BY JULIE MANGANIS
---- — BEVERLY — As Beverly police detective Jeff Liacos broke the news to Sajan “Sage” Christensen, the teen was skeptical.
“Look at me,” Liacos is heard on the recording of Christensen’s interrogation. “He’s dead.”
“I don’t believe you guys,” Christensen said, as he was given the news about James “J.P.” Vernazzaro, the man he’d agreed to fight at Beverly’s Balch Park hours earlier. Vernazzaro had died on the playground from a 5-inch-deep knife wound to the heart.
“You think I’d kid with you?” asked Liacos.
“He’s not dead,” Christensen said. “There is no way he’s dead.”
Over and over, Christensen expressed disbelief. “He’s not dead, dude,” he can be heard telling the officers.
Christensen, now 20, was one of two men charged in the death of Vernazzaro, 26, on St. Patrick’s Day, 2011.
“Tell us what happened,” state police detective Robert LaBarge pressed. “You’re not telling us the truth.”
“I didn’t lie, dude,” said Christensen. “I don’t think he got stabbed.”
So how, the detectives asked, did Vernazzaro’s blood get all over Christensen?
“There was mad kids, there was a lot a kids,” Christensen, his voice raised, shot back. Maybe it was one of them. But he couldn’t say who, besides him, had a knife.
“You’re in a jam now,” LaBarge told him. “It’s going to look worse. You’re going to look like the biggest liar in the world.”
How did he get the cut on his finger, the detectives asked. “He hit me while I had the knife in my hand.”
They circled back to the issue of Vernazzaro’s blood. “I don’t know how he was bleeding,” said Christensen. “When he fell on top of me he was bleeding. I’m going to be honest. At first I thought he was bleeding from his nose.”
They offered him excuses: his prior abuse had led to his suffering from such intense bouts of anger that he would go into a blackout. He got “suckered” into a fight, ended up in over his head and “lost it.”
But Christensen was adamant. “I didn’t lose my temper,” he said in a raised voice. “I know that I have a history of losing my temper. I didn’t lose my temper. No, no, no.”
He insisted that he’d dropped the knife when Vernazzaro hit him.
LaBarge decided to take a different approach, suggesting that Christensen come clean in case someone had recorded the fight on a cell phone.
“What’s it going to show?” LaBarge asked him.
Christensen fell quiet.
“I don’t know,” he eventually responded.
“Might you have stabbed him?” asked LaBarge.
“I don’t have the courage to stab somebody, dude,” Christensen responded. “Ask the people that know me, man. Oh my God, I didn’t even want to fight him. We were scared of him.”
Co-defendant Adam Martin pleaded guilty last month to a reduced charge of manslaughter and was sentenced to 12 to 15 years in prison, but Christensen rejected the same offer and decided to take his chances at trial. He could face life without parole if convicted of first-degree murder.
Later in the morning, after the prosecution rested its case, Steven Arroyo, a friend of Vernazzaro’s since their early teens, was called by the defense as its first witness.
Defense attorney Ray Buso, relying on statements Arroyo gave police after the incident, had hoped to elicit testimony that would back up his argument that Vernazzaro “charged at” Christensen and Martin.
Instead, on the stand, Arroyo said he couldn’t recall saying that, and described all three as advancing on each other, something that could undercut Christensen’s self-defense claim.
Arroyo, often using colorful language, also couldn’t recall whether Vernazzaro had grabbed the bat from Martin before he was “poked up,” another potential problem for the defense.
The trial will resume Monday.
Courts reporter Julie Manganis can be reached at 978-338-2521, via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @SNJulieManganis.