A fear we can't shake

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The Northshire breathed a sigh of relief when, according to police and school officials, the man who offered a Manchester Elementary Middle School student a ride on a rainy Tuesday last week came forward and said he had no intention of hurting or scaring anyone. He was just trying to help.

Deep down, we all want to be able to trust people such as that man, rather than harbor the worst suspicions. We want to thank him for caring about a kid getting soaked in a cold April downpour. We want to believe that basic human decency still wins.

We don't want to think that a stranger offering to help a child must have some awful ulterior motive. But we don't want to be wrong about that. Ever.

So we teach our kids to be wary of strangers and tell them to never, ever get in the car. The worst-case scenario we're preparing them for might be statistically unlikely, but it's simply too horrible to put into words.

That lesson got through at MEMS. Part of the silver lining in this incident is that the student who was approached did exactly what we want kids to do in such a situation: Say no, walk away, report what happened to a grown-up.

While that's good news, the whole episode brought back unhappy memories of a dark time in my home town of Pittsfield, Mass., where Jimmy Bernardo was 12 years old when he was abducted and murdered by Lewis Lent in 1990.

In the years that followed, I saw how that waking nightmare had changed parents' behavior.

I grew up in the 1970s and 80s in a neighborhood where kids routinely rode their bikes up and down the street all afternoon and didn't wander home until lunch or dinner.

Ten years later, my younger brother was growing up in the very same neighborhood, but something had changed. A monster had stolen and murdered a 12-year-old boy, and the sense of security had been replaced by a constant, nervous vigilance.

Yet, the fear spread by Lewis Lent ultimately led to his capture and conviction, because a wary community taught its kids what to do.

Four years after Jimmy Bernardo was murdered, Lent attempted to abduct another child, a middle school-aged girl, from a downtown Pittsfield street. She got away, gave police a clear description of her would-be abductor and pointed him out from the witness during his trial.

A year later, in 1996, Lent pleaded guilty to the murder of Jimmy Bernardo. And I have never shook a chilling detail from Lent's guilty plea: He said the boy begged not to be taken, because his mother would miss him.

So we keep vigil in a changed world, hoping we're worried for nothing.

Reach Journal editor Greg Sukiennik at 802-490-6000.

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