By Julie Manganis
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.
One of the witnesses from the playground was brought to the group home and identified both Christensen and Martin.
According the police and prosecutor, during questioning, Martin said he and Christensen had been exchanging phone calls with Vernazzaro all day and that the argument had escalated into a challenge to fight. Martin said the two went to the park, found no one there, then walked to a Burger King a few blocks away.
Then they walked back to the group home, armed themselves with a bat and a knife, and went back to the park, where they encountered Vernazzaro.
Martin initially insisted that he simply threw the bat at Vernazzaro after he "charged" at him, but later admitted striking him in the head.
Christensen, meanwhile, offered a similar account of phone calls back and forth and said that Vernazzaro came at him, striking him in the head with his forearm, and that Vernazzaro then fell on top of Christensen, who had the folding knife open in his hands.
Christensen refused to believe investigators who told him that Vernazzaro was dead, Hemond told the judge.
Judge Livingston, a former prosecutor, asked Hemond what motivated the stabbing.
Friends of Vernazzaro said outside court that he was trying to protect a woman he knew.
Defense lawyers for the accused suggested that they were the ones trying to protect a teenage girl after a series of calls from the victim.
"What you're going to hear is a self-defense case," said Ray Buso, who represents Christensen. "Both of these young men are going to be exonerated."
Martin's lawyer, Jeff Karp, offered a similar assessment.
Buso said it was Vernazzaro who instigated the assault, and that the teens armed themselves because Vernazzaro was so much larger — more than 100 pounds heavier and at least half a foot taller than the teens, as well as a decade older.
Buso also pointed to Vernazzaro's criminal record, which includes convictions for assault and battery with a dangerous weapon, resisting arrest, and breaking and entering. Another case, in which he was charged with assault and battery and threats, was continued without a finding.
"He was known to this young man as a violent and very dirty fighter," Buso said.
Buso said a 17-year-old girl at the group home was getting unwanted calls from Vernazzaro, and that at one point she handed the phone to one of the defendants, who told Vernazzaro, "Leave her the (expletive) alone."
That set off a series of calls back and forth, Buso said, and eventually Vernazzaro told them he would see them at the park.
"They felt they had no choice because he was going to come to the group home," Buso told the judge.
Buso said Vernazzaro taunted the pair, yelling, "Why'd you bring a bat? I'm still going to (expletive) you up."
Hemond countered that the teens could have simply stayed home.
"They put themselves in this position," Hemond said. "They chose to go to the park. They went to the Burger King, planned this out, went back to the group home and armed themselves."
The judge agreed, saying that part of self-defense is removing oneself from a dangerous situation.
He ordered the pair held without bail.
If convicted, both teens face life in prison.
A probable cause hearing is scheduled for April 19, and the lawyers will be back in court next week for some routine, pretrial motions.
Courts reporter Julie Manganis may be reached at 978-338-2521 or email@example.com.