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The Dark Days of Dryden: Village of the Damned

The Dark Days of Dryden: Village of the Damned

15 miles from Ithaca, New York is Dryden: a quiet, cloudy upstate town with a population of less than 2,000 people. In fact, it’s rumored that Frank Capra was inspired by Dryden when scouting locations for “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Still, the dark days aren’t just the cloud cover, it’s a pallor over the town that’s existed in earnest since the mid-1990s, when a series of truly horrifying and morbid deaths all connected to the local high school changed the town forever. 

Dryden High School was a nice place for an education- the red brick building is welcoming and statuesque, it has a vibrant sports program including running tracks, an expensive football field and a skating rink. Its enrollment at the time was around 732 students, who would show school spirit by throwing bonfires in the fields and woods close by.

On September 10th, 1996, spirits were …high. Dryden Football team was coming off of a division championship the previous year, and the team had just won the local Preseason Invitational football game. The day culminated in practice, lasting until about 6:30 pm. Scott Pace attended that practice, and he’s a pretty big deal. Popular, handsome, and one of the most talented football players ever to attend Dryden high, really, the unofficial leader of the team, rushed out of the school after practice to meet his parents and… is immediately killed in a car crash.

It’s a tragedy in and of itself. But what makes it even more bizarre is that Scott’s older brother, Billy- similarly beloved and talented on the football field- was ALSO killed in a car crash almost EXACTLY One YEAR before!

Everyone is absolutely fucked up by both Billy and Scott’s death. People use words like “recovering from tragedy” community and “pulling together, but the truth is, it feels like a greek tragedy.  But it’s only the beginning. 

Three weeks later, Dryden had another home football game. This is Friday, October 4th, 1996. 17 year old Tiffany Starr, captain of the Dryden cheerleaders, arrived in pigtails in her purple uniform. She’s a math honors student, on student council, is the point guard on the girls’ basketball team, and has been voted “Best Actress” and “Class Flirt” by her peers. She’s preceded by her equally loved twin sisters, Amber and Amy, who graduated from Dryden two years before. If I haven’t emphasized what a big deal it is to be a cheerleader at Dryden, here’s a quote from Tiffany’s sister, Amber: 

“Being a cheerleader at Dryden is the closest thing to being a movie star as you can get. It’s like being a world-class gymnast, movie star, and model all in one. It is fabulous! Fab-u-lous! It’s so much fun! Because we rule.

They did rule. The Dryden High squad won their region’s cheerleading championships a whopping 12 years in a row. The leadership and spirit of the three Star sisters might be credited to their father, Stephen, the former Dryden High football coach. We’ll  jump back to the Starrs in a bit, another missing piece of this whole nightmare puzzle…

So on Friday, October 4th, 1996. Tiffany walked in, and huddled with her quad. One of them makes note that their friends and fellow cheerleaders, Jennifer Bolduc and Sarah Hajney, never showed up to school that day. Jennifer and Sarah are juniors and Tiffany is close with them- so much so that Tiffany knows that Sarah’s parents were out of town the night before, and that Jen spent the night at Sarah’s house, located in nearby McLean. The two would never miss a game, considering how high profile the cheer team is, and also, just knowing the girls themselves.

Jen Bolduc was 16, tall, popular, a varsity track star, a champion baton-twirler, and a volunteer at Cortland Memorial Hospital.

Sarah Hajney was as dependable and loved, beautiful, on varsity track and did volunteer work for children with special needs. 

The football team loses the game, and the anxious cheer team decides to spend the night at the Starr house. As they head back, New York state troopers William Foley and Eric Janie are inside Sarah Hajney’s house. Both live in Dryden- they know the family. But they aren’t alone in the house. 

“There are a lot of people, concerned family members, inside the house,” says Janie. “And the first obvious fact is: There’s a problem in the bathroom.”

In the bathroom, they see a shower curtain pulled down and the soap dish is broken off.  On the towel rack is Jen’s freshly washed purple-and-white cheerleading skirt. Sarah’s skirt is discovered twirled over a drying rack in the basement. 

Seeing signs of struggle, Janie and Foley treat the area like a crime scene, and Sarah’s parents- who were vacationing in Bar Harbor, Maine, are on their way back home. 

Seven miles from the house in a fly fishing store parking lot authorities find The Hajney’s Chevy Lumina. Inside the car is mud, pine needles, charred wood, blood, and diamond-patterned fingerprints suggesting the kidnapper wore gloves. Inside the trunk…is evidence that two bodies have been there. But nothing else. 

Waiting outside the Hajney home for information, along with many others, is Sarah’s best friend, Katie Sorvino. What nobody knew yet is that Katie had made plans to spend the night with Sarah and Jen but, at the last minute, decided to stay home.

So the town is losing their mind even more. State Troopers are everywhere, the high school is in an even higher state of tragedy and the investigation begins in earnest as to what happeend to the girls. The first people to be questioned are the Hajney’s neighbors- John and Patricia Andrews. Their six-year-old son, Nicholas, attends Dryden Elementary. From the Andrews’ upstairs bedroom, one can look down easily into the Hajneys’ bathroom.

John Andrews is acting weird and it doesn’t look good at all. And his questionable history is reason for suspicion. 

Andrews is a shy, car-loving guy who went to Dryden High and came from an unstable family. His father is an abusive alcoholic who later commits suicide. John, trying to escape is situation,  quickly marries his high school sweetheart, Patricia and then joins the Air Force. Twice at his German base, John attacks two young blonde women who are his neighbors. He’s found guilty of the second assault, dishonorably discharged and then buys a house for his family in Mclean.

A year later, in August 1996, the Hajney’s buy the house next door to the Andrews, and John quickly becomes obsessed with their beautiful, outgoing daughter Sarah. 

The search for the killers of Sarah and Jen alarms Tiffany Starr and the whole cheerleading squad. “We keep hearing different rumors all day. The house where I live is five minutes from the place where Sarah and Jen have been kidnapped. Of course I go wild, thinking they’re coming to get me next. We’ve been imagining that they’re after cheerleaders. And Saturday night and Sunday it’s just me and my mom at home, and everybody knows that. By Sunday, I’m freaking out. And I say, ‘Mom, we have to leave now! We have to get out of here!’ And my mom says, ‘Okay, let’s go.’ And we throw our stuff in a bag. I can’t be in that house another minute. I’m terrified. I’m sure somebody is gonna break in, and we just get in the car and go.”

To fully understand Tiffany’s absolutely warranted fear, we need to go back two years and examine what happened December 29th, 1994. We’ll definitely do that, after the BREAK. 

On December 29th 1994, things feel good with the Starr family. Tiffany is a sophomore, her sisters are seniors, and their father, Stephen is the star Dryden High football coach….

The Starrs live in Cortlandville, which, like McLean, feeds into Dryden High.Stephen Starr is happy being the football coach along with teaching sixth grade, loves his wife judy and his three successful daughters- whom he affectionately called Pinny, Bamber and Shrimper. It’s a good life. 

After a dinner with his family, Stephen Star grabs a plate of cookies and milk. Says Amber: 

“So I’m on my way up to bed, and he’s on his way downstairs, he has a glass of milk and a plate of cookies, and for some reason this really overwhelming feeling comes over me. And I say, ‘Dad! Wait!’ And I say, ‘Stop! I love you!’ And I give him this really big hug, and he’s like, ‘I love you too, kiddo.’ And he goes on downstairs. And that’s the last time I see him alive.”

Yes, Another person affiliated with Dryden High is killed.

Earlier that year, a moody teenager named J.P. Merchant moves from Truxton, New York to Dryden, and meets the charming and beautiful Amber Starr. She’s aggressive, dynamic, intelligent. J.P falls in love with her, and Amber…while finding him attractive in that emo way, doesn’t reciprocate the feeling. They date briefly but she breaks it off wit him, and things quickly starts to get weird. He calls, shows up at her home, harasses her friends. He says if they dont’ get back together he will kill himself. Amber is accommodating; she talks to him, is still nice to him, tries to let him down gently. But she moves on, and soon starts dating someone else. J.P. doesn’t like that- and in late december he threatens to kill Amber’s new boyfriend. Tiffany and her mom go to the County Sheriff on December 27 and file a complaint.

The sheriff arrests JP, but his family posts the $500 bail. Right after his release he threatens amber AGAIN, and this time Amber goes with Tiffany and their mom back to the Sheriff’s department, begging for help and protection.  

On December 29, a sheriff’s officer watches the Starrs’ house during the day time, but after his shift ends, Stephen starr returns from a conference and the whole house is unguarded. That’s where Stephen Starr says goodnight to his kids, eats his plate of cookies, drinks a single beer and heads to bed. Hours later, J.P. Merchant shoots the locks off the Starr’s back door, climbs the stairs, and sees Tiffany standing in her bedroom doorway.

At that point, he aims the Ithaca 20-gauge shotgun at her. “I am ready to die,” Tiffany says. “I think for sure this is it. But something as simple as shutting my door keeps me alive. He is not after me. He wants Amber. He just isn’t going to let anyone get in his way. And I don’t try. I shut my door and let him go.”

Seconds later, J.P. wakes Amber up and Stephen, hearing movement, runs to protect his daughter. Turning, J.P fires two shots and kills Stephen Starr. 

The girls and their mother scramble out of the house, and  Merchant reloads his shotgun and follows. He fired into the woods at the edge of their house, thinking they were hiding there. But the family goes in the opposite direction instead, racing across the yard to a neighbor’s. J.P. spotts them and almost follows…but instead, he drives to the grave of his high school sweetheart, Shari Fitts. Shari committed suicide three years before this, while she was dating JP. There, he puts the gun to his head, pulls the trigger, and kills himself.

Let’s get back to October 6th, 1996. After Sarah and Jen go missing, Tiffany and Judy pack their backs and go to TIffany’s grandparent’s house in Pennsylvania, not wanting to deal with any more tragic and fatal bullshit. At the same time, the police are narrowing the suspects for Jen and Sarah’s murder down to four—the Hajneys’ neighbor, John Andrews, and three others. At 10 P.M.a call comes in from a woman in her early 30s named Ann Erxleben, another Dryden alumni. She works with Cheryl Bolduc, mother of Jen Bolduc. 

Ann and her fiance own a cabin out in the country, and a friend of theirs is staying there over the weekend. This friend notices a red puddle on the floor- something that looks suspiciously like blood. They go up to the cabin to check it out, and call a trooper because the puddle does, indeed, look like blood. THe trooper asks if anyone else had been to the cabin recently, and Ann searches her memory, realizing actually…her brother had been there not long before. Her brother was… wait for it…John Andrews, the Hajney family’s neighbor. 

John Andrews is arrested the next day and troopers start to find body parts all around the cabin. 

His confession is…chilling, and soon the story unfolds: Three days earlier, the day the girls never show up to the football game, John Andrews ducked under the Hajneys’ garage door and cut the phone wires. Wearing a ski mask and rubber gloves and carrying a bag with duct tape, six knives and even more gloves, Andrews entered the unlocked door from the garage to the kitchen, and crept down the steps to Sarah’s room. He tied Sarah up and putsduct tape on her mouth. 

Turning, he saw Jen, who had just taken a shower. Naked, she fought back as he ties her up too, and put both girls in the back of the Chevy Lumina. He drives an hour to Ann’s cabin, builds a bonfire and by the light of the bonfire tortures the two girls and cuts them into small pieces. He drives back down to civilization, throwing bloody body parts and his own clothes out the window as he goes. 

On Monday, October 7, Dryden High administration sends ominous notes to teachers in each first period classroom. “Each teacher has to read to the students that Sarah and Jen have been found and that they are definitely dead,” says Tiffany. “When the teachers read the notes to the classes, people jump out of their seats and run down the hallways, screaming. Everybody gathers in the gym and just screams and just cries and cries. And then people speed out to the parking lots, and they just, like… leave.”

Superintendent of Schools Donald Trombley is quoted in The Ithaca Journal: “It is unbelievable hysteria.”

Katie Savino, Sarah’s best friend, is taken out of class and told privately- after she hears, she runs toward Sarah’s locker and collapses.

On Saturday, November 2, one day after being indicted on 26 counts of murder, kidnapping, aggravated sexual abuse, auto theft, burglary, and criminal possession of a weapon, John Andrews hangs himself in his jail cell with his shoelaces.

Afer this, things get quiet…for a bit. Scott and Tiffany’s class graduates in 1997. Sarah and Jen’s class graduates in 1998. In June 1999, Gary Cassell, the young Dryden High athletic director and the man who became a surrogate father to the Starr sisters, dies of a sudden heart attack. Three days later, Judy comes home from work and sits down Tiffany and Amy, telling them that their friend and fellow cheerleader- the one survivor of of that fateful night of Jen and Sarah’s murder- Katie Sorvino is dead. 

Katie had been a huge part of what helped Dryden feel a little normal after Jen and Sarah’s murder. But on on June 11, 1999, 19-year old Katie Sorvino is killed by her college friend Cheryl Thayer in a drunk driving accident. Cheryl was pulled out of the burning car by a truck driver, but he couldn’t grab Katie in time, seconds later the car exploded. 

Twenty-three hundred people attended the memorial service for the popular Katie Sorvino, who for the short rest of her life was haunted by her best friends’ deaths. Says Tiffany “when Sarah died, Katie took a lot of her clothes and wore them. She wore Sarah’s belt every day. I think it really terrified her that she was supposed to have been [at Sarah’s house the night of the kidnapping]. And then on top of it, she lost her best friend in the most painful way that you could possibly imagine.”

Three months later, Katie’s good friend Mike Vogt, the class clown and Dryden High’s Division All Star middle linebacker, was so depressed by both Scott Pace and Katie Sorvino’s  death that he walks out to a cabin in the woods puts a 12-gauge to his head and shoots himself. 

I think a quote from a student at the time sums this whole episode up: “We felt like we’re living in the Village of the Damned,” “We’re like, ‘When is this going to stop?’”

Stephen Starr, Billy, Scott, Sarah, Jen, Katie, Mike…“It’s weird, but young death almost seems to be the norm here,” says a mother of a Dryden Elementary School student. It’s insane, intense, bizarre, mythic, and horrifying, all these deaths that seem to be interwoven with one another. The community, of course, will never be the same.