He was a boy I met a long time ago, friendly, freckle faced, so full of trust it should have set off an alarm. “Don’t talk to strangers,” his mother must have told him a million times.
And I was a stranger.
Shaun Ouillette showed me around anyway. I was an adult working for the Patriot Ledger, reporting about a controversy over a basketball hoop at Brayton Circle in Canton. He was a new kid in town. Talking to the press must have struck him as exciting and harmless. Plus he had a sidekick with him, a girl, maybe 14.
I think almost every day about the afternoon I met Shaun, not just because he was murdered 17 months later, but because almost every day I drive past the place where he lived. And I remember how helpful he was.
How he introduced me to a man in a wheelchair who was thrilled to have a basketball hoop and then led me to the door of a woman who wanted it gone. How I followed him and his friend around the complex, then into his house, where we sat in his kitchen. How he explained that his family had moved to Brayton Circle because his sister, Yvonne, was a student next door at the Massachusetts Hospital School. He liked being close enough to help push her home some days, he told me.
I think now, in hindsight — hindsight always so clear — that I should have said to Shaun, “You shouldn’t invite a stranger into your house. Don’t be so trusting.” But it was 1985. And in 1985, I was trusting, too.
Shaun was missing for three weeks before he was found dead in woods a few miles from his home. He was just 14 years old.
Rod Matthews, the boy who was convicted of killing Shaun, was also 14. According to the account that emerged at his trial, Rod planned the murder. He pretended to be Shaun’s friend, inviting him to his house. On Nov. 20, 1986, with snow on the ground, the pair went tromping through the woods. Shaun was wearing boots; Rod Matthews was not. Rod told Shaun to go ahead of him so he could walk in Shaun’s footsteps. Trusting — no reason not to — Shaun did what Rod asked. Rod struck Shaun on the back of the head with a baseball bat again and again until Shaun lay dead.
Matthews has been locked up for nearly 25 years for this crime. He has had two parole hearings, and after canceling a third scheduled for this week, could try again next year to persuade the parole board that he is no longer the person he was.
Neither the person he was nor the person he now claims he is has ever told Shaun’s mother, Jeanne Quinn, that he is sorry.
In a small town in southern New Jersey last Saturday, another child was killed, allegedly by two other children. Autumn Pasquale, 12, was reported missing an hour and a half after she missed her 8 p.m. curfew. Forty-eight hours later, her body was found in a recycling bin. Two boys, 15 and 17, have been charged with her murder. Authorities say they lured her to their house on the pretext of selling parts for her bike. An autopsy concluded that Autumn died from “blunt force trauma, consistent with strangulation.”
I look at her face and, like Shaun’s, it was so full of innocence and trust.
But children die because they trust. Children are abused because they trust. Trust your instincts. Trust your heart. Trust that the kid who says he’s your friend really is your friend.
We have car seats and safety belts and bike helmets and alarms and inoculations and crossing guards and metal detectors at schools. Yet someone can come along and pretend to be nice and it’s all over.
“Don’t talk to strangers,” we tell our kids. But in today’s world this is not enough. “Be wary of whom you trust,” we need to add. And then explain why.