Estimated reading time — 8 minutes
People sometimes ask me what my first memory is. Invariably I lie, because I’m prone to avoid the explanation that comes with the truth. Maybe, from now on, if someone casually asks me “What is your first memory?” I will reach into my bag where there will be copies of this story and I will just hand one over. As they read it, their face will morph from confusion, into the furrowed brow of concern, and finally into the drop-jawed bewilderment that accompanies real fear.
In passing, I tell people that my first memory was of me standing on a stool in front of my kitchen window. It was just after dusk in winter and from where I stood, I could make out the black limbs of the skeletal beech tree that loomed from across the driveway. While that is indeed a real memory, it’s not the first one. If you want to hear about that, here it is:
There was an unfortunate series of incidences that happened in the town where I grew up during the summer of 1989. By incidences, I mean murders. I’m not talking about your run-of-the-mill bar brawl gone too far or an act of passionate revenge. No. The events that happened in Middleton were far more grotesque…. even more so because the victims were children.
I don’t remember the heatwave that had swept Middleton that summer, the pink droplets of melted ice cream on the simmering pavement, or old men reclined in overstuffed chairs in shady living rooms. These precious details were told to me through family members and friends of my parents. They all, to this day say that it was the hottest summer they have ever lived through.
To make the weather even more unbearable, there were weekly brownouts that year due to some oversights at the electric plant in Salem. As a result, homes and businesses would go for hours at a time without air conditioning. Popsicles were promptly sold out in every business after noon; magazines and newspapers weren’t read that summer; they were bought to be used as makeshift fans. It seemed that the only place where air-conditioning still remained during these outages was the car.
I’ve been told by relatives that it was not uncommon during that summer to find neighbors lounging back in their parked cars with the windows up, drinking a beer and listening to the radio. At times it was the only escape from the unbearable humidity and heat.
That’s why, when mothers would go shopping, it became impossible to pull their children from their cars. After all, the kids knew that the inside of whatever clothing or grocery store their mother had taken them to was probably as hot if not hotter than the parking lot. The coolest and best place to be was in the car, with the windows rolled up and that gentle whispering wind seeping through the vents.
With this setting in mind you can understand how “Mr. Teeth,” as he was later called by newspapers, had his pick of the litter, so to speak. He knew that in any given lot outside of a busy grocery or department store, there would be at least two or three cars where the children had been left inside.
One such car was parked outside of the Market Basket on the afternoon of June 3rd. Within sat Jeremy Hagger, a freckled eight year old with a pension for action figures. When Jeremy’s mother returned from her quick dash for butter, she found the back right door of the vehicle ajar, a Darth Vader doll left abandoned on the back seat.
News of the disappearance radiated through the town over the following week up until the day when a jogger noticed a small black Reebok laying in the grass on the edge of the reservoir. Not long afterward, Jeremy’s body was pulled from the brown water and sent to the morgue. It was there that doctors noted what appeared to be bite marks on the boy’s arms and neck.
Victim number two was Amanda DeMiller, a girl of seven who had fallen asleep on her way home from shopping with her mother on July 18th. As was common in those days, a parent might leave their sleeping child in the car once at home. Britta DeMiller, Amanda’s mother, later told police that with the house being as hot as it was, she had thought that Amanda would sleep better in the car with the sliding side door left open.
At some point Mrs. DeMiller looked out the window to see that Amanda was no longer in her seat. The family lived on a fairly wooded road leading into the forests of Middleton. Neighbors were widely separated from one another. Mr. and Mrs. DeMiller spent all of that night scouring the narrow back roads, knocking on the doors of the occasional houses.
After only a three day search, a local boy found Amanda’s body slumped in the corner of his tree house. Her throat was purple from strangulation and covered with bite marks. Her shoes were on the wrong feet. Anyway, that’s how the story goes.
That brings us to my first memory. My parents have since placed the date of this memory to around the third or fourth week of August. It had been about a month since Amanda DeMiller’s murder but no one had been apprehended. People in town were still on edge.
It was at that time, one afternoon when I sat in the front seat of my Mom’s rusty Toyota parked in the giant lot of Henry’s grocery store. I remember that there was a car parked on either side of my mother’s and in front of the Toyota was one of those corrals for shopping carts.
There was music playing quietly on the radio, Madonna maybe, and my hands were sticky from eating candy.
You may wonder how, with all of the horrors that had plagued Middleton that summer, my mother could have left me alone in the car. The fact is, she hadn’t. My older brother, Stephen (age 12 at the time) had been designated as my temporary guardian while she made an emergency stop for flour. It was this “temporary guardian” who decided that this was the perfect opportunity to run to the bookstore nearby to buy a deck of collectible cards. Before he dashed out of the backseat, I remember him saying something like “Don’t go anywhere!”
So there I sat, waiting for one or both of my family members to return. It was then that I saw him and it’s this part which is clear even to this day.
The halogen lamps had just come on all across the lot; they cast that greenish glow from just being turned on. The sky beyond the pines that bordered the market was streaked with pink and purple. It must have been around seven thirty. I remember first seeing him, standing there some 30 feet from the front of our car. Almost instantly, the music from the radio faded from my ears along with the sharp rattle of carriage wheels on the old pavement.
Transfixed, silent, I stared out the windshield at this lanky gaunt figure framed by pink and purple sky. Through a curtain of greasy black hair falling across his brow, I discerned a single eye; it seemed to sort of take on the green glow of those halogen lights. He tilted his head back a bit and the hint of a smile danced across his thin lips.
He must have stood and stared through the windshield at me, transfixed and spellbound as I was, for one whole minute. He then started a slow walk over to my side of the car, never taking his eye from mine. Once he was outside my door, he looked down his long beak-like nose at me. Then looking around, he began to wiggle the handle.
“Open up,” he said, looking down at me again.
I just stared at him without saying anything.
Again, “Open up.”
His long skeletal fingers left the door handle and started to dance across my window tapping here and there.
He crouched down so that he was at my level and started a sort of puppet show with his hands. His dirty fingers dashed across the glass like great pale spiders in a deadly battle. He looked at them and laughed making hissing and growling sounds.
As he made these sounds, his mouth opened up into a full grin and I had a look inside, at rows of long yellow teeth. They are, to this day, the longest and largest teeth I’ve ever seen. There were gaps between them and they reminded me vaguely of dirty piano keys. He seemed to be completely immersed in his spider battle, giggling and clawing at each of his hands.
At one point, he noticed that my window was open just a crack at the top, he looked at me grinning with those mighty teeth and crawled one of his hand spiders up to the space. I was openly sobbing at this point. He managed to squeeze the tips of four fingers through the opening. I caught a greasy whiff of unwashed clothes mingled with the sweet scent of blood.
“Come on! Open up,” he said, in a winy, pleading voice. “Open up.” He said this same sentence in a dozen different voices, from a girly voice to a thick lumberjack one.
By sheer luck, the woman who was parked on the passenger side of our car, returned with all four of her noisy kids in tow. Upon seeing her, the man scurried off in a ducked walk towards the cart corral where he smoothly stood up straight and walked off into the parking lot…but not before looking over his shoulder, gnashing those massive teeth, and catching me with one final blood-chilling stare.
The memory ends there. It was later explained to me that my brother had returned to the car to find me crying hysterically. No matter what he said to calm me through the glass, apparently, I wouldn’t unlock the doors. My mother returned soon after. She said that all I could manage to say through thick sobs was, “There was a man.” I just kept repeating it for hours after that. “There was a man.”
Like the insufferable heat, so too did the Middleton murders come to an end with the changing of the seasons.
Just two weeks after my parking lot encounter, the child killer (who was later identified as Raymond Sandler, age 29) was caught after taking a young girl from a birthday party at a roller rink in Beverly. A worker on his coffee break at the adjacent gas station saw a thin man lead the girl out the back door of the rink and attempt to force her into a red car. The worker called the cops and the car was pulled over on Route 128 just outside of Gloucester.
While I don’t remember it, I first made the connection between the man in the parking lot and “Mr. Teeth” by seeing my father’s newspaper on the coffee table the day after Sandler’s capture. There, in a large blown-up black and white, was the same ghastly face I’d seen just inches from mine with only a layer of glass separating us. Apparently, I didn’t make it to school the day I saw that newspaper on account of I couldn’t stop screaming.
Knowing that I had almost been a victim myself, my family and people around Middleton weren’t willing to tell me anything about the killer once I grew curious, years later. I suppose they didn’t want to freak me out more than I already was.
So, in high school, I did some of my own research. I learned that the Boston Globe had first coined the nickname “Mr. Teeth” both on account of Sandler’s unusually large incisors and his habit of biting the skin of his victims. His means of killing was almost exclusively strangulation. Due to his being diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, Sandler was often delusional. As a result, his story regularly changed. However, after being asked several times, the number of murders he confessed to, while varying, never went above 10.
It was also noted in research on Sandler that he only hunted in the summertime. Some speculated that this was because of the easy access to children who had been left in cool cars while their parents went in to shop. Others suggested that the hot weather triggered something inside of Sandler, something that lay dormant during the fall and winter, then awoke once the temperature hit 80.
Who can say?
They years have softened that first memory a bit. I’m almost forty now and, while that hideous grin isn’t quite as distinct as it used to be, I still see it sometimes when I wake up at night, usually in the warmer months.
Someday, one of my two girls (who know nothing of the summer of ’89) may ask when they’re older, “Hey, Dad? What’s your first memory?” Maybe I’ll tell them about the time I was on the stool in my kitchen looking out at the old beech tree. Or maybe I’ll just say, “Teeth. I remember teeth.”
Credit To – Daniel DuBois