, Salem, MA

October 2, 2013

Man describes finding knife allegedly used in slaying


---- — BEVERLY — A Beverly retiree told jurors yesterday how, while doing yardwork, he stumbled across what turned out to be a major piece of evidence in the killing of James “J.P.” Vernazzaro, nearly a month after the St. Patrick’s Day 2011 incident.

David Burnham, who lives on Cabot Street, not far from Balch Park, told the Salem Superior Court jury that he doesn’t recall what he was doing on the night of the killing. He suspects he and his wife had already turned in for the night and didn’t hear about what had happened until the next day.

But a few weeks later, on April 12, he was in his yard spreading fertilizer when he noticed the folding knife near the stump of a hemlock tree he’d just had taken down.

Prosecutors allege that’s the knife Sajan “Sage” Christensen, 20, used to kill Vernazzaro, 26, during a fight at Balch Park.

That fight was over Vernazzaro’s contact with a 17-year-old ex-girlfriend of Christensen, Melissa Hicks.

Christensen is on trial, charged with first-degree murder, after rejecting an offer from prosecutors to plead guilty to the lesser offense of manslaughter in exchange for a 12-to-15-year prison term.

His co-defendant in the case, Adam Martin, 19, accepted the same deal last month.

Christensen’s attorney, Ray Buso, has argued that Christensen, a troubled youth who was abused as a child, was trying to defend himself from the older and considerably larger Vernazzaro.

Burnham told jurors that he picked up the knife when he saw it and started to examine it, then brought it closer to the house to show his wife.

“When she saw what I had in my hand, she reminded me it might be what the police were looking for,” he testified. “I dropped it immediately.”

Why, asked prosecutor Kristin Buxton.

“Panic,” said the witness.

In testimony last week and on Monday, jurors heard from a group of witnesses who had been at the park to watch the fight.

A social worker from the Blaine House group home where Christensen and Martin had been placed because they were about to “age out” of foster care also testified about how the two left, returned briefly to the group home, one shirtless, and then left again.

Courts reporter Julie Manganis can be reached at 978-338-2521, via email at or on Twitter @SNJulieManganis.