, Salem, MA

Local News

September 21, 2013

An ambush? Or bullying?

Trial underway in 2011 Beverly slaying

BEVERLY — A prosecutor called the death of James “J.P.” Vernazzaro on a Beverly playground “an ambush.”

The lawyer for the teenager charged with stabbing Vernazzaro to death said it was the unintended outcome of a long-abused teenager defending himself against a “bully.”

The Salem Superior Court jury that has been chosen to decide the fate of Sajan “Sage” Christensen, now 20, will have to decide what was inside Christensen’s head on that St. Patrick’s Day night 21/2 years ago, as Christensen and his friend and fellow group home resident Adam Martin, along with their friend Melissa Hicks, went to Balch Park, armed with a knife and a bat.

Christensen is charged with first-degree murder in Vernazzaro’s death.

Prosecutor Kristen Buxton acknowledged that Vernazzaro, 26, had alcohol and drugs in his system, and that his agreement to fight the much younger Christensen and Martin was “foolish.”

But, said the prosecutor, Vernazzaro was there for a fist fight. “There was no fist fight that night,” said Buxton, describing how the teens armed themselves that night. “It was an ambush.”

“What do we call somebody who’s older, bigger, stronger and who picks on someone smaller, younger and weaker?” Ray Buso, Christensen’s attorney, asked jurors in his opening statement. “A bully?”

Jurors learned that on the night of his death, Vernazzaro weighed 240 pounds, stood nearly 6 feet tall, and was eight years older than Christensen, then 18.

Vernazzaro had been drinking all day, Buso told jurors, and had recently used cocaine and marijuana.

And he wanted Hicks, then a 17-year-old girl, still in braces, just 80 pounds, to come over to his place.

“What was that about?” Buso asked the jury.

That’s what triggered the exchanges between Christensen and Vernazzaro that led up to an agreement to fight.

But, Buso said, Christensen didn’t want to fight. He armed himself, the lawyer said, for protection.

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