When Barbara Pryor got a phone call from someone in the Texas Department of Criminal Justice a few weeks ago, she assumed it was yet another formal notification that John Whirty, the prime suspect in the abduction and murder of her 9-year-old daughter Sarah in Wayland, was up for parole again.
But it wasn’t that. It wasn’t that at all.
John Whirty was dead.
“All the feelings came back,” Barbara Pryor said from Pittsburgh, where she now lives.
Rejoicing was not one of those feelings.
As her daughter Meg, Sarah’s sister, put it, “The assumption was that I’d feel only relief when he died. But it was far more complicated than that.”
Any sense of relief was overwhelmed by grief.
“It was surprising how much grief came with it,” Meg Pryor said. “The sadness and anger. I don’t believe in the concept of closure. I don’t believe it happens. It’s more just learning to live with a new reality, and have some acceptance of it.”
Accepting the cruel unfairness of the trajectories that Sarah Pryor’s and John Whirty’s lives took is a big ask.
John Whirty, who did nothing in his miserable life but ruin others, managed to live to 77, more than eight times longer than Sarah, a sweet, kind girl who never harmed anyone or anything. He died of natural causes. She died the most unnatural of deaths.
Whirty fled to Texas after he was accused of attacking a 12-year-old girl in his native Sherborn. He wasn’t in Texas long before he raped and murdered 15-year-old Rose Marie Martin in a wooded area in Dallas.
Whirty served 17 years in prison for that crime before he was paroled in 1984. He returned to Massachusetts, where he tried to abduct a Newton woman at knifepoint, one month after Sarah Pryor went missing on Oct. 9, 1985. He was awaiting trial on those charges when witnesses placed him near the spot where Sarah was last seen.
Given Whirty’s history of attacking girls and young women, and his lack of an alibi, police were convinced of Whirty’s guilt, as were the Pryors. But the evidence was too circumstantial and Whirty was never charged with Sarah Pryor’s murder. He was also the prime suspect in the disappearance of Cathy Malcolmson, a 17-year-old from Stow, who has never been found.
Whirty was convicted of trying to abduct the Newton woman, served five years in Massachusetts, then was returned to Texas to serve out the rest of his life sentence.
The hand dealt the Pryors was especially cruel. They had moved to Wayland from Pittsburgh only six weeks before Sarah was murdered. Barbara Pryor winces when people say her daughter disappeared.
“No one disappears,” she said. “They are taken. Sarah was taken from us.”
So was a sense of innocence that many in the sleepy suburbs of Boston and beyond shared before Sarah Pryor’s fate became a cultural touchstone.
Ten years after Sarah was murdered, a man walking his dog found a bone fragment in the woods in Wayland. Three years later, it was positively identified as the remains of Sarah. Her funeral was held on what would have been her 22nd birthday.
As if losing Sarah wasn’t hard enough, every few years the Pryors were forced to oppose Whirty’s parole, launching a letter-writing campaign to beseech the Texas Parole Board to not release Whirty again. It was a gut-wrenching exercise, repeated 10 times, made worse by the unimaginable notion that anyone could seriously believe John Whirty should be released from prison.
The Pryors took solace from the fact that the letter-writing campaign was joined by hundreds of people who didn’t even know them but knew the story, and knew that a guy like John Whirty deserved to stay in prison until he died.
Barbara Pryor said officials in Texas “were very kind to us over the years.”
The Pryors hold on to the kindnesses showed them. Kindness reminds them of Sarah.
There’s one other solace, Barbara Pryor said: “Sarah is not forgotten.”
Soon, John Whirty will be.
Kevin Cullen is a Globe reporter and columnist who roams New England. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.