his pranks. Mike drinks real beer onstage in a school play. Mike takes Chris Fox’s car, parks it at the school’s archery center, and covers it with condoms he steals out of the nurse’s office. Mike loves “mudding” and buries all kinds of vehicles up to their axles in the big open fields around Dryden.
“Mikey’s my best friend since first grade,” says Johnny Lopinto, who played football with him. “I never remember doing anything without him. We could be in the shittiest place in the world, and we would hate to be there, but as long as we were together, it was like everything was a big show and we were the only ones watching it. But Mikey was complicated,” Johnny adds.
Mike was depressed by Katie’s death and probably never got over the loss of his Dryden teammate Scott Pace three years earlier. “Maybe he wanted to protect us from his pain.” says Johnny. “The morning after my 21st birthday, he walked out to the woods to the cabin that we built when we were younger, and he put a 12-gauge to his head.”
“Jill [Yaeger, Tiffany’s best friend and fellow Dryden cheerleader] called me at school,” says Tiffany. “She was hysterically crying. She was like, ‘I’m gonna tell you straight out: Mike killed himself.’ It was the last thing I thought I was ever going to hear. I never prepared myself to have one of my friends kill themselves.” She sighs. “When I think about Mike,” she says with a sad chuckle, “I can’t think about anything but his red hair.”
That is the end of the story.
The last Dryden High class that really knew Billy, Scott, Sarah, Jen, Katie, and Mike is graduating this year. And the town? “It’s weird, but young death almost seems to be the norm here,” says the mother of a Dryden Elementary School student. The town’s dead boys and girls live on in legend now. How mythic, how beloved they’ve become is seen at the graves of the three cheerleaders. They are buried together high on a hill outside McLean.
The graves are simple, but they’re laden with a blanket of every kind of memento the townspeople can carry up to the cemetery—stuffed bears, angels, flowers, lighted candles, crosses, butterflies, letters wrapped in see-through sandwich bags, photographs, lip balms [Katie was known for wearing three or four different flavors at a time], poems, ribbons, purple lions, megaphones, sparkle nail polish, and on and on.
On a cold, gray day, Tiffany and Jill agree to take me on a drive. As we go, Tiffany and Jill stare dejectedly out the windows.
“It’s gloomy here,” says Tiffany.
“It has to do with the elevation or something,” says Jill.
“It’s usually overcast.” says Tiffany.
“Too many corn fields,” says Jill.
“Tiffany,” I say, “when you get married, do you want to live here?”
“No!” says Tiffany. She smacks the steering wheel lightly.
“Jill, do you want to live here when you—”
“Absolutely not!” says Jill.
Indeed, when Tiffany pictures the future—she’s a 4.0 student with several job offers—the town of Dryden doesn’t even enter into it. She can’t afford to buy a car at present, but her “biggest freedom thought,” she says, is this:
“I see myself flying down some highway in my new Mustang convertible with the Verve’s ‘Bitter Sweet Symphony’ blasting. I can just see myself flying down the highway, far away, with my hair blowing and just being happy and free! That will be the day that I take this cleansing breath. And life will have been good for a while. And it will be forever.”