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By Jeremy Schiffres, Daily and Sunday Freeman, Kingston, N.Y.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Sad stories

When you’ve been in the news business for a while – I’m going on 26 years if you count my college newspaper days – you learn to deal with tragedies and not let them affect you too much.

Murders, beatings, fires, drownings, fatal car accidents and the like are, unfortunately, part of what we deal with every day, and we've conditioned ourselves to not let them get to us. One of the first major stories I ever covered for my college newspaper, in fact, was about a horrific collision between a school bus and a car in which an administrator at my college was killed. For better or worse, it was the incident that taught me not to feel too much pain about the sad news we publish.

But newspaper people are human, too. And every now and then, these things get to us.

During my 20 years at the Freeman, three heartbreaking local stories have always stood out in my mind. Sadly, a fourth was added to that list last week.

The first was in April 1991, when a 22-year-old woman named Karen Zentner, a casual acquaintance of mine, was killed by a 52-pound rock thrown off a Thruway overpass in New Paltz. The boulder crashed through Karen’s windshield and struck her directly in the chest, killing her immediately. It was shortly after midnight and she was coming home from Long Island, where she had been making wedding plans with her fiancé and his family. She had the awful misfortune of being in the wrong place at the wrong time as three bored teenagers looking for cheap thrills decided it would be fun to throw rocks from the overpass onto the highway. They didn’t plan to kill anyone, I’m sure, but that’s exactly what they wound up doing. And, in the process, they snuffed out a young life full of potential and hope. Karen should be a 39-year-old woman now, married and probably with children. But Jeffrey Damiano, Eric Birdsall and Jamie Rullan saw to it that she never would fulfill that promise. And that still saddens me to this day. (By the way, the high, inwardly curved fences that you now see on virtually every overpass along Thruway were erected in response to Karen’s death.)

The second incident, on a Saturday afternoon in April 1994, was a devastating two-car, head-on crash on Route 28 in the town of Shandaken that claimed the lives of seven people. (Five died at the scene; the other two died in the days that followed.) I had dealt with plenty of car wrecks by that point in my newspaper career, but none so catastrophic in terms of fatalities. And, to be certain, I was in a more emotional state than usual at the time. I was a new father – my son Marc had been born just six weeks earlier – and I have no doubt that I was, during that period, more sensitive than usual to the fragility of life. But Marc also is responsible, at least from my perspective, for the tragedy having a silver lining. When I got home from the Freeman office that night, around 2 a.m., Marc had just woken up in his bassinet, and my wife, Rhona, was about to feed him. Seeing how tired she was, I told her I would handle the feeding and she could go back to sleep. As I sat in our rocking chair and looked down at Marc in the crook of my arm, about to put the bottle nipple into his mouth, he looked back up at me and, for the first time in his life, smiled. And it wasn’t one of those “I’ve got gas” smiles; this was the real thing – a big ear-to-ear grin. And, at least for a moment, it made the awful pain of the preceding hours disappear. And, looking back, it’s given me a pleasant memory of an otherwise excruciating day.

The third incident, as many local residents might guess, was the kidnapping and brutal murder of 7-year-old Rickel Knox in September 1995 – one of the most senseless crimes in local history. For those of you who don’t know about the case, a brief recap: Rickel was playing in front of her Main Street home in Uptown Kingston about 4 p.m. on a Thursday when she was snatched by a man who later would be identified as Larry Whitehurst. The disappearance prompted a frantic search that lasted into Thursday night and continued all day Friday and Saturday. People from all over Kingston, and some from farther away, converged on the Knox house (just half a mile from my own), offering whatever help they could give. Many brought food and other items to Rickel’s parents; some took "Missing Person" fliers to post around town; others simply stopped by to provide moral support. Whitehurst was taken into custody on Sunday, after police concluded he was responsible for Rickel’s disappearance, and in the wee hours of Monday – under a deliberately false promise that he would be spared the death penalty if he came clean – Whitehurst led police to a remote spot in the town of Ulster, just south of the Kingston line, where he had covered Rickel’s body with branches and other brush after beating her to death. (Whitehurst ultimately was declared eligible for the death penalty, but his life was spared when he agreed to plead guilty to first-degree murder in exchange for a sentence of life in prison with no chance for parole.) But as if the murder wasn’t bad enough, we then had to deal with the revelation – which then-District Attorney Michael Kavanagh said he never believed – that Whitehurst did what he did because he was angry at Rickel’s mother for rebuffing him romantically. He was angry at the mother, so he kidnapped and murdered a completely innocent 7-year-old girl. Un-freakin’-believeable! Even the possibility of that being true made this already gut-wrenching crime more difficult to deal with.

And, alas, the fourth story, added to the list less than a week ago, was the death of 2-year-old Lyla Lee Berryann in a fire that destroyed her family’s mobile home in the town of Marbletown. Police tell us the mother, Brenda Berryann, tried to save Lyla but was unable to get into the child’s bedroom – where the fire had begun – because of the intensity of the flames, heat and smoke. The thought of that poor child, probably screaming and gasping for air in the final moments of her short life, is enough to make even the most hardened person cry. And I can’t begin to imagine the overwhelming grief and sense of loss being felt by the girl’s mother and other relatives. All deaths are difficult to deal with, but to lose a child – and in such a cruel way – is almost incomprehensible.

I’d like to believe that no more stories will be added to this list. But being in the news business, I know better.



Blogger Kimberly Birdsall said...

Well written sir, truly touching my heart...God bless you.

March 29, 2017 at 10:34 AM 

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