Margery B. Metzger’s true crime book portrays how the Berkshires community responded to dark events 30 years ago
To satisfy fans of the genre, true crime books seem to require a similar admixture of elements – an overview of the workaday lives of the people touched by the crimes; details of their relationships with the monster living in their midst; an overview of that monster’s pathology and origins; unflinching descriptions of the misdeeds; a police procedural; particulars of how the justice system operated; and a where-are-they-now wrap-up. While the set-up and execution of these narratives follow a formula, what distinguishes the better true crime books is the author’s ability to evoke a place, allowing a reader to experience the unfolding drama through the point of view of the people who lived in that setting in a particular moment in history.
Berkshire readers will be able to use more than their imaginations if they choose to travel the journey Pittsfield author Margery Metzger takes us on in her new book, Hidden Demons: Evil Visits a Small New England Town. The story recounts the abysmal life and ghoulish misdeeds of Lewis Lent, a serial killer who used the Berkshires as a base of operations during a years-long crime spree in the 1980s and early 1990s. Lent kidnapped and killed a Pittsfield teenager named Jimmy Bernardo in 1990; his crime spree ended when he was apprehended after an unsuccessful attempt to snatch a local schoolgirl in 1994. While he was convicted of just one murder and confessed to another (of 12-year-old Sara Ann Wood in New York State), Lent is suspected to have committed several other so-far unsolved crimes, details of which he seems likely to keep secret until he dies in prison. Many local readers will no doubt remember these events, and perhaps even know some of the people whom Metzger portrays. Certainly, most of us will be familiar with the locales where these unspeakable crimes unfolded.
This will make Hidden Demons a particularly difficult read for Berkshire readers, but one worth taking on for those with a strong heart and stomach who want to learn more about local history, good and bad. Like all accomplished true crime stories, Metzger’s narrative lays bare how easily public safety, which so much depends on goodwill, can be breached by an evildoer playing by a different set of rules. She also portrays what good people in law enforcement, the courts, and the penal system have to do to restore order and achieve justice. Finally, Metzger sensitively portrays the brokenness that remains after a community is visited by a perpetrator of fathomless evil.
In December, the BJV caught up with Metzger, who shared her motivations and experiences in writing Hidden Demons, as well as a surprising confession – she is not a reader of true crime books herself and that her narrative developed organically. Our conversation was edited for length and clarity.
BJV Interview: Margery Metzger
You lived in the Berkshires at the time the events you recount in Hidden Demons occurred. How did you, and the community, experience the story as it unfolded?
It affected us terribly. Jimmy Bernardo was just a couple of years older than my older daughter. He lived right around the Cinema Center, was a couple of miles away (on Housatonic Street, where a U-Haul lot now operates). It was shocking and really scary, because for three years afterward, there were no answers to how this happened and what happened. And then then Rebecca Savarese was walking to school one morning, and this guy just tries to kidnap her – we're talking right smack dab in the middle of downtown Pittsfield, right under the window of the DA's office. Rebecca is a year older than my daughter, and she was in school with (former Massachusetts senator) Ben Downing, whose father was the DA at the time. Everybody has some connection. After that, I never let my kids wait for the school bus by themselves. I never let them ride their bikes anywhere alone. I was terrified because you never knew what was going to happen. I don't think there were any parents that didn't talk about it.
Was most of your research interviews, or was it archival?
When I had my children, I didn't have any family to help me. I worked part time, and I needed a babysitter. So I found this older woman, Harriet Boyington, who babysat, and then her granddaughters Amy and Allison Boyington also used to babysit. Amy and Allison's father, Owen, was an officer in the Pittsfield Police Department and when they used to babysit, he used to do a drive around every night just to make sure everything was okay. I got friendly with the Boyingtons. When I retired, I looked at notes I had taken at the time and I said, you know what? This is a really interesting story. Maybe I can write a book about it. So I called Owen, and when I spoke to him, he led me to Philip Shallies, the man whose truck Louis Lent was driving. Phil Shallies and his sister had kept scrapbooks of everything about the case. I read through everything, took notes on everything. Then, one thing leads to another. You call somebody, interview them, they give you another piece of information. You call somebody else. They tell you something else. You read something, you pick it up, and that's how it started.
I tried to [access court documents], and this was not easy for a couple of reasons. First of all, this is still an open, active case almost 29 years later. There are people who were working on the case who are very protective, and they would not talk to me and told a number of people not to talk to me. Another thing was that several people who worked on the case have died.
Finally, about a year ago, one of the people from the DA's office went and dug out 15 boxes of files for me to look through. Judge Daniel Ford, as soon as he retired from the bench, came over with all his decisions and gave them to me to read, which was extremely helpful.
In confronting this story and reporting on this story and retelling it, you had to look very deeply into a very dark human being, somebody who was broken in horrific ways by his own abusive family. How did you reconcile the story of his childhood with the monster that he became?
I have a social work background, but I also worked as a psychotherapist for a number of years at Rutgers Medical School before I moved up to the Berkshires. So I had a pretty good understanding of what psychopathic personality was like. There's a part of me that feels so sorry for a child that is so stunted along the way because something traumatic happened, whether they're either born with some kind of brain defect or something happened to their brain, or they were just so neglected or mistreated at an early age that this is the way they have developed. For them, it's survival – they do what they have to do to survive. Lewis Lent did horrible things and he has no regrets. He can't tell the truth. But his defense mechanisms, as weak as they are, have let him survive.
Do you think that there is any chance of him giving any insight to any other crimes he may have committed?
There are things that he'll never tell anybody. It's his power. He still is holding the power. He lets out little bits when he's in a jam, when he's worried about something. He's not telling where these bodies are because it's his bargaining chip. He wouldn't talk to me because there was nothing in it for him. I wrote to him three times, and the third time he answered me in a snippy little way. Then, the day after he answered my I letter, I got a phone call from a friend of his who has his power of attorney. And this guy says, ‘Oh, when Lew dies, he's going to be buried on my property in Vermont. And I see Lew all the time, and Lew wants to know about you.’ I said, ‘Well, he's not going to know about me because it's not important.’
This guy kind of frightened me at that point. He said he’d have to ask Lew if he could talk to me. Later, he got back to me and asked me if I wanted to know where Lew buried the bodies. I said to this guy, no, I'm not policemen. I don't want to know. I just wanted to talk to Lent to see if I could get a more balanced picture of what was going on. I knew all along I'd never get the truth out of him. And he didn't want to talk to me. After [Lent’s friend] called me, it scared me enough that I just did not want to go there.
Did immersing yourself so deeply into this person and his crimes give you any insights into what you one might call “the social fabric” and how it operates and how someone like Lewis Lent can disrupt it?
Well, I got more of a picture of how someone could function under the radar, which Lent did. I quote a line from that song from Chicago, “Mister Cellophane / shoulda been my name / Mister Cellophane / 'Cause you can look right through me / walk right by me / and never know I'm there.” That's what he managed to do for a very long time. With true crime, I think readers really focus so much on the criminal. My focus was that I saw a lot of heroes in this. First of all, Officer Owen Boyington – he nabbed Lewis Lent. He was talking to Lent about trying to kidnap Rebecca Savarese, and he asked the right questions. All of a sudden, after three years where nobody could make heads or tails out of who killed Jimmy Bernardo, Owen Boyington put it together in just a few minutes. It just clicked for him. He knew it. And to me, that was brilliant.
When you had the task force [that investigated Lent’s crimes] come together, they were so well organized that they became the example that the FBI used for setting up its way of solving serial killings. They still use protocol that Pittsfield established. And then I saw the brilliant work of the judge. He was able to get through all the trials – and there was no appealing of anything that he did because he was strictly by the book on everything he wrote. The DA, Gerard Downing, was incredible. He knew that he had to try the cases in Massachusetts because Lent would get the full penalty that he would not get in New York. He knew that Lent would never tell the Wood family what he did with Sara Ann, and he just stuck his guns. It was not easy for Downing. He really took a lot of flak. So I saw it in a very different way than maybe a lot of true crime buffs would read a book and say, oh, this guy's so awful. Well, Lent was awful. But I also saw a lot of really good police work, a lot of good work in the courts. And that was what I wanted to highlight, as well.
Hidden Demons: Evil Visits a Small New England Town by Margery B. Metzger is available at The Bookstore in Lenox and through Amazon in hardcover, paperback, and ebook editions. An audiobook will also be available in the near future.