SalemNews.com, Salem, MA

May 28, 2011

Murder suspects' group home is shuttered

By Paul Leighton
Staff writer

BEVERLY — A local group home that housed two teenagers who are facing murder charges has closed.

The duplex on Blaine Avenue was the home of Sajan Christensen and Adam Martin, who are accused of killing James "J.P." Vernazzaro of Beverly with a baseball bat and knife at Balch Playground on March 17.

The owner of the nonprofit company that ran the home said it closed two weeks ago because the state Department of Children and Families began reducing its referrals to the program after the alleged murder.

Without the referrals, the home did not have enough residents to make it financially viable, said Skip Stuck, chief executive officer of Family Continuity.

"The program was one that had always struggled to maintain capacity and referrals really did slow down after (the alleged murder)," Stuck said. "Whether or not that had anything to do with that, I cannot answer."

A spokeswoman for the Department of Children and Families could not be reached for comment.

A grand jury last week indicted Christensen, 18, and Martin, 17, on first-degree murder charges. Melissa Hicks, 17, who also lived at the home, was indicted on a charge of being an accessory to murder after the fact for trying to dispose of the baseball bat allegedly used to kill Vernazzaro, 27. All three have pleaded not guilty.

The teenagers lived at the group home in a program called SAIL, which stands for Supporting and Assisting Independent Living. Stuck said SAIL was a program for adolescents who are "aging out" of the child welfare system and preparing for independent living.

SAIL was the only group home run by Family Continuity, a nonprofit mental health and social service agency with offices throughout the state, including Beverly and Peabody. It had a capacity of eight residents and a staff of about eight full- and part-time employees, Stuck said.

"It's a terrific program, but it's always been a program that's been difficult financially at that size to really operate," he said. "This was a difficult decision for the agency. Fortunately all of the youth have been placed in good, appropriate settings."

Beverly Police said there have been more than 20 incidents at the Blaine Avenue home in the past year but described most of them as "minor." Prosecutors say Christensen and Martin met up with Vernazzaro at Balch Playground and killed him with a knife and baseball bat in a dispute over a teenage girl. Christensen and Martin are being held without bail.

On Thursday, Hicks was released on personal recognizance at her arraignment at Salem Superior Court, according to Essex District Attorney spokesman Steve O'Connell. Judge Howard Whitehead ordered that Hicks remain in custody of the Department of Children and Families with a 10 p.m. curfew. She is subject to random drug and alcohol tests and must have no contact with either co-defendant.

Staff writer Paul Leighton can be reached at 978-338-2675 or by email at pleighton@salemnews.com.