BEVERLY — James Vernazzaro spent St. Patrick's Day partying with friends in the Gloucester Crossing neighborhood where he grew up. After years of trouble, he had more than the holiday to celebrate.
J.P., as he was known, was scheduled to report yesterday for a seven-month tour as a carnival worker. Today would have been his 27th birthday.
"The past few years, he completely changed his life around," said his niece, Katrina Arsenault. "He was a changed man."
Vernazzaro never did make it to his job, or to his birthday.
Prosecutors say he was stabbed and beaten to death with a baseball bat Thursday night at Balch Playground. Two teenagers from a nearby group home were arraigned yesterday in Salem District Court on first-degree murder charges.
While Vernazzaro's alleged assailants were appearing in court, dozens of his relatives, friends and neighbors gathered throughout the day in front of his duplex home at 39 Grant St.
In the neighborhood of triple-deckers bordered by railroad tracks, residents taking advantage of the warmest day of the year sat on their porches and steps and talked about the latest incident to strike the often-troubled area.
"He was supposed to go back to work today," said Andy Hall, who has known Vernazzaro for 15 years. "We were at a mutual friend's house on St. Patrick's Day, and we were having such a good day. It didn't seem like he was having any issue. It's just horrible. Senseless, senseless."
Arsenault, who was only six months younger than her uncle and considered him more like a brother, said Vernazzaro made a "stupid" decision to meet up with his assailants.
"But he definitely didn't deserve this," she said. "No one does."
At 6-foot-2, 280 pounds, with a shaved head and a loud voice, Vernazzaro was a towering and sometimes intimidating presence. He had a criminal record that included convictions for assault and battery with a dangerous weapon, resisting arrest, and breaking and entering.