SalemNews.com, Salem, MA

October 10, 2013

Stabbing suspect: running away ‘not an option’

BY JULIE MANGANIS
STAFF WRITER

---- — BEVERLY — The Wilmington woman who with her husband adopted Sajan “Sage” Christensen out of the state foster care system a decade ago described to jurors a “charming,” if somewhat fearful, little boy who gradually became a troubled, suicidal teenager.

Eventually, Jane Olingy and Dean Christensen, who had waited until later in life to start their small family by adopting the child, would find themselves overwhelmed by the emotional problems he suffered as a result of childhood abuse and had him hospitalized, Olingy testified during her son’s trial on first-degree murder charges.

Then, she was confronted by prosecutor Kristen Buxton with the reason he was hospitalized and then sent to a residential facility.

“He was hospitalized for threats he made to kill you and your husband with a knife while you were sleeping?” Buxton, holding a report, asked, in the final question of the trial.

“I don’t recall that,” Olingy responded.

Christensen, 20, is charged with first-degree murder in the stabbing death of James “J.P.” Vernazzaro, 26, of Beverly, during a confrontation on the playground at Balch Park on St. Patrick’s Day 2011.

Testimony in his trial in Salem Superior Court wrapped up yesterday, and closing arguments are slated for this morning.

On Tuesday, Christensen took the stand in his own defense, admitting that he’d stabbed Vernazzaro and saying he was “scared.”

But yesterday, under cross-examination by the prosecutor, Christensen was forced to admit that he knew that he and co-defendant Adam Martin, then 17, were going to the park for a fight.

There was a large group of teenagers and young adults there expecting to see the confrontation, he acknowledged.

“If I may explain, I didn’t think anyone expected much of a fight because they knew J.P.,” Christensen testified.

“People were saying we weren’t going to win the fight,” he said.

“You’re being warned you can’t win this fight?” asked Buxton. “That’s why you got the knife?”

“Yes,” Christensen admitted.

“You wanted to win that fight,” suggested the prosecutor. Christensen denied it.

And when the teens got to the park that night, they didn’t see Vernazzaro at first. It wasn’t until one of them called Vernazzaro’s cellphone that he appeared, Christensen acknowledged.

So why not just run away, asked the prosecutor.

“It wasn’t an option,” Christensen said.

“You waited for him,” suggested the prosecutor. In fact, she suggested, it was Christensen and Martin who called Vernazzaro over.

“It might have happened,” Christensen said. “I don’t know what you mean by ‘call,’” he said.

The prosecutor elaborated, quoting Christensen at the park as calling Vernazzaro a vulgarity and telling him to come to them.

Christensen insisted that he simply wanted to talk.

“Why were you going to meet him if you didn’t want to fight him?” Buxton asked.

“To talk to him,” Christensen testified.

Then why did he bring the knife?

Christensen said another friend, Danny Martin, suggested it.

And afterward, why did he toss away his green T-shirt, found later by police with bloodstains on it, in a neighbor’s yard?

“It was dirty,” said Christensen said.

Christensen then made a quick trip back to the park to retrieve his hat.

He testified that he saw Vernazzaro lying on the ground, his head in the lap of a friend.

But, he insisted, “At that point, I didn’t know the extent of the situation.”

He acknowledged, “I saw blood. I didn’t see stab wounds.”

“But you knew you stabbed him?” asked Buxton.

“Yes,” he said.

Throughout his cross-examination, his memory was less clear than it had been under questioning by his own attorney, even when asked about statements he made to police, which had been played in court just last Friday.

At one point, after Christensen denied raising his voice with officers as he denied to them that he had stabbed Vernazzaro, the prosecutor played that section of the tape.

Yesterday, he admitted causing two stab wounds. But he said he had no idea how Vernazzaro got the stab wound on his back.

And at times, Christensen, who showed no emotion during his testimony, challenged the prosecutor.

“Who had the bat?” Buxton asked at one point.

“I think you already know,” Christensen responded.

At another point, Christensen testified that he and Vernazzaro had also exchanged text messages, something police never looked into because they weren’t told about them by Christensen during the interrogation.

“They never asked,” he told Buxton.

During questioning by defense lawyer Ray Buso later in the day, Olingy was asked if she had discussed Christensen’s career goals with him lately.

“He wants to be an attorney,” Olingy said.

Courts reporter Julie Manganis can be reached at 978-338-2521, via email at jmanganis@salemnews.com or on Twitter @SNJulieManganis.