The idea for the villain in my latest young adult novel emerged from two real-life stories that have had an impact on me and the way I think about the world. The first was something that happened back when I was a young teenager. I forget exactly what year, but I was thirteen or fourteen. At the time, my father taught fourth grade at an elementary school in NJ. One of his fellow teachers and the principal of his school decided it might be a good idea to start a program where seniors, such as grandparents or other retired members of the community, would assist in the schools a few days a week. Paying aids to work in the classroom was not the norm then that it is now, so there was definitely a need. So, the plan seemed like it would benefit both the school and the elderly, who might enjoy working with the young children. They named it the R.O.B.I.N. program for Retired Old Buddy Is Needed.
For a while, the program ran smoothly. Teachers some got some much needed help in the classroom and grandparents and elderly from the community had some fun interaction with children to keep them busy. The R.O.B.I.N. helper in my father’s classroom was a man named Mr. LoSchaivo. (My father couldn’t recall the exact spelling of his name, but it’s largely irrelevant to my story.) He was five eight, slight build with white hair. The saintly picture of an old man and grandfather. I met him. He had a charming, soft-spoken way about him. Since I attended Catholic school, I had days off that my father’s school did not. I would go to my dad’s school on those occasions and help in the classroom. Many times, right alongside sweet, old saintly Mr. LoSchaivo.
The only problem? Mr. LoSchaivo turned out to be anything but a saint. About halfway through the year, a fourth grader (not from my father’s classroom but from one of the other fourth grade classes) came forward that LoSchaivo had lured him back to his apartment after school under the guise of showing him war memorabilia. Once LoSchaivo established trust with the child after multiple visits, LoSchaivo and his roommate, another elderly man, began to molest and take pictures of the child. To make matters worse, after the one child came forward, it was discovered LoSchaivo had committed these horrible crimes with a few other boys.
I’ll never forget the day my father came home to tell us what happened. He was in tears, shocked and devastated Mr. LoSchaivo had used his position in the school and done this to these innocent children practically right under his nose. And he was terrified that, since I had also come in contact with Mr. LoSchaivo, he might’ve done something inappropriate with me too. Luckily he had not, but judging by how my father was shaking, I think it was one of the hardest things he ever had to ask me. The fact that there had even been potential for harm to his daughter frightened the hell out of him.
The second story that influenced my book was unfortunately much worse. It was the tragic murder of Krista DiFrancesco, an acquaintance of my little sister’s. I won’t go into details, only that the tragedy of what happened to Krista both touched and affected me. The man responsible for Krista’s murder, Christopher Kornberger, turned out to be an 18 yr old youth with the face of a choir boy. In the press, his family and friends described him as “helpful”, “a good kid”, and a typical kid, involved in sports and cub scouts. In truth, Kornberger was a monster. A monster no one recognized as such.
The perpetrators in both of these terrible incidents merged in my mind to create the villain in my latest book and the theme of the book – Don’t Judge Villains by Their Cover. The scary truth is that many times sociopaths like LoSchaivo and Kornberger hide amongst us in plain sight. It is my hope that my book will raise awareness among teens and older readers who may need a reminder – never trust a person by how they look, how they act, or how you think you know them. Don’t be afraid to speak up if you see something suspicious or suspect someone might be up to no good…no matter who the person is – even if that person is a trusted teacher, favorite coach, member of the clergy or a friendly neighbor. If you see something, say something.
Another good idea is to be proactive about your safety. I would strongly recommend taking advantage of some of the safety technology apps now available for smart phones, such as bsafe, Circle of 6, Yo, Kitestring, and others, most of which are free. If this technology had been available back then, Krista might still be alive today. These apps can do things like alerting your friends that you’re overdue at your arrival point, whistle to get bystanders’ attention, lead people to your location using GPS trackers, and create automatic video recordings to capture proof of a crime, etc. Safety technology apps can be a valuable tool in alerting your friends, family and authorities that you need help. You can read more about these apps in this article:
Be safe, be wise, and protect yourself. And always remember, a villain may not look like a villain.