SEABROOK, N.H. — Two decades ago, the Hess family was on the run, fleeing the Pacific Northwest where the unthinkable had engulfed them, branded them, and left them grasping for a new life.
They settled into a ragged corner of this tough, working-class town in the lowlands of New Hampshire’s Seacoast. Their house’s porch sagged and its dirt driveway turned to rutted mud in rain.
But here, in the heart of old Seabrook, where people’s struggles were their own and questions weren’t asked, the family believed their secrets were safe and their past had been left behind.
They tried mightily to start anew. Cheri, the mother, found work as a clerical assistant. Cassie, the eldest, dreamed of a career in art and tried to rein in her brothers Jantzen, Roarke, and Magnus.
Darriean was too young to remember all that had come before. Eager to please and doe-eyed, she was untouched by the pain they had known. Together they tended to her. Together they protected her.
But behind those eyes, there grew, in the years ahead, a vulnerability and longing, the kind that so easily can lead to darkness, and did. The details may never be fully understood by anyone but Darriean, and perhaps her family. They don’t explain what police say happened, or, certainly, excuse the tragedy, the horror, the grief, the blood; nothing could. But the long, hard meander of her life — both the life she chose and the one others had chosen for her — led her one day last fall to the span over the Hampton River, where police found her sitting in the driver’s seat of a Honda with a spider’s-web crack in the windshield, crying hysterically, as a crowd gathered.
They offered help, but Darriean refused.
My mother will come, she said.
* * *
The Hesses lived in one of Seabrook’s oldest neighborhoods, on the south side where the maze of roads bear the names of some of the early settlers here — the Fowlers, the Collins, the Browns. Single-wides with jerry-rigged decks and satellite dishes occupy plots behind worn Victorians and vinyl-sided Garrisons.
Here, the family likely heard the old Seabrook phrasings. “Hark, bub,” a greeting, and “Ike!” an exclamation. The dialect had been preserved for more than a century by the town’s deep insularity, a close-knittedness that spurred perceptions of Seabrook as a provincial place.
Some outsiders dubbed residents “Brookers,” a slur implying outcasts and lowlifes. Seabrookers responded by using the term for one another, a sort of badge of honor. Brookers were hardy. Brookers were not to be messed with.
Beyond the neighborhood lies a boggy expanse of cordgrass and salt hay where black-backed gulls hover. By night, red lights flare from the nuclear power plant, and past Brown’s Lobster Pound and Over the Border Fireworks, Route 1A threads along the coast, traveling across the Hampton River on the steel and concrete Neil R. Underwood Memorial Bridge, named for a fallen World War II airman. In Hampton, the road becomes the honky-tonk spine of Hampton Beach, where, as summer ends, the crowds leave and rents plummet and police know to be on the lookout for fugitives hiding out from warrants.
In their rented home on Washington Street, the Hesses made for a striking lot. Photographs from the time show the children with strong cheekbones and wide smiles, much like their mother. They were a blended family. Cassie and Jantzen from their mother’s first marriage and Roarke, Magnus, and Darriean from her second.
Their roots were in Alaska. There, their mother had been raised in the rugged outpost of Haines, where bald eagles outnumber inhabitants in the fall. Cheri followed her father’s path to the sea, working as a deckhand and a gill-netter. She’d married and divorced and then married again and moved to Washington state in 1992. But drinking derailed many of her plans. She often blamed her children — there were five now — saying their misbehavior drove her to alcohol, said Roarke, the only family member who would speak to the Globe at length.
Then, one day, when her second divorce was underway, when they were living outside Seattle and Darriean was still very young, she told her children she was sending them away.
“Things got pretty intense, and my mother felt it was best that we all go stay with family members for however long it took her to sort things out,” Roarke said.
What Roarke apparently didn’t know was that authorities had become aware of her alcohol abuse and she had been forced to send the children to live with relatives in Alaska, according to information provided to police and by a family member.
While her kids were away, she began an online relationship with a man, Robert Fowler. Fowler had deep roots in Seabrook, but perhaps was better known as a vocal defender of his brother Raymond, one of four then-teenagers who
pleaded guilty to helping kill the husband of Pam Smart, a teacher who had been having an affair with one of them in 1990.
Cheri Hess and Fowler made plans to be together, and after winning back custody of the children, Cheri gathered them and took them East to Seabrook, according to the account given to police.
For the kids, the town, though new and strange, at the opposite end of the country, held a sense of familiarity. They understood Seabrook’s us-against-the-world sensibility.
“There was a brotherhood feeling,” Roarke recalled.
Cheri cultivated a hive of activity in the house, placing herself at the center. She adopted a pit bull and snakes, he said. She invited needy acquaintances to stay the night on couches. She took the kids to church after church, trying to find a spiritual home. She was, she would say, relentless in trying to do her best by them.
“My mother was everything,” Roarke said.
But while the children saw a devoted advocate in their mother, around town Cheri was known, more than not, as overwhelmed to the point of dysfunction. She was frequently belligerent and quick to pass blame to others for her shortcomings, even as she promised that a new chapter was about to begin, when all would be right.
Often, Cheri could be found tending her garden. It was, she said, her therapy.
* * *
The calls to police began soon after they settled in town.
In 1999, Seabrook police visited 80 Washington St. 17 times. The next year, they came 12 times, and 15 the year after that. Often they came because Cheri said she needed help controlling her children. They were fighting or had run away. Once, in 2001, police found 7-year-old Darriean with severe bruising on her hip and buttocks. They charged Robert Fowler with second-degree assault. A year later, he pleaded guilty.
Just as often, police visited because Cheri was dangerously drunk. Alcohol once again dominated her life. Police records tell of visits to the home when officers found Hess incapacitated, or fighting with Fowler, who told police that their relationship was “wonderful” when she wasn’t drinking.
In March 2002, police charged her with aggravated drunken driving on Ocean Boulevard in Hampton. She was found guilty. In 2003, she was arrested for endangering the welfare of a child. Court records don’t say which child, or what happened. The case was dropped after Hess agreed to enter an alcohol treatment program.
Social service agencies and police monitored the household. When questions were asked of the children, they offered guarded answers. “They were very protective of one another,” one law enforcement official recalled. Yet, they were polite and respectful. Remarkably so, given their circumstances. Nice kids, law enforcement officials thought.
The children worried about saying too much. “Everything was kept behind closed doors as much as we possibly could,” Roarke recalled. There was loyalty demanded by their mother, and also the fear of what could happen if the state stepped in. “We were always horrified that child protective services were going to come and ship us off.”
As the chaos unfolded around her, little Darriean’s natural bounciness gave way. She would become stone quiet and impassive, as though, one law enforcement official said, she were shutting down.
Court records don’t show whether it was Cheri’s decision or the state’s to send 8-year-old Darriean away. “I need time to obtain medical care and help I need to recover,” Hess wrote in court papers in 2002 granting temporary custody of Darriean to her aunt and uncle in Alaska.
“We all cried when we had to see her go,” Roarke recalled.
When Darriean called, she’d ask when she could come home. “We’d tell her, ‘Just a little longer,’ ” Roarke said.
But at home, things were bad. Their mother was hallucinating. She told the children the dog was playing with their PlayStation, Roarke recalled. Then, not long after, she would promise that they were on the cusp of good times. They just had to hang on.
* * *
The children heard her cry.
The family was at a friend’s house for supper around 2005, and as she walked down stairs, their mother fell and broke her ankle, Roarke said.
It was the way of things in their family, Roarke said. A new catastrophe beginning as things seemed to be turning up. Cheri’s medical issues, or whatever prompted her to send Darriean away, had abated, and Darriean had returned from Alaska. Cassie was in college, studying graphic design, and had married. Magnus had joined the Marine Corps Junior Reserve Officers Training Corps.
Then, suddenly, this new crisis.
Nights filled with Cheri’s screams. Roarke remembers back problems and nerve damage. Doctors prescribed pain medications. By then, she and Fowler had separated, leaving the children to tend to their mother. The children often skipped school for fear of leaving her alone. They cleaned the house and delivered Darriean to school in the morning and helped her with homework after they made dinner, sometimes served at 6 p.m., sometimes at 10 p.m., as Roarke recalls.
Friends compared them to a band of fictional orphans who find untapped strength in a parentless void. Some days, they played the part. Other days, the struggle overtook them. One day, around Christmastime, their mother called them into the living room. She had rented a movie: “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape,” the tale of four kids who tend to their morbidly-obese, bedridden mother. The mother dies, and the children carry on.
On June 11, 2007, the children found their mother on her knees in the garden. Her face was buried in the dirt. Roarke frantically administered CPR until the ambulance came. He was sure he felt a pulse. They waited for the doctors at Anna Jaques Hospital in Newburyport. And they ventured theories: Perhaps their mother had dozed off, fallen forward, and suffocated in the loamy soil?
The toxicologist’s report traced Cheri Hess’s death at 48, to an overdose, Roarke said.
* * *
The funeral was well-attended. Friends delivered aluminum-wrapped dinners to the house. Relatives palmed checks into their hands. Townspeople held a fund-raiser at the American Legion.
Decisions had to be made. Magnus was 17, Darriean 13. Someone would have to look after them.
“I wouldn’t have it any other way,” Cassie told the local newspaper at the time of her decision to leave the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn and take custody of Darriean and Magnus in Seabrook.
But as relatives departed and checks stopped arriving, the upwelling of confidence ebbed. They were back where they had started, only now, without their mother. Darkness had descended, again.
“We’d been fighting for so long to make things better, to get things right,” Roarke said. “All that fight, for nothing.”
Money ran short, he said. Their dogs went hungry and were given away. Magnus acted out in high school. Roarke dropped out. Cassie divorced. Rent payments became onerous, and they had to move. The boys went their separate ways, Magnus into the National Guard and Roarke and Jantzen into road work. Cassie and Darriean moved to New York, then back to New Hampshire. Cassie gave birth to a daughter. She and the father quarreled. At least two altercations ended with police intervention; one fight, in 2012, resulted in a day-long jail stay for Cassie, court and jail records show.
By the time she was 16, Darriean had grown to 5-foot-6. She was slender with long chestnut hair. She’d gone through a Goth period. Her new thing was skipping classes at Winnacunnet High School. She appeared headed for trouble, and was placed in residential home for girls in northern New Hampshire, Roarke said.
She didn’t stay long. In March 2011, she and a friend hitched a ride to Boston where they ended up at a man’s apartment in Dorchester. The man had a lengthy criminal history, mostly for drug dealing, court records show.
Boston police took up a frantic search for the girls after Darriean’s friend called her family seeking help. Using the GPS coordinates of the cellphone, police stormed the house and found Darriean in the apartment. Police charged the man with rape of a child, kidnapping, inducing a minor to prostitution, and holding a house of ill repute. He pleaded not guilty.
Yet, six months later, the charges had been dropped, court records show. The Suffolk County district attorney’s office said that the girls declined to talk with prosecutors.
Darriean returned to New Hampshire. Then she left again. An Alaskan court record shows that in July 2011, Melanie Hess of Haines, her paternal grandmother, was appointed her guardian.
* * *
Small, isolated, and skirted by the snow-capped Chilkat Range, Haines clings to the edge of a jade-blue inlet. Adventure seekers raft and hike, and cruise ships deposit tourists in the town center to browse art galleries. Come winter, a blue cold encrusts Main Street and daylight dwindles to a six-hour pinhole.
For Darriean, Haines was something like an ancestral home. There, Darriean’s mother had been a chatty girl who rode a banana-seat bike, read horror novels, and was left to cope with her own mother’s depression when her father was out on commercial fishing junkets. Cheri’s first marriage to a high school classmate ended here, and she’d met Darriean’s father, Darrin Hess, at a wedding.
Perhaps these ghosts of her past walked alongside her as she went to school, to the store, back to her grandmother’s house. One minute she was withdrawn and the next arrogant, telling tall tales about her fancy house in Seabrook and the fancy clothes in her closet there. The whole East Coast, she told friends, was superior to Haines.
She soon ditched her grandmother’s house, sleeping on the couch of whatever friend would take her. Along the way, she alienated a number of them. One accused her of borrowing hundreds of dollars in belongings and never returning them. Another said she drove her car without permission. Darriean declined comment on the allegations, and other matters, through her lawyer.
She moved in with a boyfriend, but fought with him. Often, she was distraught. “She just wanted somebody to take care of her, finally,” Michael Ward, a childhood friend, recalled her saying. He also said she confessed to him a bad drug problem and that she had hoped finally in Alaska to get clean. But she sought out Adderall, a stimulant prescribed to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and snorted the opiate Vicodin, said a friend who asked not to be named.
Some sensed fragility in her. “She was a real nice girl. A bit standoffish,” said Jack Smith, whose wife gave her a job at White Rock Nursery in Haines. But that made sense, he said. “I’d heard things about her father.”
Darriean had never known her father, but she knew about him.
“There were some pretty embarrassing things that she was upset about forever,” Ward said.
She didn’t talk about the details.
She didn’t need to. He knew them. Like just about everyone in Haines.
* * *
When Darriean was an infant, her father was a king crab fisherman. The job was legendarily dangerous, but it brought in good money. When he returned after months at sea to their home outside Seattle, he came bearing gifts. Cowboy boots after one trip, a race track with electric cars after another. Then his drinking would begin and violence would swallow the house.
“He’s given everyone but my baby sister bruises,” Cassie would write in a letter to court officials.
There was more. On a summer afternoon in 1994, 10-year-old Cassie came to her mother. She had something to tell her, a secret she had kept for fear of what her stepfather, Darrin Hess, would do if she told. He plied Cassie with beer, Cheri wrote in a letter to the court. When the other children were around, he would send them away and tell her, “I want you,” Cassie told police, according to a prosecutor’s affidavit.
The sexual abuse started in Alaska and continued after the family moved to Washington state in 1992, the affidavit states. The one time Cassie forcefully resisted, Cassie wrote in her letter, he gave her two black eyes. “I made up a reason for the black eyes,” she wrote.
Darriean’s father confessed to the abuse, but said it was not as extensive as Cassie alleged. He pleaded guilty to three counts of rape of a child in the first degree. A judge sentenced him to 16 years at the state penitentiary in Walla Walla.
In a letter to the judge, Darriean’s father offered no apology and lamented that the abuse had “ruined my life.” “I am empty and don’t even have a future any more,” he wrote.
Cheri, in her letter, wrote that Cassie had come forward because she didn’t want Darriean to endure what she had suffered.
A permanent restraining order went into effect. Darriean’s father was not to have contact with any of the children, ever, according to their divorce decree.
Even so, around the time Darrin Hess became a free man in June 2012 — his probation had ended and he was allowed to travel outside Washington state — Darriean was making plans.
Soon, she was on a plane out of Alaska.
She gave no notice at the White Rock Nursery.
* * *
A waning moon hung over the marsh of New Hampshire’s Seacoast as Darriean raced over the bridge leading to Hampton Beach shortly before 1 a.m. on Sept. 21, the last day of summer.
She had been back in New Hampshire for about a year, and of late, living with Roarke, who had persuaded his girlfriend to let her stay with them in Seabrook. He wanted to keep a close eye on her. She needed it, he sensed.
She was running around with a new guy. They were engaged. The two worked at a sports warehouse, and liked to go out driving, he at the wheel, cruising fast. She would tell him to slow down, but he knew it was false protest. “The cop said he was doing 80 and we flew by him doing like 100 (laughing my a** off),” she wrote on her Facebook page after the couple was pulled over in January 2013, according to an account published by the news site Seacoastonline.com.
On that early September morning, she was alone, driving her fiance’s Honda Civic up Ocean Boulevard when police lights flashed. The officer clocked her doing 59 in a 30-mile-per-hour zone. When he asked for her driver’s license, she said she didn’t have it with her. Then, she told him she didn’t have one. She never had, according to police reports. She would be summoned to court for the violations, the officer told her. For now, she could have someone retrieve the car.
Darriean didn’t call her brothers or Cassie. She didn’t call her fiance. Police say she got in touch with 48-year-old Cindy Sheppard.
Sheppard’s customers knew her as “Cinderella.” She could score you heroin, or “browns,” or “benzos,” as in benzodiazepines, antianxiety medications, according to court records. Four months earlier, in May, Hampton police had staked out her apartment and charged Sheppard with selling heroin, crack cocaine, oxycodone, and other drugs.
She was out on bail, awaiting trial, and that night, she was available. She lived only a few blocks from where Darriean had been stopped. When she arrived, Sheppard was given the car keys. Darriean and Sheppard returned to Sheppard’s apartment, and as the bars emptied and the crowds ate blooming onions and pizza slices, police allege that Sheppard supplied Darriean with fentanyl, a painkiller much more potent than morphine.
Around 8 a.m., the day’s sunlight sharp and brilliant, Sheppard returned the keys to Darriean, and soon, police say, she was speeding back toward the bridge.
Darriean would have passed a parked police cruiser with lights flashing and 4-foot high, A-framed signs announcing a bike race that day. As the Honda crested and zoomed onto the steel grating of the drawbridge’s lift, she would have felt a jolt, and then, as she barreled down the slope, the cottages and bungalows of Seabrook beach would have come into view. She also could have seen, at the base of the bridge, a line of bikers in jerseys, hugging the side of the road.
* * *
Pam Wells was pedaling a Bianchi. She’d bought the high-end bicycle at the urging of Margo Heigh, a 54-year-old dental hygienist who took spinning classes with her at the Beverly YMCA. The two had trained together with Margo’s friend, Elise Bouchard, for months for rides like this one, the Granite State Wheelmen Seacoast Century, a noncompetitive traverse of the coastal roads of Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Maine.
For Wells, the 60-year-old controller of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, wife, and mother of two teens, bicycling had become a keen interest in recent years, adding to gardening, cooking, and piano playing, her college major. As Wells and Heigh, along with Bouchard, a 52-year-old customer service manager, and her boss, Uwe Uhmeyer, 60, of Essex, set off that morning, they were ebullient. “We’re so lucky,” Bouchard mused.
Nearing 8:30 a.m., the foursome rode north, past the wind-bent grasses of Seabrook’s marsh, toward the Underwood Bridge.
A retired New Hampshire State Police major, David Kelley, was driving behind them. Ahead, he saw a car on the bridge, Kelley told authorities. It was moving so fast he expected to see police in pursuit. But none came, and the car kept coming, crossing the double yellow line and veering into the northbound lane, then plunging into the line of bicyclists.
Jim Schofield, a school bus painter from Manchester, N.H., who had been bicycling a short distance behind the foursome, saw things fly into the air. To his left, he saw the Honda cross back into the southbound lane, tear through a steel cable and crash through a sign that read “Welcome to Seabrook Beach.”
It happened so fast that Schofield didn’t realize anyone had been hit. He ran to the Honda, and joined Kelley in wrenching open its driver’s door. Schofield noticed Darriean was holding an iPhone. Its screen was smashed. She was crying. She told the men she had glass in her eyes and her mouth. The men told her an ambulance was coming.
“Do I f**** look like I need an ambulance?” she asked.
The men assured her she did.
“My mom is coming to get me,” she said.
The men insisted she stay put, and she grew more upset. “I only took my eyes off the road for a second,” she said.
Schofield’s mind was turning over the scene. The things he’d seen flying in the air, he realized, were bodies.
As bicyclists tended the injured, others were vomiting as they came upon the gruesome scene.
Uhmeyer and Heigh had suffered multiple fractures. Wells and Bouchard’s injuries were grievous and fatal. Their spinal cords were crushed, their hearts and lungs lacerated.
* * *
Tom Rogers is Pam Wells’s widower. He lives in Hamilton with their two teenage children, Alex and Elise. He is a freelance Web designer. He and Wells had been married for 19 years.
His focus now is helping his children to heal. Alex is applying to college this year, Elise is a high school junior with plans to become a doctor. He follows Darriean’s criminal case. The drip-drip of news. The allegations that Darriean had taken fentanyl before the crash; the allegations that she also was high on Klonopin and Percocet.
Rogers is hoping for a plea bargain. Thirty-seven years ago, his brother’s fiancee was killed by a drunk driver on Massachusetts Avenue in Cambridge. The trial was lengthy and beyond painful.
“I don’t want my children to see any of that,” he said.
What he wishes for Darriean is more complicated.
“I would like to see her come out of this a better person,” he said.
Jail, he believes, isn’t likely to produce such a result. “People say I’m being soft, but I’m not sure justice would be served.”
And yet, he can’t abide her going free.
“Her messed-up life has messed up my life and other families’ lives, and now we’re all damaged goods.”
Darriean is out on bail, charged with driving while intoxicated — negligent homicide; negligent homicide; second-degree assault; and manslaughter, and she is living under house arrest. Roarke said she’s staying with their mother’s former boyfriend, Robert Fowler, near her childhood home in Seabrook, her broken path come full circle. But she wasn’t there on a recent day. She wasn’t with Cindy Sheppard, either. Sheppard’s apartment was vacant; only a lace curtain remained in the door window. At the end of January a judge sentenced Sheppard to three to six years in prison for dealing drugs. She is awaiting trial on charges of supplying Darriean with fentanyl and allowing Darriean, whom she knew to be unlicensed, to drive the Honda.
In another Hampton Beach apartment, Cassie answered the door. Her eyes were bloodshot and half open. She leaned against the door frame. She wanted to talk about Darriean. But she couldn’t. Darriean’s lawyer’s orders. “It’s all so wrong,” she said, before closing the door. “So wrong.”
A college fund has been set up for the children of Pam Wells at pamwells.org.
Sarah Schweitzer can be reached at sarah.schweitzer@ globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @sarahschweitzer .