SPRINGFIELD — The woman was limping as she walked home through the South End of Springfield. It was late at night in February, and she was alone. She was short, thin, and tired.
A black car pulled up beside her, and the man inside asked if she needed a ride.
“Am I safe?” she said she asked. She had lived a hard life. Don’t worry about it, he told her.
The woman had just had ankle surgery, and all she wanted was to walk in her front door. So she climbed into the vehicle. The driver smelled strongly of body odor, like he hadn’t showered, she said. She knew right away that he’d been drinking. He started driving, but he was going the wrong way: He wasn’t taking her home, she said she realized with horror.
And then he locked the doors.
At the methadone clinics and drug-afflicted neighborhoods of Springfield and Chicopee, Stewart Weldon had a reputation as an erratic and violent crack user who preyed on women in the throes of relapse or withdrawal, plying them with free drugs before turning abusive.
“You’d look at him but you couldn’t see. There’s not a human there,” said a woman named Cassie, who said Weldon once mugged and tried to rape her. “You’d see nothing in his eyes.”
Still, no one was prepared for the discovery last month of three bodies at the home where he lived. The grisly scene was revealed after Weldon was arrested for allegedly kidnapping and beating another woman who managed to survive. She told police he’d hit her with a hammer.
After Weldon’s arrest on May 27, Springfield police spent days searching the home on Page Boulevard, a gray-green bungalow encircled by a chest-high wooden fence, where neighbors said they had seen him muttering to himself, or frantically digging in the rain and mud.
Weldon has not been charged with the deaths of any of the women whose bodies were found on his property: 34-year-old America Lyden and 47-year-old Ernestine Ryans, both of Springfield, and 27-year-old Kayla Escalante, of Ludlow. And police have not said how Weldon came into contact with them, how they came to be at his home, or how they died.
Interviews over the past week and a half with more than a dozen people who knew Weldon, however, reveal a man with a reckless temper, given to sudden and public outbursts of brutality, who seemed to focus his pursuit on women who appeared sick or struggling. Two women — Cassie, whom the Globe is identifying only by first name, and the limping woman he allegedly picked up late at night, whom the Globe is not naming — said Weldon attacked them, but that they were able to escape. Most of those who spoke did so on condition of anonymity. They were interviewed outside the methadone clinics where some of the alleged victims were patients, on the faded blacktop of High Street, a downtrodden section of Springfield, where many said he picked up women, and on the streets surrounding a shuttered Springfield bus terminal where he spent time.
They all agonized over the same question. They sensed he was a menacing presence, but should they have seen beneath his volatility to something more sinister? And, for the women who said they escaped him: How close did they come to disappearing, too, their faces plastered on Missing Persons posters, their bodies buried somewhere under the dirt at 1333 Page Blvd.?
History revealed in rap sheet
Cassie knew Weldon, now 40, back in 2014 and 2015, when she used to go to his house in Westfield to smoke weed and hang out, she said. He was odd, she said, but seemed gentle — so unlike the man she said cold-cocked her while she walked alone in late 2016 that she did not even recognize him at first.
Much of Weldon’s history remains murky, illuminated mostly through a lengthy rap sheet which includes dozens of charges in New Jersey and Massachusetts, including sexual assault, assault with a dangerous weapon, and felony breaking and entering at night, according to records from Springfield police and reporting from NJ.com. The outcome of all the cases against Weldon, who has racked up 68 charges in Springfield since 2002, was not immediately available.
At a bail hearing in November 2017, a lawyer for Weldon said his client had “severe” ADHD and cognitive difficulties. Weldon, in that case, had been charged with assaulting police who were investigating a report that he attacked a woman.
Weldon’s family has largely declined to comment. One aunt told the Daily Mail that Weldon was “sick” and had been “off his meds.” He was a dealer, she told the news outlet, and frequently in and out of jail.Related: In Springfield, search for answers goes on
Cassie remembered one night that Weldon was smoking crack and struck up a conversation with some unseen individual.
“Who you talking to?” someone asked him, Cassie said.
Weldon pointed to the empty air.
Cassie and Weldon were never close friends, and they fell out of touch after about 2015. They did not meet again, she said, until Christmas Eve or New Year’s Eve of 2016, when she said he attacked her.
Cassie, who is 5 feet 2 inches and thin, was walking alone around 11 p.m., she said, when she went to take money from her bra. A man appeared out of nowhere, she said, and punched her hard, demanding her money.
Then, he started shouting at her: “Bend over, bitch!”
Cassie said she screamed “Rape!” and he ran away. Her husband said she was bruised for days afterward.
The encounter was so fast, so terrifying, and so out of context, that Cassie said she did not recognize the man she says attacked her. It wasn’t until Weldon’s picture flashed on television in connection with the bodies found at his home that Cassie put it together, she said.
Cassie had not reported the assault when it occurred, she said, but is considering filing a police report now.
Looking back, she said, Weldon was always cavalier with women. His approach, she said, was to have sex with a woman and then move on.
‘He’s a different person’
On High Street in Springfield, young men stare from front stoops, or circle interlopers slowly and watchfully on bicycles. Drug use is a constant problem in the breezeways and stairwells of the brick and stone apartment buildings that line the narrow street, according to police documents.
It was here that residents and people who knew Weldon — who went by “Jersey” — say he came to pick up women and drugs.
Anthony, who asked to be identified only by his first name, said he knew Weldon for three years, and used to have him over to his house to drink beers. Whatever dark secrets Weldon was keeping, Anthony said, he guarded them closely.
“He always hid it,” Anthony said. “Came across as cool, calm, collected. When he got with these women, he’s a different person.”
Anthony knew Weldon’s girlfriend, who friends and court documents say was the woman who told police Weldon beat her, raped her, and hit with the hammer. The Globe is not identifying her. Related: Police discover three bodies in Springfield at home of man charged with kidnapping
The young woman would show up to Anthony’s apartment bruised and beaten, he said, and on multiple occasions, Anthony said, he confronted Weldon over his treatment of her.
“Yo, you better leave that girl alone, man,” Anthony told him the last time he saw him about three months ago, he said.
Anthony was not the only man who said he tried to intervene on the young woman’s behalf. Another man, interviewed outside a methadone clinic, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that he used to sell cocaine and heroin to Weldon.
One day in the late summer or early fall of last year, the man said he watched Weldon begin slapping the young woman at a now defunct bus terminal on Main Street in Springfield. The man said he and several other men silently surrounded him, and Weldon took off. The young woman asked them not to get involved, he said, because it would only make things worse for her.
A third man, who was also interviewed outside a methadone clinic and spoke on condition of anonymity, said he had run Weldon out of the Forest Park neighborhood in Springfield, because Weldon was picking up women there — and targeting those who appeared sickest or most vulnerable.
Women gone missing
It is not clear when each of the women whose bodies were found on Weldon’s property died. The lawyer defending Weldon on the kidnapping charges declined to comment.
America Lyden, known for her sunny personality, her quickness to smile and hug, was the first to be reported missing, on Dec. 1, 2017.
Lyden, who had two daughters, struggled with drug addiction, and had come apart after her sister, Felicia Canales Gomez, died in 2010 of a drug overdose. Lyden took to calling herself “Jordan,” the name her sister had often used.
“The grieving didn’t stop,” said Hope Gomez, 58, Canales Gomez’s mother-in-law.
When Lyden first dropped out of contact in late summer of 2017, her family did not worry: It was not uncommon for her to disappear for short periods. But when she skipped Thanksgiving, they knew something was truly wrong.
Jason Walsh, who dated Lyden, said he fears that she relapsed and then fell into Weldon’s orbit.
“She didn’t deserve this,” he said.
Ernestine Ryans was the next to be reported missing, on March 18 of this year, 10 days after her family had seen her last.
Ryans, too, had battled drug addiction, according to her brother. She had two daughters, one 25 and one 12, and had always tried to be a good mother despite her demons, her brother said. When she first disappeared, her family held out hope that she had gone to Connecticut.
The youngest of the three women found dead at Weldon’s home, Kayla Escalante, was never reported missing at all. Court records show that she was homeless on and off for years, alienated from her family, and dealing with drug addiction and mental health issues.
Those who knew Escalante said she had talked often of getting clean. And it seemed that she had finally done it in 2015, when she joined New Day Church in Springfield, where congregants took her in, baptized her, and even threw her a baby shower, because she was expecting a little girl.
But as suddenly as she’d appeared in the pews, she vanished. In January 2016, Chicopee police took her to Baystate Medical Center in Springfield after she threatened to kill herself. Six months later, Springfield police arrested her after finding her with crack cocaine inside an apartment building in the High Street neighborhood.
Though many people on High Street and at the methadone clinics knew Weldon or the women, how Weldon came to meet the women remained a mystery.
There is one spot near Page Boulevard, however, where Weldon and all three of the women found dead on his property were familiar faces. Viraj Mahida, owner of Cottage Street Liquors, said Weldon patronized his store daily and the women found dead were regular customers. Weldon stopped in several times a day, Mahida said, to buy Natural Ice beer by the can, often with the woman whom he would later be accused of kidnapping and beating. Ryans came in for Arbor Mist wines; Escalante bought cigarettes. Both sometimes came in with Weldon, Mahida said. Lyden, too, came into the store, but never with Weldon.
A few days before his arrest, Mahida said, Weldon came in with the woman who was rescued from his car. The young woman looked in bad shape. Her face and left leg were swollen.
“I ask her so many times, ‘Hey, what’s going on? Do you want to go see doctor?’ ” Mahida said. “ ‘If you need help, I will take you to the doctor. I can call the ambulance for you.’ ”
Weldon told him they would seek medical attention. The pair left the store. The next time Mahida saw Weldon, it was on television, with news of the discovery of the bodies at his house flashing on the screen.
‘You’re not going anywhere’
In the car that February night with the doors locked, the woman with the limp was terrified and planning her escape. The man who had allegedly picked her up and refused to let her out of his car told her how pretty she was, how he had never seen a woman like her, and how badly he wanted to have sex with her.
“You’re not going anywhere,” he told her, she said.
The woman described her story during two meetings with the Globe, telling a reporter that she did not know the man who picked her up until she saw Weldon’s photograph on television at the end of May, and filed a police report.
To corroborate her story, the Globe spoke briefly with her boyfriend, who said he accompanied her to the police department to file her complaint. On June 4, Weldon was arraigned on charges of kidnapping and assault to rape stemming from an alleged encounter in February. A judge has impounded police records in that case. Globe reporters accompanied the woman to the Springfield Police Department Friday to obtain a copy of her police report, but she said that officers declined to provide it.
Springfield police and the Hampden district attorney’s office said Friday it would not comment on the woman’s account.
The Globe attempted to speak with the woman for a third time on Saturday, but was rebuffed. The woman said Springfield police had instructed her not to discuss the case further.
Elizabeth Dunphy Farris, legal counsel for the Hampden DA, said she couldn’t comment on the woman’s account. The district attorney’s office, she said, intends to keep her identity secret. Related: Woman found dead at home of Springfield suspect once found solace among faithful, pastor says
The night Weldon allegedly picked her up, the woman said, he drove around with her for a long time before pulling into a grayish house she assumed was his home.
When he opened her door, he began dragging her out of the car by her hair, she said, and then by her legs when she began kicking. He told her to be quiet, she said.
“You’re coming with me,” she said he said.
The woman thought she was going to die.
But then, she said, another woman appeared — she thought it was a neighbor but was not sure. The Globe could not locate a neighbor who recalled the incident.
The other woman told Weldon to let go of the woman he’d allegedly picked up or she would call the police, and Weldon did. She drove the woman home.
The woman Weldon allegedly attacked did not call police, because she assumed no one would believe her, she said. Now, though, it’s all she thinks about.
“It’s a nightmare to me,” she said, her voice shaking. “I could have been one of those girls.”
John R. Ellement and Jeremiah Manion of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Evan Allen can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @evanmallen. Laura Crimaldi can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @lauracrimaldi.