On Saturday, Sept. 27, in the middle of the afternoon, 11-year-old Eddie Werner left his home in the Oakley Hills development in Jackson Township, N.J., outfitted in a very grownup weekend wardrobe of black jeans, a black shirt and sneakers, but holding on to a modest childlike wish—that he could sell enough candy and wrapping paper for his school’s fund-raising drive to earn the grand prize of a pair of walkie-talkies. He set out to achieve his goal by knocking on the doors of the comfortable middle-class houses that dot the untroubled streets of his neighborhood. And he set out by himself.
That same afternoon another Jackson Township boy had far graver matters on his mind. From August to December last year, Sam Manzie, 15, had allegedly been involved in a sexual relationship with 43-year-old Stephen Simmons of Holbrook, N.Y., a convicted pederast whom Manzie had met over the Internet. Since late August, though, Manzie, with the consent of his parents, had been assisting New Jersey prosecutors in an effort to build a criminal case against Simmons for sexual abuse. Manzie kept up phone contact with Simmons so their conversations could be taped. Three weekends ago, however, the boy took a hammer to the recording device police had installed in his family’s home, destroyed tapes and announced that he would no longer comply with the investigation. On Sept. 24, Manzie’s parents tried unsuccessfully to have him committed. Three days later, Manzie met Eddie Werner at the older boy’s front door. By Oct. 1, Manzie had been charged with sexually assaulting and murdering the child.
According to investigators, Edward Werner arrived at Manzie’s home (the older boy’s parents were out) after 5:30 that Saturday afternoon to make his sales pitch. Manzie, who did not know Werner, then allegedly molested and strangled him, stuffed his body into a suitcase and hid it until the following day before disposing of the corpse in a wooded area that separates the Manzie and Werner neighborhoods. Police discovered Werner’s body two days after his disappearance.
The dual tragedy in Jackson Township, a New York City suburb of 36,000, cut to parents’ worst fears about how much freedom they can really afford children to roam sidewalks or cyberspace. Community members and the local press were quick to ascribe larger blame for the horrid crime. Shouldn’t the unregulated Internet be made accountable? Or the depressing lyrics of the rock songs Sam Manzie loved? Or the Christa McAuliffe Middle School for allowing students to solicit door to door?
What is certain about this case is that Sam Manzie was suffering a particularly tortured adolescence. He failed to complete his freshman term at an all-boys Catholic school this year, and it seems he might not have been attending school this fall. From age 12, Manzie, a bright boy, grew increasingly solitary and began spending more and more time alone with his computer. He created a home page on the Web that told of his passion for the band Smashing Pumpkins and expressed his wish for true friends.
The vulnerable teenager came into contact with Simmons during a foray into an America Online chat room aimed at homosexual men. While few sexual predators actually succeed in finding victims online, Simmons managed to arrange an in-person meeting with Manzie last year at a mall in Freehold Township, N.J. The two got together afterward, as Simmons’ credit-card receipts indicate, in several motels in the state, police say. At one point Simmons drove Manzie to his Long Island, N.Y., home for a weekend stay during which the older man allegedly tried to share the teen with his 59-year-old lover.
How Manzie managed to meet Simmons continually for months without his parents’ knowledge is something of a mystery, but Sam Manzie’s lawyer, Michael Critchley, is quick to defend their nurturing: “They provided support, they supplied understanding. When necessary, they supplied psychiatric assistance. As much as could be done, they did.” The Manzies finally learned of the relationship when they noticed phone calls to Simmons on their long-distance bills. The Manzies sent Sam to a therapist and then warned Simmons to stay away from their son. His therapist contacted authorities about the boy’s abuse.
Why his parents did not go to the police immediately is unclear. An equally troubling question is why the couple then complied with authorities who thought it necessary to use a fragile teenager as an informant in a case against a known pedophile. Professor John Myers, a child-abuse expert at the McGeorge School of Law, explains that using young victims for telephone undercover work in this kind of case is a common practice. However, according to Andrew Vachss, a New York City lawyer with expertise in child sex crimes, investigators could have dug up entire on-line conversations between Manzie and his abuser and got good evidence with a search warrant against Simmons.
Because of the documented motel visits, he says, prosecutors were not desperately in need of corroborating information to charge twice-convicted Simmons. Moreover, says Vachss, “it isn’t uncommon for someone who has been attacked in that way to feel a sense of complete depersonalization and diminishment, to feel like an object. The rage—his smashing equipment—pretty clearly and symbolically reflects that Manzie felt used in some way.” “We are afraid of Sam,” his father Nick had said in pleading with a judge to have his son committed. The judge refused, calling Sam “a fine young man.”
The violent act he allegedly committed has left a once secure town uneasy. Says Jackson Township Mayor Vicki Rickabaugh: “I’ve always told my children not to talk to strangers or go to strangers’ houses. It’s every mother’s cry. But how do you explain to a child that he can’t talk to another child? You can’t.”