Today’s column is free to all. Please consider becoming a subscriber to access all content. Three columns a week for the cost of a pint. You can cancel anytime if the fun stops.
In 1981 15 year old Joseph Aulisio murdered 2 children, a brother and sister aged 4 and 8. They were neighbors of his. He used a 12 gauge shotgun at close range. He then dumped their decimated bodies in an abandoned strip mine near Old Forge, PA. Then he joined the organized manhunt for them. Eventually he was caught. No motive was ever really established, other than this kid was wired wrong. He possessed a meanness that only a prison cell could comprehend. So that's where he sits to this day…snapping and snarling at the walls.
I was 15 years old in 1981 too. I looked like this kid's twin. Dark hair, dark eyes. A newspaper photo had him perp-walked wearing a dark blue jacket, an exact replica of one I owned. My sister cut it out of the paper and taped it to the refrigerator door. She didn't do it to be mean or as a joke. The resemblance was just too uncanny. It was like looking in a mirror.
My Dad was a respected newspaperman in this town. A columnist for the Scranton Times. Seemingly everybody knew him. We couldn't go anywhere without folks coming over to say hello. He was a soft-spoken, gentle man. His columns never cut. He always aimed to soothe. But still, he'd raise an unintended shackle or two on occasion, and since he refused to get an unlisted phone number ("who am I to need one of those?", he'd say), he'd get some interesting phone calls and mail at times. A noted local serial killer never missed sending him home-made birthday and Christmas cards, for instance. Creeped us out. He just shrugged. "He's got lots of time on his hands now. Gives him something to do. Better than what he was doing...."
Back to Aulisio. Turns out our families had a connection.
When I was 3 years old my appendix ruptured and I nearly died. The nurse who stayed by my side was the mother of Joey Aulisio. She remembered me. And she remembered who my father was.
And so, as her son sat in the Lackawanna County prison after being arrested, refusing to talk to anyone, our phone rang and my Dad took the call. It was his Mother. She was frantic. She didn't know who else to turn to. She needed answers. She needed somebody to go down there and try to talk to her son. I don't know if he felt he owed her, or if he would have agreed regardless. One thing she begged, however. That he not write about the meeting. So whatever my Father would do, it would have to be in secret. By this time the case has garnered national attention. As a reporter, he could have scooped 'em all. But he was a man of his word. He agreed to go down there and sit across from this kid. And nobody ever knew about it, including his own newspaper. Not sure how they would have felt about the missed opportunity.
I remember my Mom waiting up for him that night. It wasn't until later that he told me about it. I was 15 years old, trying to comprehend a world in which somebody who looked like me could be a monster. Everything about this thing battered and bruised me. But at the same time it seemed unreal, like you were watching some late-night movie and could doze off anytime you wanted. I would not have been able to understand what my Dad saw that night. I wasn't wired that way.
"His eyes", my Dad told me years later. "That's what I remember. There was nothing there. They were just dead." The kid parried my Dad's questions with grunts and monosyllables. But his eyes just laid there, incapable of empathy, and by the time my Father got home he was convinced he'd just spent time with an unrepentant murderer.
He had to call the kid's Mom afterwards. I asked him what he said to her.
"I wasn't gonna tell her what I just told you", he said. And that was that. He put the best possible spin on the meeting he could, and she thanked him through tears. I know my Dad's heart was broken because her pain was monstrous. It would never go away. She had to endure the unendurable....forever. The classic definition of hell.
Later on the kid sat impassively chewing gum as his guilty verdict was read aloud, and then turned to the gallery, raised his fist, and yelled "it's party time!" As he was being led out of court, the mother of his victims was hugging District Attorney Ernie Preate in gratitude. Aulisio called out, "Ernie, are you going to hug me too?"
My father saw what he saw that night, and I never recall him speaking of that type of malignant evil ever again. I think he filed it away under some type of ghastly aberration file, and was never able to comprehend how somebody the same age as his own twin sons could become so irretrievably broken.
The dead eyes remain. At the age of 55. My age. The eyes of an ex-15 year old murderer who has subsequently threatened to harm the families of at least 3 corrections officers if he is ever released.
They needn’t worry. He’ll die in there.
This week a Columbine-inspired attack was foiled in Dunmore, my hometown. The perpetrators promised to outdo that atrocity on its 25th anniversary. Fifteen died that day in Littleton, Colorado. Twenty-four more were wounded.
These kids wanted more.
It wasn't just talk. Bombs were already made. And tested. And stored under one of their solidly middle-class front porches. Merely a few blocks from where I grew up.
The perpetrators are 15 years old.
They probably look like one of your kids.
They currently sit in the same prison where my Father visited 15 year old Joey Aulisio that long ago summer evening.
In a bit...