Andrea Casanova’s kind manner and easy laugh obscures a decade of unimaginable pain, followed by iron purpose.
For a decade, she and her husband, Steve Stiles, have waged a quiet but ferocious campaign to wring positive change from tragedy. They are the parents of Alexandra Zapp, a beloved resident of Boston and Newport whose life was taken in 2002 by a man who never should have been on the street.
If you lived in Boston then, you probably remember the story. Zapp was driving to Newport when she stopped at a Burger King in a rest stop off Route 24 to use the ladies’ room. A longtime sex offender named Paul J. Leahy was working the overnight shift. He entered a supposedly secure area and attacked her with a knife as she was coming out of the bathroom. An off-
duty State Police officer spotted the trail of blood that led to her body.
Ally Zapp’s memory has lived on through a very successful foundation that can count among its triumphs forcing changes in the state’s sex offender registry that have made it vastly more effective. Her friends have run the Boston Marathon in her memory, to raise money. Casanova and Stiles have been honored at the White House.
Now they are starting on their most ambitious effort, a partnership with the RAND Corporation, a highly regarded California-based think tank. They want to create a clearinghouse of all the available information on sex offenders and what makes them tick, to help governments craft fact-based laws that will effectively keep more women safe.
Casanova certainly didn’t set out to become a criminologist, but that is effectively what’s happened. “Some people effectively go underground when tragedy strikes,” she said. “We’ve done the opposite.”
The partnership with RAND will require the ALLY Foundation to raise $300,000 in seed money. The first effort to do that will be a black tie-optional dinner tonight at the Boston Harbor Hotel, where management has emerged as a great friend of the foundation.
Casanova believes research will be a great tool in finding ways to keep predators from repeating their offenses, ways that really work. She believes that measures such as residency restrictions are plainly ineffective, however popular.
“We have some idea what works and what doesn’t,” she said. She thinks a key is constant follow-up on offenders, as well as longer sentences for those who cannot be helped.
Leahy’s career as a deviant had begun early: As a teenager, he was caught stealing underwear from a neighbor’s clothesline. His last conviction before the murder involved asking a 13 year old to perform oral sex on him. He would say that when he saw the petite Zapp pull into the parking lot, he “snapped.”
“He was very excited when he saw her,” Casanova said. “She was tiny, had a ponytail, she looked vulnerable. The possibility was there, and he took it.”
Before he killed Zapp, Leahy had been in jail. His release had been opposed by the Plymouth district attorney, Timothy J. Cruz. He asked a judge to keep Leahy past his sentence, under a state law that allows extended incarceration for sexual predators at high risk to offend again. Judge Richard J. Chin denied the request. Chin would see Leahy again: He presided over the Zapp murder trial.
“I had to sit in a courtroom with the two men who killed my daughter,” Casanova said softly, in a rare public display of anger. After a pause, she added, “I’m not sorry I said it.”
Zapp’s family holds a birthday party for her every Aug. 24. They firmly believe her presence is with them every day. The end of her life was the beginning of a mission.
“We travel like crazy people,” Casanova said. “We wouldn’t have it any other way. We can’t change the past, but maybe we can create a different future for other people. She gave us a mission. She wants us to do this.’’Adrian Walker is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @Adrian_Walker.