NEW MILFORD, Conn. - Nicholas and Virginia Payne still see their daughter everywhere around town.
They see her at the tennis court named for her, and at the church garden planted in her honor. They see her at the reservoir where she learned to ice skate backwards.
And they see Rebecca at her gravesite, near the back of Center Cemetery.
“I come here every day,’’ Virginia Payne, 63, said last month, resting on the stone bench beside her daughter’s tombstone. “And it’s surreal. I just talk to her. It’s almost like she’s here with you.’’
Four years after the death of Rebecca Payne, the 22-year-old Northeastern University student killed in her Mission Hill apartment in an apparent case of mistaken identity, police have charged Cornell Smith, 30, with her murder. He is scheduled to be arraigned in Suffolk Superior Court on Monday.
‘She won’t be forgotten, but it’s sort of too painful here. There are too many memories.’
Nicholas and Virginia Payne plan to be there.
For the Paynes, the arraignment marks the beginning of the end of their time in the United States. At the trial’s conclusion, they plan to move permanently to the Seychelles, an island off the east coast of Africa near Madagascar, Virginia’s country of birth.
“She won’t be forgotten, but it’s sort of too painful here,’’ Virginia Payne said. “There are too many memories, too many places she used to go.’’
“You hear about shootings all the time, some other poor parents grieving,’’ said Nicholas Payne, 62. “It’s a constant thing. It brings it all back.’’
Nicholas Payne - a man with small, twinkling eyes who hails from England - works as an electrical engineer. Virginia Payne, an impeccably dressed woman with a sing-songy voice and heavy French accent, gives tennis lessons to children part time. They have worked to publicize a scholarship program named in Rebecca’s honor for aspiring athletic trainers. On weekends, they march in parades holding up a banner with a photo of their daughter, hoping to bring awareness to violence.
In 2010, Nicholas Payne waged a political campaign staked on the tragedy of her death, running as a Green Party candidate for the Connecticut House of Representatives on a platform of curbing gun violence and drug use. He lost to the five-term Republican incumbent, but with 20 percent of the vote, he was the most successful third-party candidate in the state’s history.
The campaign, Virginia Payne said, was part of an effort to bring attention to the wider problems that contributed to Rebecca’s death.
Despite their foreign roots, their daughter was thoroughly American: Born in New Milford, Rebecca grew up with a preference for ripped jeans over dresses, resisting her mothers entreaties that she straighten her thick, curly hair. She was a top student, and passionate about sports - tennis, field hockey, soccer, and track were her favorites - and was working toward becoming an athletic trainer as she entered her senior year at Northeastern.
The Paynes last saw their daughter on Mother’s Day in 2008, when she spent the weekend at home. Early Sunday morning, her mother worried when she awoke and found Rebecca missing, her car gone, no note. Then, the Mini Cooper entered the driveway, and out came Rebecca with grocery bags full of fixings to prepare her mother breakfast in bed.
What happened a little more than a week later, May 20, 2008, the couple no longer discusses.
“It’s just kind of too awful to think about,’’ Nicholas Payne said. Added his wife: “It’s your worst possible fear.’’
According to prosecutors, Smith and an unidentified man arrived at Rebecca’s Parker Hill Avenue apartment complex, driven by 55-year-old Michael Balba. While Balba smoked crack in the car, Smith and the other man went inside, looking for someone else who lived in the building to carry out a drug-related hit. Instead, they found Rebecca Payne. Neighbors heard screams and multiple gunshots, but no one called police. Her body was discovered hours later when neighbors saw the door ajar.
In May, Balba pleaded not guilty to four counts of perjury in the case and was ordered held on $100,000 bail. Smith, who faces a murder charge, will appear in Suffolk Superior Court on Monday.
The years of fighting to keep Rebecca’s killing in the forefront of people’s minds have taken a toll and have hindered the Paynes’ ability to move on.
For Virginia, each day brings her back to Center Cemetery, where she decorates Rebecca’s grave with flowers, cars, stuffed animals, little frog statues.
“Frogs were her thing,’’ Virginia said, looking down at the tombstone with the 22-year’s-old face etched on the front. “It was ‘ribbit, ribbit’ all the time.’’
Most days, she simply sits and tells Rebecca about things that are going on in her life, recalling how her daughter’s friends would laugh at how often Virginia left messages on the college student’s cellphone.
“It’s funny - I talk to her more now than when she was in Boston,’’ Virginia said, chuckling to herself.
Leaving the United States and moving to the Seychelles, she hopes, will provide the couple an opportunity for a new start. There, they plan to open a tennis academy for underprivileged young people. It will be named for Rebecca.
When they go, they will bring the contents of Rebecca’s bedroom, which they have maintained since she died, and will set up a room for her in the Seychelles. But they won’t be able to bring Rebecca - and the stone bench at her graveside - with them.
“It’s almost like you’re leaving her behind,’’ Virginia Payne said. “She’ll still be remembered, but it won’t be like you go on the streets and see the things she used to do, the places she used to go. Over there, it won’t be the same.’’
“When they say someone should ‘rest in peace,’ ’’ Nicholas Payne said, “that’s what they mean, isn’t it?’’