By Paul Leighton
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.
Arsenault acknowledged her uncle's past. "He was a big mouth, and it got him into trouble a lot," she said. But she insisted he had been trying to change since the birth of her son two years ago.
"That's what changed him around," Arsenault said. "He could see the road he was going down, and he knew he needed to change, and he did. He became a family man."
Vernazzaro landed a job two years ago as a carnival worker, traveling throughout New England for seven months of the year on a tour that concluded with the Topsfield Fair. He worked as a ticket-seller at the Candy Man game, she said.
"I was going to drop him off in Revere (yesterday)," she said.
Vernazzaro's father, whom he was named after and lives with, is in the hospital after undergoing a hip replacement due to complications from cancer, Arsenault said. His mother, Marie, flew up yesterday from Florida, where she lives with her sister.
Mary Tower, Vernazzaro's sister, said her brother "was definitely going in the right direction."
"It's just really sad," she said. "He was only 26."
Staff writer Paul Leighton can be reached at 978-338-2675 or firstname.lastname@example.org.