A murder in a small Long Island town reveals the dark secrets lurking behind the seemingly peaceful façade in this latest installment of the Simon True series.
On June 19, 1984, seventeen-year-old Ricky Kasso murdered Gary Lauwers in what local police and the international press dubbed a “Satanic Sacrifice.”
The murder became the subject of several popular songs, and television specials addressed the issue of whether or not America’s teens were practicing Satanism. Even Congress got in on the act, debating Satanic symbolism in songs by performers like AC/DC and Ozzy Osbourne. “The country is in crisis!” screamed the pundits. After all, it was the height of the Reagan era and Nancy Reagan’s “just say no” campaign was everywhere. But what this case revealed were bigger problems lurking at the heart of suburban America.
Ricky Kasso wasn’t a bad kid, but he was lost. To feel better, he started smoking pot, moving on from that to PCP and LSD. He ended up living on the streets and thinking he had nothing to lose. Gary Lauwers went from being a victim of bullying to using drugs to fit in, and finally robbery—but then he made the mistake of stealing from Ricky, and from that moment on, his fate was sealed.
A few months later, Gary went into the woods behind the park with Ricky and two other boys. Only three of them came out.
The subsequent police investigation and accompanying media circus turned the village upside down. It shattered the image of an idyllic small town, changed the way neighbors viewed each other, and recast the War on Drugs.
Chapter 1 SUNDAY, JULY 1, 1984 4:45 P.M. “THERE’S A BODY IN THE woods behind Gunther’s Tap Room.”
The line went dead.
Larry Springsteen stared at the telephone receiver cradled in his hand. The fifty-four-year-old lieutenant for the Northport Village Police Department had to think quick. Everyone in town knew Gunther’s. As Northport’s favorite watering hole, the bar had made a name for itself as one of writer Jack Kerouac’s favorite drinking spots. But a body? In Northport? Nothing ever happened here. Hell, that was the reason most people moved here in the first place. As far as Springsteen knew, no one in Northport was even missing.
The woman on the other end of the line had sounded young. Maybe it was a prank?
Either way, Springsteen had to follow up. If there really was a body in the local woods and the police brushed a tip off as a crank call, there would be hell to pay. Springsteen dialed the home of Officer Gene Roemer, who was off-duty that day. He told Roemer about the strange phone call and asked him to come into work to help trace it. Roemer obliged and soon the two were working on a trace at the small village hall that housed police headquarters on Main Street.
Unfortunately, their efforts were unsuccessful. Too much time had passed since the anonymous caller hung up. Springsteen and Roemer organized a brief search of the area behind Gunther’s, but no remains were found. Maybe the call really was a prank? Roemer and Springsteen decided to continue their investigation the following morning, and both headed home.
Any optimism the two policemen shared was shattered the next day when another call came in—this time from Sister Mary James, the head nun at the Madonna Heights School for Girls in Dix Hills. James told the police that one of their students, Jean Wells, had returned to the school after a weekend in Northport and told a counselor that her friend, a teenager named Gary Lauwers, had been murdered and buried in a place called “Aztakea Woods.” Once the call ended, Springsteen telephoned his boss, Northport Village Police Chief Robert Howard, and alerted him to the situation. Howard had just begun a monthlong vacation, leaving Springsteen in command. Springsteen, however, thought his chief needed to be directly involved.
When Chief Howard arrived at the station, he placed Officer Roemer in charge of the investigation. At forty-two years old, Roemer had been with the department for nearly twenty years and had proven himself to be an outstanding officer. His first move was to drive over to the Lauwers residence on West Scudder Place to see if Gary was even missing. Chief Howard joined him.
Once Roemer and Howard arrived, Gary’s mother, Yvonne Lauwers, insisted that she speak with the two on her front lawn. Over the past year, Gary had gotten himself into some serious legal trouble—mostly robbery and assault—and his father, Herbert Lauwers, forbade his wife from even mentioning their son’s name in the house. Standing outside, Yvonne told Roemer and Howard that she had not seen Gary for some time.
“Well, you know,” she said. “This is not unusual. Sometimes I don’t see him for two or three weeks.”
“That may be,” Roemer replied, running his hand through his thick graying hair, “but how about doing me a favor? I can’t really do this kind of investigation without a missing person’s report. As soon as he’s located, the law says we gotta tear this up and it never happened. We can’t release it to anybody because he’s a minor.”
The fifty-six-year-old mother of three relented, and filled out the required paperwork for Roemer. Now armed with the documentation he needed, Roemer could continue his investigation. He wanted to question Jean Wells immediately, so he headed south to Madonna Heights School for Girls, only ten miles outside of Northport.
When Roemer pulled up to the large white mansion at the end of the long, paved driveway, he found Jean’s parents waiting for their fifteen-year-old daughter. When Jean emerged from her classroom, they began to chastise her.
“What did you do wrong now?!” her mother and father demanded.
Officer Roemer stepped in.
“Your daughter did something very courageous,” he told the distraught couple.
Sitting down with Jean, Roemer asked how she found out about Gary’s murder. She replied that she had gone to the Northport movie theater around noon the previous day to hang out with her friend Karen. The two had made plans to meet at the Midway, Northport’s local head shop, and then walk downtown to see a movie. Afterward, they planned to grab lunch at Phase II Heros on Main Street.
Also joining them on that fateful day was Karen’s boyfriend, Jimmy Troiano. Jean was slightly intimidated by Jimmy. An eighteen-year-old high school dropout, Jimmy had a reputation for being a tough guy who dabbled in drug dealing and the occasional burglary. His physical appearance was also unsettling to some. Since he was a young boy, Jimmy Troiano’s face had been adorned with a large scar, along with a grin marked by a mouthful of unnaturally sharp teeth. The canines were the result of genetics, but the scar came from a childhood injury on a local playground. Some say a seven-year-old Jimmy took the chained hook from a swing set and jumped off the top, tearing his cheek open in the process. Others maintain he merely fell. Either way, Troiano’s face had earned him the unflattering nickname “Drac”—short for Dracula. Before he dropped out of Northport High School in the middle of his sophomore year, Jimmy’s classmates made sure “Monster Mash” was played in his honor at their ninth-grade dance.
Once Jean arrived at the Midway, she exchanged small talk with Karen and Jimmy before asking the question that would change their lives forever.
“Hey, I haven’t seen Ricky since I left for boarding school,” Jean said. “How’s he doing?”
“Ricky” was Ricky Kasso, Jimmy Troiano’s best friend. Ricky’s taste for ingesting and selling LSD had earned him the tongue-in-cheek nickname “the Acid King.” In reality, Ricky’s kingdom was sparse. For the last three years, he had been bouncing back and forth between his parents’ home and living on the streets. His father, a strict disciplinarian, had no tolerance for his son’s drug-fueled rebellion. By spring 1984, Ricky was seventeen and homeless, with no job or education. He survived by sleeping on friends’ couches, inside public restrooms, and even in a sewer trench at the Port Jefferson railroad station. What little money he had from selling drugs usually went to buying more.
“Oh, Ricky? He just killed some guy,” Jimmy replied. “What’s his name? Um . . . um . . . Gary.”
“Gary Lauwers?” she asked. Jean knew Gary well. The two had been friends since they were in elementary school.
“Yeah,” Jimmy replied nonchalantly.
“What?!” Jean exclaimed. “That’s not funny, Jimmy!”
“Nah, I’m serious!” Jimmy insisted. “Do you wanna go up and see it?”
“ ‘No!” Jean replied. “What are you talking about?!”
The three stood in the rain as Jimmy told them how there had supposedly been a “bad drug deal” between Ricky and Gary, so he and Ricky decided to ambush him. Jimmy and Ricky, along with their friend Albert Quinones, then lured Gary into Aztakea Woods and stabbed him to death. Karen laughed, thinking Jimmy was pulling a prank on Jean. She had no reason to believe the things her boyfriend was saying. The laughter caused Jean to temporarily relax and they all headed downtown to catch their movie. However, sitting in the darkness of Northport’s small theater, Jean couldn’t stop thinking about what Jimmy had said to her.
What if Gary really was lying dead up in Aztakea?
After the movie, Jean skipped lunch with Karen and Jimmy and called her mom from a pay phone, asking to be picked up right away. Once she got home, Jean quietly snuck over to a neighbor’s house and asked to use their phone. She called the Lauwers residence and Gary’s mother, Yvonne, picked up.
“Hi, Mrs. Lauwers, this is Jean,” she said. “Is Gary home?”
“No, Jean, he’s not,” Yvonne replied. “I haven’t seen him in two weeks.”
Jean felt a chill dancing up her spine. She hung up and immediately called the Northport Village Police Department.
While Jean’s story seemed believable to Roemer, he still wondered if the girl was simply the butt of a cruel joke. After all, he knew about Kasso, Troiano, and the trouble they liked to cause.
“Jean, is it possible Jimmy may have been lying to you?” he asked. “We checked the woods yesterday and we didn’t find anything.”
“Oh, of course!” the pretty young blonde said, desperate to believe Roemer’s suggestion. “Jimmy definitely could have been telling me a story. . . .”
Roemer left Madonna Heights wondering if this investigation had become a fool’s errand. He now had the names of the victim and the alleged killers, but no hard evidence. When he returned to headquarters, Roemer called the Suffolk County Police Department, asking for help locating Gary Lauwers’s remains. However, Suffolk County turned down this request, telling him that teenage gossip wasn’t enough to warrant their intervention. Undeterred, Roemer scheduled another search of Aztakea Woods for the following afternoon.
When he returned to Madonna Heights the next morning, Roemer asked Jean Wells if she would be willing to take a polygraph test. She agreed without hesitation. When Jean arrived at the Suffolk County Police Department in Yaphank for the test, Roemer first had her meet with detectives from the homicide bureau. Upon hearing her story, the detectives decided Jean was credible, canceled the test, and agreed to help the Northport police search Aztakea that afternoon.
Unfortunately, this search also came up empty. Due to severe thunderstorms, the police dogs could not key in on any kind of scent that might have led to a body. Tired and frustrated, the investigators decided to go home and try again the next day.
Jesse P. Pollack was born and raised in the garden state of New Jersey, and has served as a contributing writer for Weird NJ magazine since 2001. His first book, Death on the Devil’s Teeth, coauthored with Mark Moran, was published in 2015 to critical acclaim. Also an accomplished musician, Pollack’s soundtrack work has been heard on Driving Jersey, an Emmy-nominated PBS documentary series. He is married with two children, three dogs, and a couple of cats.