• Daniel Vollaro

The Bodies

Included in the essay collection Reservoir: Tales from the Other Jersey, available for purchase on Amazon.com


It is strange that I do not remember the murder of Kathleen Karen Stapleton.


She was killed in the afternoon of April 25, 1979, about two miles distant from my house in Clinton, New Jersey, straight across the reservoir as the crow flies, in a wooded area at the edge of Spruce Run Recreation Area. She was seventeen years old at the time; I was fourteen. She was raped, tortured, and murdered by two drifters from Dearborn, Michigan, who were paid less than $100 by her ex-boyfriend Richard Mayo, 25, to commit the crime. Stapleton, who was from Edison, New Jersey, had testified against Mayo in a morals case, and he had vowed revenge against her. One of the Michigan boys, Roland Gebert, 18, carved an N in her back after the rape and then slit her throat.


There were two other teenagers present at the crime scene when she was killed—another boy from Dearborn named Todd Swersky, and a 16-year-old girl named Cheryl Boehm, also from Edison, who would later admit that she had planned the killing. Boehm, who was a friend of Mayo’s, had met Gebert and Swersky while hitchhiking to Florida. She returned with them to Edison, and that is where she introduced them to Mayo.

The plot was heartbreakingly simple and turned on a teenage girl’s infatuation with an older man. Boehm lured Stapleton out of her house and into the car with the promise of a reunion with Mayo. Swersky and Gebert were in the car. Stapleton was just over five feet tall and weighed between 110-115 pounds when she got into that car. She wore her brown hair shoulder-length and had brownish-hazel eyes (some reporters said they were green). That day, she was wearing a pair of green earrings that looked like peas and a third, a “curlicue-type,” in her left ear. In less than three hours, she would be dead.


Gebert and Swersky did the killing while they listened to loud rock music blaring from a tape deck in the car. Her body was discovered floating in the water a few hours after the killing, like a discarded plastic bag. Another teenage boy who was fishing nearby discovered the body.


If I heard about this crime or read about it in the newspaper at the time, I do not remember it. I stumbled across the story recently and quite by accident while I was researching the circumstances of three other bodies that were dumped in and around my town a few years later, in 1983, in the summer between my graduation from high school and my first semester of college. These crimes I remember vividly because they so decisively shattered my innocence in such a short period of time, but the Stapleton murder somehow did not leave the same kind of mark on my psyche.


For some reason, this crime is a deep rabbit hole for me. I wouldn’t call it an obsession, though some writers do become obsessed with these terrible crimes, seduced by their dark power into years of exhaustive research (I am a writer of essays and therefore lack the stamina for that level of commitment, so I have limited myself to reading newspaper accounts). But I now understand how these true crimes can burrow into your sense of bourgeois comfort, drilling right down to the bone and marrow to tap that prehistoric feeling of dread that lives in each of us. I find myself at odd hours thinking about her, and her killers, only to wince and then pull back out into the light of some mundanity, thankful for the distraction. Soon enough, however, I am pulled back down into that hole. It is the questions that most compel me, the ones that I know I will never have answers to. The most fascinating: What dark gyre drew these three kids, who were not much older than me, into killing another girl their age who they did not know, for the promise of what amounts to five twenty-dollar bills that none of them actually received? It is astonishing enough to imagine a single teenager committing such a crime, but three of them together? Planning it. Talking about it. Fantasizing about it. Certainly, the money does not begin to explain it. And none of the other traditional motives for murder seem to stick either. What then?

My thoughts always lead me to the edge of the same precipice, unable to go any further, unable to see through the void that stretches out in front of me. Beyond this point, nothing will penetrate—understanding, emotion, empathy. Even my imagination fails me.


***


Maybe I cannot see any further than this because of a particular kind of blindness that afflicts the luckiest among us. I had grown up in a good family, in a safe house with an enviable sense of personal security, living in a town where most people generally believed they were protected from the worst of humanity. The truly terrible things happened somewhere else—the riots, the blackouts, the murders, the rapes. We lived on an island, sheltered, or so I believed, until July and August of 1983.


That was the summer that bodies began turning up in and around our town—all of them men, none of them from our town, all of them murder victims. These bodies appeared in quick succession over a three-week period, like drowned victims of a shipwreck washing up on a beach.


The first was by far the most shocking because it occurred on the evening of the town’s Independence Day celebration and played out on a busy street witnessed by dozens of townspeople. The body in question was seen being dragged down the street as it hung halfway out the door of a cranberry-red Jeep for half a mile before it finally dropped onto the pavement. The town’s fireworks show at the Little League field had just ended and hundreds of people were walking back to their cars. It was classic Independence Day Americana, a postcard vista of people carrying lawn chairs past American flags and red-white-and-blue bunting with the acrid smoke from the fireworks hanging like a haze in the air, not much different from what occurs at the conclusion of every July 4th celebration in thousands of small towns across the country.


I did not witness the body myself, but I learned about it later at the Clinton Point Theatre from my friend Billy Donahue who was working behind the ticket window. He shared the story breathlessly. I listened, astonished, hardly able to believe my ears.


The victim, Clarence Roquemore, 50, was on his way to work at the Hunterdon Developmental Center that evening when he picked up a hitchhiker, William Lewis Stevens, 20. Stevens was from Newark but was staying with his mother in Warren County at the time and he apparently knew Roquemore in passing. Stevens had been drinking and doing drugs all day the day before the incident, and the Courier-News article offers this matter-of-fact account of his substance abuse: “He drank beer, took a tab of the drug mescaline, smoked marijuana, some of it laced with the drug angel dust, took codeine and other drugs known as zebras and drank a liquid stimulant.” This level of substance abuse is a red flag to anyone who understands trauma and abuse. In another article, I read: “Stevens has had several relatives die suddenly, has been shot on two separate occasions, has been beaten by his stepfather and used drugs and alcohol at an early age.” Now I could see the outlines of a tortured, traumatized life begin to emerge. In another article, I learned that Roquemore was also drunk and had struck the young man in the leg with a tool while they were in the car.


These nuances were absent from the story I picked up from the town rumor mill in the days and weeks after the murder. The narrative of events was firmly established early on and did not change much, I think because so many people in town had actually witnessed a portion of the crime. The picture that formed in my mind was that the killer from Newark was black, and the victim? His race was less important somehow, but everyone seemed to know that he lived in nearby rural Warren County, which made him practically kin to us. Young black man from Newark kills a local man. That was the story. In fact, both men were black and both had local connections to Warren County and if you read between the lines, the victim himself was perhaps not entirely blameless in the incident.


Two other bodies were discovered a month later in the trunk of a Ford sedan parked in Laneco shopping center, which is where my family regularly shopped for groceries and where I had worked as a cashier earlier that year. Laneco Plaza was perched atop a hill overlooking both Route 78 and the Southwestern portion of Clinton. Standing at the edge of the parking lot in winter when the trees were bare, you could see my house. I spent a lot of time there as a kid. I played Asteroids for the first time standing at the row of video machines in the supermarket lobby and the plaza was the home of a pizza joint that was a regular hangout in my teen years. This ground was as familiar to me as my own school.


The two bodies in the trunk were William Valero, 33, of Miami, and Alvaro Cuartas, 36, of New York. Two men were charged in the crime, Richard Louis D’Agostino, 38, of Tewksbury Township, and Venezuelan-born Daniel Ducret, 31, of Miami, Florida.


D’Agostino had run unsuccessful campaigns for the state assembly and the school board. He spent $26,000 on his assembly run, which was believed at the time to be an exorbitant sum of money for an inexperienced candidate. At some point, however, he became involved in the illegal drug business. The prosecutors believed the two victims were killed in a drug deal gone wrong.


There was a fourth body, discovered a bit further out from town around the same time.


On July 19, Mario Soto Suarez, a Cuban refugee who had come over on the Mariel boatlift in 1980, was found dead near a creek in Holland Township, shot several times in the head. Suarez was a shady figure. He lived in a run-down hotel in Weehawken, New Jersey, where he was known by several aliases, including Rolando Castecha and Pedro Martinez. He told some people that he was from the Dominican Republic. He was spotted alive at the hotel on July 18, 48 hours before his body was discovered at the creek. His corpse was dressed in jeans and black shoes. He wore a wristwatch with a cloth band. His black t-shirt was pulled up over his head.


And then there were the tattoos.


On his back, there was a tattoo of a madonna on horseback holding a chalice. The story in the Courier-News intimates that the tattoos might indicate that Suarez was a criminal (a tattoo artist in Union County would later report that this particular tattoo is “characteristic” of Cubans who fled from Cuba in 1980). You can almost hear the quiet assurances being communicated to the readers in this article. These people are not from here. They come from an exotic land of palm trees and indecipherably pagan symbols, a land of criminals and ex-cons and the worst of the worst expelled from a Communist country. They happened to wash up on our shore, but you shouldn’t worry too much about that.


***


As I read these articles, most of them published by the Courier-News, a newspaper I myself wrote for in the 1990s, I am struck by how much they reinforce the portrait of Clinton as a pristine town, hitherto untouched by violence. The second paragraph of the July 5 article on the Roquemore killing begins, “In what police say may be the first murder in Clinton’s history….” This unsubstantiated “first murder” trope appeared in subsequent stories as well. This trope highlights the feeling that was in the air at the time, that violent crime was on the rise and migrating Westward from urban areas like Newark, Elizabeth, and New York City. Another of the articles about the July 3 killing ends with a quote from Public Safety Director Mario Badini. “It could have happened anywhere. As near as we can tell, he just happened to be passing through.” This strikes me in a similar way as the “first murder” quote. The bad people are always from somewhere else, always just passing through, drifters. The town itself is pure; it is the outsiders who sully it.


Anyone who has ever lived in Clinton will see the rich irony in the “first murder” trope. When I was growing up, the town was sandwiched between a women’s prison on one side and a youth correctional facility on the other. The Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for Women located at the edge of town (and very near Laneco) had been housing murderers since its founding in 1913. Murders had no doubt taken place there, as they do in every prison. Famous murderers had been imprisoned there over the years. Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, the middleweight boxer who was arrested and convicted in a triple homicide in Paterson in 1966 was housed in the maximum-security wing of the women’s prison for many years. Carter had been made famous by the 1976 Bob Dylan song “Hurricane,” and on December 7, 1975, Dylan played a concert at the prison as part of his Rolling Thunder Review tour. Another famous maximum-security prisoner was Joanne Chesimard (aka Assata Shakur), the Black Liberation Army soldier convicted of killing a New Jersey State Trooper in 1973. Chesimard was freed from the prison by her BLA compatriots in 1979. They literally walked into the prison with machine pistols and broke her out. She is currently known to be living in Cuba.


Chesimard was hardly the first “murderess” to flee that prison, but she may have been the most successful escapee. In 1933, Myrtle Carpenter, a 33-year-old woman serving 20 to 30 years for killing a man eight years earlier, escaped from the prison and was recaptured. It was her second escape attempt. After the first one, in 1930, she married a man before she was recaptured and brought back to the prison. In 1940, a 22-year-old woman named Ethel (Bunny) Sohl escaped with two other women. Sohl, who is demeaningly described as “mannish” in more than one newspaper article, was convicted in 1938 of murdering a bus driver with a sawed-off .22 rifle in a holdup in Belleville, New Jersey, that netted less than three dollars, a crime she confessed to. Both Sohl and her female accomplice in the crime blamed “reefer cigarettes” for rendering them incapable of distinguishing right from wrong, perhaps as a legal strategy to gain sympathy with the jury. Sohl and the other escapees were captured two days later to the west of Clinton, in an area known as Jugtown Mountain.

There were certainly murders committed very close to my home as a child. The Stapleton murder was one. Another was the killing of James E. Gunning on July 25, 1969, right down the road. Gunning, the owner of the Sunoco station at the Pattenburg interchange on Rt. 22 was murdered in a robbery that netted $500. The killer or killers took him into the back room and shot him in the head and neck. I was 4 years old at the time.


When I describe my upbringing to people after I had moved away from Hunterdon County, some of them have said I was lucky to have been spared the uglier aspects of humanity when I was a child (“privileged” is a word that is often in use today, which is another way to say ‘blind to society's harsher realities’). All of this is true, but in the summer of 1983, I learned that my town had become another convenient place to dump a body, like the Meadowlands or the Pine Barrens. Just a quick exit off of Route 78. Jump off the highway, dump the body, and jump back onto the highway again for a quick getaway.

Why is the Stapleton murder not burned into my psyche like the others were? My mother does not remember it. Neither does my sister, who is just a year younger than me. In a recent conference call with four friends from high school who lived in the same area, none of them remembered it either. It seems unlikely that I missed it entirely because I read the newspaper religiously as a kid. More likely, I forgot it or blotted it out. Memory is far from a perfect recorder of events after all. But when I think about it now, the reservoir is right at the center of it all, still and dark and standing directly between me and that incomprehensible act of violence. Two miles distant as the crow flies. But this was not two miles of city streets packed with human habitation or even two miles of farmland in Hunterdon County. It was two miles across a flat body of water.


There was a cove at the edge of my neighborhood, a five-minute walk from my front porch, where Union Road literally disappeared into the reservoir. If I stood at the water’s edge in this exact spot, which I often did, I had a clear, unobstructed view of the spot where Stapleton was murdered, directly across the reservoir. On some summer nights, if the conditions were just right, you could stand at the water’s edge and hear the sound of cars on Rt. 31 two miles away or catch a brief flash of music playing from a radio at one of the campsites at Spruce Run Recreation Area. In those moments, the reservoir functioned like a sonic wormhole, carrying sound across great distances. This phenomenon also sometimes occurred during the day. Standing at the water’s edge, I could hear a man whistling in a fishing boat at the center of the reservoir or catch the snippet of conversation from two people sitting in a sailboat a mile away. Sound carried, and knowing this, the distance between me and Kathleen seems to shrink in my mind. What had I been doing on that particular Wednesday afternoon when she was killed? It is impossible to know for certain, but it is possible that I was at the reservoir at some point during the day. Depending on the actual time of the killing, I was either on the bus returning from school or already at my house. I sometimes walked to the reservoir with my dog after school. Sometimes I would go there alone or with my friends. Technically, the crime had happened in another township, but the reservoir made the lines between towns and townships seem arbitrary and meaningless. I had walked the distance between that cove and the recreation area more than once in the winter when the reservoir was frozen, crossing a solid sheet of ice to the other side on foot with my friends. It did not seem such a far distance to me.


But there were other nights at the reservoir when the water seemed black and cruel, and the surface shimmered like a giant vortex that could swallow anything that came near it. On those nights, the reservoir appeared to be impossibly opaque, like a giant impenetrable wall upon the earth. On those nights, it felt like if you took one wrong step, you could disappear into the darkness and never return.