Scott Loring Sanders
Will-o’-the-wisp: a ghostly light seen at night over bogs, swamps, and marshes.
Will-o’-the-wisp: a metaphor describing something sinister and confounding.
Long Valley, New Jersey, where I grew up in the 1970s and ’80s, is barely a speck on the map. It’s a quaint town, reminiscent of a New England village. George Washington passed through during the Revolutionary War. Albert Einstein ate dinner at the Long Valley Inn. A river bisects the pastoral town center, and in the summer, as kids, we floated it on inner tubes. A giant oak stood in front of the General Store, and at Halloween, children threw toilet paper high into its leafless branches. Nearby was a two-century-old Lutheran church, as well as the stone remnants of a crumbling sawmill. Ballantine Lumber, my first employer, sat alongside the defunct railbed where trains, only a few decades earlier, stopped to deliver pallets of bricks and kegs of nails.
Long Valley is also home to the Hookerman. Like most good ghost stories, it’s grounded—to some degree—in fact. The particulars vary. The version I grew up with contends that a century ago, a train was traveling through town when a brakeman saw something. Perhaps a bear or deer. Or maybe what caught his eye was simply a zigzag of moonlight reflecting off the South Branch of the Raritan. Regardless, as he leaned out to examine the tracks, what he definitely didn’t see was a dangling tree branch. The man was ejected, his arm severing at the elbow under the crushing weight of a boxcar. His body was never found. Afterward, a strange orb began to appear, floating above the rails. As the story goes, the mysterious orange light is the brakeman’s lantern as he wanders the tracks, searching for his arm. A steel hook has replaced his hand, a formidable weapon if someone dares to intervene.
Whether or not a real ghost haunts the tracks is up for debate, but there’s little doubt the lights are real. Scientists who’ve studied the phenomena have conflicting theories. Swamp gas is one possibility. Another is that a high concentration of quartz, combined with minor seismic activity, creates electrical discharges in the form of ball lightning.
When I was growing up, we sure as hell hadn’t been privy to any scientific research. No, back then we took the Hookerman at face value; he was absolutely real and would kill you, period. As much as I’d like to claim otherwise, I’ve never witnessed the lights or seen any convincing pictures or evidence. A YouTube search produces grainy amateur videos, but the images aren’t exactly compelling. But that’s part of the allure, right? After all, ghosts can’t be captured on film. Everybody knows that.
I played along those tracks as a boy. One of my best friends, Craig, lived nearby, and we’d often walk the railbed, using the various dilapidated bridges and trestles to cross the river to get to the pizzeria. The rails had been removed, but cinders and rotted ties were still scattered about, the smoky, intoxicating fumes of creosote sometimes lingering on hot summer days.
One late October afternoon, as we crossed a trestle, we spotted an empty folding chair blocking our path. Craig picked it up, about to throw it into the river (because that’s what thirteen-year-old boys did, after all) when a man’s voice boomed, “Put that down.”
Craig froze, still holding the chair, and we both glanced around. We saw nothing. “Don’t do it,” said the voice, and this time I pinpointed the location. Standing in the crotch of a sycamore, thirty feet off the ground, was a bearded man dressed in fatigues and holding a compound bow. We took off, running without stopping until an enormous cornfield swallowed us, the dead stalks still standing, the crisp brown leaves wilted and drooping.
Once sure we hadn’t been followed, our minds rapidly switched to the next bit of mischief. In this case, the corn. We transformed into NFL running backs, crushing and stomping would-be tacklers. Or better yet, we spread our arms, crucifix style—giant lords dominating the commoners—and knocked down stalks fifty at a time, the tough fibers ripping our skin.
As a boy, playing in the shadows of the Hookerman’s backyard was the definition of autumn. A chill in the air, the faint smell of wood smoke, the possibility of a ghost lurking in the bottoms. It was glorious, innocent, mischievous. And just creepy enough to keep us on our toes.
Today, that abandoned railway is a fifteen-mile-long stretch of nature trail paralleling the twists and turns of the South Branch. But in the ’70s, it was an eerie dirt path cutting through town before it meandered through farmland where ghosts lingered and older kids went to perpetrate nefarious things. There were plenty of turnouts where teenagers could park, hidden from the cops, to make out with their girlfriends or have bonfire parties under the ruse of searching for the Hookerman. Going to the tracks to drink beer and smoke weed while looking for the lights was a rite of passage.
Railroads, in general, tended to create a seedy allure, and when you lived in a town that was home to a popular ghost story, the mystique was only amplified. But in 1985, something occurred near the tracks that was all too real. Something that wasn’t a joke or entertaining in a ghost-story, Hookerman kind of way.
On Thursday, September 12, 1985, I was on the football field playing both running back and cornerback. I was a sophomore and got time on the JV and varsity squads. On that day, during a JV game, I was either tackling someone or running the ball at the exact same time as a freshman, Rachel Domas, started walking home from school after missing her bus.
While I rushed for a first down, Rachel (who I didn’t know, though I was acquainted with her brother, Matt, a senior) completed the first leg of her three mile journey, books and purse in tow. While a handful of parents cheered from the stands after our first score, Rachel made it to Fairview Avenue, the street she lived on. At halftime, hot and sweaty, I knelt in the end zone, sucking pulp from quartered oranges as Coach went over the game plan. Meanwhile, two miles from that football field, Rachel vanished. In the locker room, I changed out of my pads, drank Gatorade, then my father drove me home. Around the same time, Matt and his parents were in the first phases of shock, their worst fears playing out. Rachel was nowhere to be found. Her friends and family were questioned while I ate ice cream and watched television before heading to bed, oblivious that a classmate had gone missing under suspicious circumstances.
Rachel was in the Gifted and Talented program. She played the cello. Not into drugs or alcohol. As one of her friends, Shannon, recalled thirty years later, “The police grilled me on whether she could have run away, or maybe she was in ‘trouble.’ I explained how in no way was that possible. Rachel was a good girl. Like the best, nicest, most well-behaved high schooler around.”
Rachel’s family and friends echoed Shannon’s sentiments to the lead detective, Gary Micco. Detective Micco was a rookie but had common sense. And that common sense said he absolutely believed them. Rachel walking home and not telling anyone fit perfectly with her character. But not calling to let her mother know her whereabouts, hours later, didn’t.
That same evening, Detective Micco talked with employees at the Getty gas station, located on the corner a few hundred yards from her house. Those employees stated they’d seen a green Volvo parked off the road in the woods earlier that day. They mentioned this because they’d recognized the vehicle; it belonged to a former coworker. Detective Micco located the car’s owner and questioned the young man for several hours. He was cooperative, said he’d had car trouble but hadn’t seen Rachel. Micco’s intuition told him something was off. He impounded the Volvo but was forced to release the man for lack of evidence.
At 3 a.m., twelve hours after Rachel went missing, Detective Micco and his partner, Detective George Deuchar, drove the guy home. As soon as they dropped him off, they both felt they were making a huge mistake, but without any evidence, they were stuck. At 4 a.m., the detectives explored the abandoned railroad tracks near Rachel’s home. The very same tracks where the Hookerman prowled, where I played as a kid. They scanned the woods and embankments but found nothing out of the ordinary.
Unbeknownst to anyone, while Micco and Deuchar patrolled the tracks, a local woman named Nancy Weber was experiencing strong visions of a brown-haired girl and an older boy in the woods. The boy smelled strongly of gasoline. His name was Michael. She envisioned an altercation and struggle. On Friday morning she talked to Detective Micco and informed him of what she’d “seen.” Micco was taken aback. It was impossible for her to have known that the nineteen-year-old kid he’d interviewed the night before was named Michael. Michael Manfredonia, to be exact. And the gasoline smell? Michael had once pumped gas at the Getty station, but again, Nancy couldn’t have been privy to that information. Micco certainly found it curious but dealing with a self-proclaimed psychic wasn’t at the top of his priority list. Before he got off the phone, Nancy provided one final detail. The girl was dead.
That same Friday morning, the hallways of West Morris Central were abuzz. Teachers tried to keep us focused, but Rachel was on everyone’s mind. What if something bad had happened? But that didn’t seem possible. Not in Long Valley. There were conjectures, rumors—teenagers being teenagers. She’d probably gotten lost. Maybe walked the tracks. Stepped in a hole. Broke her leg. That particular Friday happened to be the 13th, and the eponymous movie franchise was in its heyday. Of course kids made Jason jokes, theorizing he’d probably abducted her. Or maybe the Hookerman snatched her instead. The rumors were exciting and weird. It hadn’t gotten real yet.
In the early afternoon, walking through the cluttered hallway, Rachel’s brother passed. Matt was thin with light hair cut short on the sides, long in back—mullet style. Work boots, jeans, denim jacket. What struck me were his eyes: bugged and glassy. He stared straight ahead, dazed, while everyone gawked. I wondered why he was even in school. Did his parents push him? Did the police advise, “Follow your normal routine. We’ll find her soon.” Maybe he chose to go of his own accord. Perhaps that was preferable to his mother’s wails, to his father’s unraveling. I don’t know. But witnessing him that day—staring blankly at a screen of horror only he could see—was unsettling.
Thirty years later, I talked with a former friend and classmate of Matt’s named Mark. He told me, “I saw Matt in the hallway that day and ignorantly said, ‘I heard your sister’s missing. What’s going on?’ Matt looked at me, didn’t say a word, and started crying. I didn’t know what to do, so I tried to comfort him.”
I asked Mark, “Did you feel guilty after saying that?” implying that perhaps he’d been insensitive. He replied, “I don’t think anyone outside the family conceivably thought anything bad had happened. But when Matt started crying, it hit home. I think he knew something horrible may have occurred.”
I was one of two sophomores who dressed out for varsity. Friday afternoons were our easy day. No pads, no wind sprints, no conditioning. I stood near the end zone, shagging punts while my assistant coach, Mr. McCloskey, shot the shit with me.
As we chatted, something thrummed in the distance, like the heavy bass from a passing teenager’s car. It was the pulse of a low-flying helicopter. The chopper appeared over the distant treetops, then buzzed the football field, flying so low I saw men with binoculars leaning out the side.
Mr. McCloskey spun a ball between his hands. He had a strange face tic, where he would blink in a sluggish, exaggerated way. Like closing his eyes in slow motion. “They’re searching for that missing girl,” he said.
“Yeah,” I replied, though I hadn’t actually made the connection. I’d been consumed with practice. I’d forgotten about Rachel. Forgotten about Matt in the hallway. “What do you think happened, Mr. M?”
He blinked lethargically, spun the ball on his finger like a basketball, shrugged. “I don’t know. But it doesn’t seem good.”
Friday evening, more helicopters. Police informed partying teenagers to stay indoors while the choppers searched with spotlights. Were they looking for Rachel? Or an assailant? Both? We didn’t know. We were teenagers, immune and immortal. It was fun to speculate. Still not scary. Still not real.
Matt and his parents had endured over twenty-four hours without information. As they sat in their living room or paced the halls, every minute must have been nauseating. They’d have to survive another torturous night before they’d get any news.
On Saturday afternoon, the varsity game went on as scheduled. I mainly hugged the sidelines, only playing on special teams. After the game, the cheerleaders sang us the school song, them with their plaid skirts, bare legs, and poofy hair, rocking side to side, while we, the football players, ogled them. As the cheerleaders swayed, locked arm in arm, I had no thoughts of Rachel. Her name wasn’t mentioned during the game or in the locker room. What none of us knew yet, as the bubbly singing continued, was that the police had made a discovery.
Around kickoff, Detective Deuchar had received a call from a search team member. They’d found Rachel’s purse in the woods. And then a shoe. Deuchar hoped she had just gotten lost or disoriented, but by the time he arrived, the news had grown far more chilling.
Rachel lay dead in the woods, in the same general area as the railroad tracks. She’d been stabbed twenty-six times in the chest and back. She’d been raped. She’d been dumped in a ditch along a trail and covered with sticks, rocks, and leaves. She’d still been alive when her killer left her for dead. She’d only been fourteen.
That afternoon, Detectives Micco and Deuchar drove to the Manfredonia residence where Michael lived with his parents. They planned to arrest him but discovered he’d jumped out a bathroom window. An all-out manhunt ensued, complete with tracking dogs.
But on Saturday evening, none of that information had been released yet. More likely than not, I was getting drunk with my friends. I’m sure we discussed the missing girl, but for us, life was already moving on. There was beer to drink, girls to flirt with, fun to be had. While we tapped quarters off a table and into a shot glass, the lives of Matt and his parents had come to a standstill.
By Sunday morning, with Manfredonia still on the run and the news of Rachel’s death now public, Detective Micco was desperate. That’s when he thought of Nancy Weber, the psychic. He knew it was crazy, but he called her anyway. She stated she might be able to assist with Michael’s whereabouts if she had a link, something he’d previously handled.
Nancy met Micco in a parking lot, and when she got into his patrol car, he handed her a metal wire from Michael’s vehicle. She quickly had a vision. “He’s suicidal. He’s somewhere on the opposite side of the mountain from where he killed her. I see two 55 gallon oil drums nearby. He’s groggy, delirious, delusional. He overdosed on something. He’s on the hill watching you. He can see the police at his house.”
It was true. An officer had been placed inside Michael’s home with his parents’ consent. Micco was overwhelmed, so he asked Nancy to make a sketch of the drums’ location. She had just begun when she stopped and said, “You’re going to catch him soon.” Seconds later, as Micco tells it, the officer hidden inside Manfredonia’s home relayed a message via walkie-talkie. “All units, he’s in the house.”
Micco raced to the residence. When he arrived, Michael was in an ambulance, suffering from self-inflicted razorblade wounds. Micco jumped in and read Manfredonia his rights en route to the hospital. Later it was determined Michael had been hiding in a landfill adjacent to his home, surrounded by oil drums. Tests would show he’d swallowed a large quantity of Tylenol and Sudafed. He’d told Micco he wanted to die.
Nancy’s information had been hauntingly accurate.
I want to be clear about something. I don’t believe in psychics or ghosts. The whole idea of the Hookerman is fun, sure, and I’d love to accept it as truth, but I’m a realist. And fortune tellers? Psychics? Not so much. I hadn’t even heard about Nancy Weber until twenty years after Rachel’s death. A television show called Psychic Investigators ran an episode on the murder. Detectives Micco and Deuchar were interviewed, as was Nancy. I found them to all be genuine and credible. Even still, I’m not convinced. Maybe Nancy heard a few things over a police scanner. Maybe some of the narrative was skewed during the episode to tell a more compelling psychic story. I don’t know, but supernatural activity—as intriguing as it may be—isn’t something I accept. The same goes for channeling Rachel’s spirit or God or angels or any other mysticism.
So how do I explain Nancy’s visions? Well, I can’t.
Based on Manfredonia’s later statements, Rachel walked by as he worked on his car. They knew each other informally. The year previous, she passed the Getty station on her way to the nearby middle school, and Michael would sometimes say hello. Since Rachel was already familiar with him, perhaps she was less on guard that day. According to Michael, when he saw her, he asked her out and she rebuffed him, ridiculing his looks and attire.
Furious, he grabbed a knife from his car. “I don’t like being made fun of. I’ll kill myself.”
Rachel supposedly said, “You’re acting like a little kid. I don’t care what you do.”
Michael recalls pushing her down. But killing her? Stabbing her twenty-six times? He claims he doesn’t remember any of that.
Manfredonia’s right eye was lazy; it stared outward the same as an iguana’s might. He had dark hair, a mustache. He was deemed mentally retarded, with an IQ of 78. He had no previous record, save one minor charge for theft of a radar detector.
After waiving his right to a jury trial, Michael was tried by a judge. He was found guilty of murder, felony murder, aggravated sexual assault, kidnapping, and possession of a weapon for an unlawful purpose. On August 8, 1986, he was sentenced to life in prison.
It would be fair to assume that our little community was rocked. But strangely, I don’t remember it that way. In fact, my reaction—as well as the town’s in general—has always confused me. I didn’t feel scared or worried—not during the event or afterward—and I’ve always wondered why. Why wasn’t I more affected by such a horrific crime? Sure, I was a teenager with teenager tunnel vision, but that didn’t mean I wasn’t compassionate. I wasn’t insensitive or cold-blooded. So why?
Teachers didn’t talk with us on that Monday when we returned to school. Not a word. No guidance counselors came to our classrooms to console us. No announcement over the intercom. The principal didn’t make a statement. No assembly explaining what happened, no trite promises of “moving forward together.” Nothing. One of our classmates had been brutally raped, stabbed, and murdered, and instead of counseling, we were told to go on about our day, business as usual.
I contacted a former teacher, John Borowski, to see if my recollections were accurate. I must have been misremembering. “At times,” he said, “it seemed like it never happened. Back in those days, we didn’t have grief counselors. [The murder] was mentioned in a faculty meeting, and I was surprised it wasn’t discussed informally in classes or formally by school leadership. I think the administration blew it, but I guess they believed it best for people to deal with it in their own way. I thought then, and think now, that that was a bad idea.”
Next I talked with my father. He didn’t recall Rachel’s death at all, which stunned me. For one thing, my sister was seven years old in 1985. In other words, he’d had a young daughter at the time, so you’d think the incident must have affected him to some degree. Instead, not a single recollection. Yet he can regurgitate the play-by-play of any sporting event I have ever participated in.
So I branched out, called a few of my oldest buddies. I asked, “What do you remember about a girl being murdered in high school?” I was intentionally vague, not wanting to skew their answers. Bryan, my best man, didn’t remember much. Not her name, no specifics, nothing about Manfredonia. He did remember helicopters while attending a party.
I called Craig, the friend I used to play with along the Hookerman tracks. He’d been living in the epicenter of all the action in 1985. Rachel’s body was discovered a half mile from his home. From his deck, he had a perfect view of her house through the trees; he lived that close. Yet he had almost no recollection. Had no idea how she was killed or who the perpetrator was. He couldn’t remember her name. At first he didn’t even remember the incident. “Was she walking her dog and got kidnapped or something?”
How did they recall even less than I? Were we all that self-absorbed? Clueless? Apathetic?
In January 2016, creditdonkey.com deemed Long Valley the safest town in New Jersey. In 2015, according to NeighborhoodScout.com, Long Valley was safer than 97% of all U.S. cities.
Many people I talked with echoed those statistics, commenting on how safe Long Valley had always been. How Rachel’s death simply hadn’t seemed imaginable. Of how it was the first and only murder to have ever happened there. Turns out, that wasn’t quite true.
In the 1930s, a woman was found hanging in her barn on Zeller’s Road. The husband, a farmer, stated he’d been away at the time. Apparently there was suspicion as to whether she killed herself or he murdered her. No charges were ever filed.
In the 1950s, a Dr. Pontery and his wife had a summer house in Long Valley. One night he arrived home late from work, having driven from his practice in Jersey City. He’d forgotten his key and when he tried to enter, his wife shot him. The police classified it as a case of mistaken identity; Mrs. Pontery claimed she thought he was a burglar. She wasn’t charged.
In the mid-1960s, a woman named Coleman was murdered. She was pregnant. According to local law enforcement, it’s still an unsolved and open case.
So there were other incidents. But Rachel’s death—the rape and stabbing of a teenaged girl—was easily the most appalling. And yet, thirty years later, it seems all but forgotten.
How many times has Matt pondered, “What if she hadn’t missed the bus?” It would be impossible for him not to what if it. I have a younger sister, so I know that’s what I would do. Hell, it could’ve been my sister, perhaps, under slightly different circumstances. She’d been only seven back then, but I asked her about the incident anyway. “I remember it happening. And what I remember most was that afterward, I was really scared to walk to the bus stop. Even now, my worst fear is that I’ll be kidnapped and raped.”
How was it possible I only recalled a few particulars? That my father remembered nothing? That Bryan couldn’t recall her name? How could Craig, who lived within a few hundred yards of the murder scene, who would’ve witnessed cops and search teams swarming the area, how could he have no recollection? Yet not only had my then seven-year-old sister remembered it, she recalled vivid feelings. Visceral reactions.
Something clicked. I needed to talk to some women who’d been my age. And oh, how things changed.
I first contacted Laura, a lifelong friend. “I knew Rachel on a casual basis because of softball. When she went missing, I was absolutely terrified because I already had something troubling going on in my life. For several years, my neighbor had been trespassing on our property and exposing himself. My mom and dad weren’t confrontational, so most of what this guy did was swept under the rug. Just ignore it and it’ll go away. When I was at the bus stop in the mornings, he’d park his car at the corner and watch me. I’m pretty sure he was naked. So I was already living in constant fear. When Rachel disappeared, I worried I might be next.
“I heard about her body being discovered on that Saturday night when I was babysitting. My mother called to tell me, and my stomach dropped. I immediately phoned my boyfriend, and he drove over with his shotgun to stay with me.
“I’m still frightened to walk by myself near woods, and if I do, I’m on constant alert. My biggest fear is that someone is going to stop in a van, hit me over the head, and abduct me.”
Laura’s story was compelling, but I wondered if her experience was skewed because of what she’d endured with her neighbor, and also because she’d known Rachel personally. So I contacted Angela, an acquaintance from high school. She hadn’t known Rachel, but it didn’t seem to matter; her recollection was strikingly similar to Laura’s. Besides specific details, she also remembered distinctly how it affected her, just as Laura and my sister had. “I was terrified after that for many years. Particularly when it came to walking in deserted areas, especially woods. I remember thinking it could’ve been me. I also thought it was weird how quickly everything got back to normal at school. It was the first time I realized the world goes on without you, even when you’re not here anymore.”
Perhaps my lack of feeling about Rachel’s death (and Bryan’s lack, Craig’s lack, my father’s) had less to do with bad memory or indifference and more to do with one simple thing: being male. Maybe I hadn’t been scared because I’d never felt threatened. Maybe I realized, subliminally or otherwise, that if another abduction ever occurred, it wouldn’t be me who the psycho came after. Almost certainly the next victim would be female.
I’m assuming any woman reading this is thinking something like, “Duh.” Or “Um, yeah,” as my wife said when I shared my profound theory. A woman’s everyday reality, I was coming to realize (and I admit—embarrassingly—that I’m late to the party), is far different from my own. Or any man’s for that matter. My initial assumptions—that nobody remembered much about Rachel’s death, that it hadn’t affected them—was turning out to be at least 50 percent inaccurate. I previously mentioned Shannon, a friend of Rachel’s. They had lived close to one another, used to walk to the middle school together, had sometimes said hello to Manfredonia in passing. She told me, “Rachel’s murder is burned indelibly into my mind. Upon hearing [of her death], I distinctly remember the absolute sadness, confusion, and fear. It changed my life forever.”
I asked Shannon if she had worried for her own safety. “I wasn’t afraid for my life while it was happening. I didn’t sense any kind of threat, but there was definitely greater knowledge of pervasive badness. It absolutely formed my world view. I decided right then that there was no God, and that death could come at any time. Innocence lost immediately.”
I went through the remainder of high school unaware that a significant number of my female classmates harbored fear and anxiety. And that bothers me. I feel I should’ve had better intuition, or at least been cognizant of it. But as aforementioned, Rachel’s murder was never talked about. Not with parents, friends, teachers, coaches. In retrospect, I believe our school’s administration failed us. I’m not implying they ignored us out of malice or apathy. More likely, they had no idea what to do either; they were just as confused as their students.
A year after the event, I took a criminal justice class with a teacher named Mr. O’Connell: muscular, Vietnam vet, tough and no-nonsense. Near the term’s conclusion, we took a field trip to the Morris County Correctional Facility. We observed what jail was like, sat through a quasi “scared straight” session where prisoners talked (yelled, actually) about staying out of trouble, did a walking tour.
The inmates really put on a show as we passed their cell blocks. Hooting and hollering, pounding on doors. I don’t recall being scared as much as intrigued. However, I was uncomfortable and nervous for the girls because those prisoners didn’t mince words. They weren’t exactly on their best behavior.
Near the tour’s end, we walked single file down a narrow corridor with individual cells to our left. The isolation block. Each prisoner was locked behind a solid door with one tiny window at eye level. We could peek in as if observing a racquetball game.
Michael Manfredonia sat in one of those cells, awaiting transfer to Trenton. At least I think so. It’s how I remember it. But I keep questioning myself because it seems impossible the school would’ve allowed that. Unconscionable. How was I permitted to observe, firsthand, the beast who’d killed my classmate? And I say “beast” because the entire tour experience had radiated a zoo-like feel. We’d stop and peer through windows, gawking at exotic creatures trapped in cages. Some paced, some gazed dejectedly, some growled and barked at us. And then there he was, the guy who’d viciously murdered Rachel. Only a few feet away. Only a few years older than me. A graduate of my high school. Slight of frame, hundred and fifty pounds, his lazy eye staring away from me, or perhaps directly at me. He wore a jumpsuit as he sat on his bed. He appeared tiny and harmless. And then I moved on, finishing the tour, more or less unaffected. I think.
It took three decades before I considered the level of inappropriateness of that fieldtrip, especially if Manfredonia had really been there. I believe at the time I was pretty psyched about it, but I wonder how the girls in my class must’ve felt. Terrified? Sick? So I talked with a friend, Toby, who had also attended; she confirmed what I’d presumed. “It was Manfredonia in the cell. He was in the process of being transferred [to Trenton State Prison] and was supposed to have been on lockdown when we visited. Mr. O’Connell exchanged some words with him. It was so crazy that we went there. That it was permitted.”
Crazy, indeed. But then she added something—unrelated to Manfredonia—that astounded me. Something that indicates the administrators and teachers knew, at least in part, exactly what they were getting us into (especially the girls) and yet they allowed the trip to proceed. “We were told beforehand, ‘Ladies, don’t wear revealing clothing. Wear more, not less. And go light on the makeup. You don’t want to make yourselves too attractive.’”
A few years ago, I went back to Long Valley for a visit. One afternoon I rode my bike along the repurposed nature trail, that same strip of bare land I’d always referred to as “the tracks.” It was a flat and easy ride, the path composed of crushed cinders as it followed the meanderings of the South Branch.
As I rode along, I was struck by an overwhelming sense of tranquility. The route was lovely and bucolic. And yet, the presence of the Hookerman still hovered. Not in a scary way, but more in a fun and nostalgic way. In certain spots, overhanging branches enclosed the path and created a claustrophobic, tunnel-like feel. It was easy to imagine a ghostly creature roaming with a lantern just after dark, searching for his missing arm.
But what was impossible to imagine was that a horrific murder had once taken place along that railbed. When I approached the general area where Rachel’s body had been discovered, I found no marker. No memorial. Nothing dedicated to her memory. If you were an out-of-town tourist hiking along, you’d never know something had once gone terribly wrong there. But I wasn’t a tourist, and I did know. As I passed by, the incident popped into my mind for a few seconds, and then, as I continued pedaling, it was gone.
Michael Manfredonia will be eligible for parole on October 13, 2040. He will be seventy-four years old. Rachel Domas will always be fourteen. ☐