SalemNews.com, Salem, MA

Local News

March 19, 2011

Two teens accused of killing man

Dispute over girl reportedly sparked fight at playground

BEVERLY — Two teenagers are being held without bail in the beating and stabbing death of a Beverly man, a killing that apparently was motivated by a dispute over a teenage girl.

James "J.P." Vernazzaro, who would have turned 27 today, was beaten in the head with a baseball bat and stabbed in the lower back and upper chest, prosecutors said.

Sajan "Sage" Christensen, 18, and Adam Martin, 17, both residents of a group home on Blaine Avenue in Beverly, are charged with first-degree murder in Vernazzaro's death.

The two pleaded not guilty during their arraignment in Salem District Court yesterday afternoon, where lawyers for the pair argued that it was a case of self-defense and a prosecutor called it a planned attack.

Prosecutor Matthew Hemond said police arriving at the Balch Street Playground on Cabot Street just after 9 p.m found Vernazzaro unconscious on the ground with stab wounds to his lower back. When they flipped him over, they found more stab wounds to his upper chest, as well as wounds to his head.

Efforts to resuscitate him with CPR proved futile, and he was pronounced dead at Beverly Hospital.

Witnesses told the officers that two men, one of them armed with a bat, approached Vernazzaro, and that Christensen then struck him with the bat, knocking him to the ground.

The witness, who knew Christensen, said the pair then ran off toward Balch Street, a side street off Cabot Street, not far from the Cummings Center.

The witness knew that Christensen lived at a group home run by Supporting and Assisting Independent Living (SAIL), a program for at-risk teens.

Police found both Christensen and Martin on the porch. Christensen had visible injuries and dried blood on him, and police later found bloody paper towels he'd apparently used to try to clean himself, Hemond told Judge Dunbar Livingston.

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