Turning a Spotlight On a Life in Shadow; An Outsider Is Under Suspicion
By KIRK JOHNSON, (Special to The New York Times) 1348 words
Published: January 14, 1994
NORTH ADAMS, Mass., Jan. 13 -
For most of his 43 years, Lewis S. Lent Jr. lived on the margins of society, inhabiting a world epitomized by the job he held for the last seven years: cleaning the empty and silent theaters of an 11-screen multiplex in the wee hours of the morning. He came, with his own key, when the ticket-takers and moviegoers were long gone and the laughter and excitement were stilled. In turn, he was usually gone when the first employees came in for the new day.
But Mr. Lent, whose life is now at the center of a sprawling investigation into grisly charges of child abduction and murder, including the slaying of Sara Anne Wood in upstate New York, was not, by most accounts, the sort of morose loner who often turns up on a police blotter.
The picture that emerges in interviews with neighbors, friends, family members and co-workers is that of a man who seems to be both complicated and simple at the same time, upbeat and friendly, but without goals or direction, showing few dark edges to his character, but at the same time capable of making threats.
One acquaintance, for example, recalled Mr. Lent -- known to everyone as Lewie -- being keenly interested in what he called horticulture. At the theater, however, cleaning compounds that should never be mixed were hidden because, the manager said, he did not trust Mr. Lent's ability to follow even simple, often-repeated instructions. He liked to talk about cars and claimed an expertise in repairing them, but the rattle-trap vehicles he owned were usually junk heaps that barely ran and were repaired by friends, an acquaintance said.
A high-school dropout who has drifted from job to job over the years in different parts of the country, Mr. Lent is an ordained minister with the Church of Christ who always volunteered to help his neighbors shovel the snow. But he lost his theater job in November after the manager said Mr. Lent had threatened him and his family, and he once turned up at a neighbor's house with a baseball bat, angry because the neighbor's German shepherd was scaring local children.
"He was different -- he was goofy," said Lisa Rondeau, the case manager at a nonprofit assistance agency in this town, where Mr. Lent lived, and where he came for help last month. Ms. Rondeau said Mr. Lent's thick eyeglasses, his flannel shirts and jeans, and his ebullient good cheer made him something of a comic figure -- odd, but definitely not violent or aggressive. "There was just something about him -- very, very nice -- he just wanted to help everybody," she said.
Mr. Lent was arrested last Friday nearby in Pittsfield and charged with trying to force a 12-year-old girl into his pickup truck at gunpoint. On Monday, after a series of what investigators called "very cooperative" interviews over the weekend, the police charged him with second-degree murder in the death of a 12-year-old Pittsfield boy, James Bernardo, whose body was found in upstate New York in 1990.
He has also become, through his own admissions, the prime suspect in the disappearance of Sara Anne Wood, a 12-year-old girl who was last seen alive in August near her home in Frankfort, N.Y. The New York state police have been searching for her body in a remote area of the Adirondacks near Raquette Lake since Monday, based on Mr. Lent's statements and descriptions. Today the F.B.I. brought in special infrared equipment that would help show where the ground had been disturbed, but the search was suspended about 6 P.M.
And the web of implications appears to be broadening. In Bennington, Vt., an 11-year-old girl and her father today picked out Mr. Lent's picture in a police photo lineup as the unshaven man with thick glasses who tried to grab her at a Kmart on Dec. 30.
In the dense tangle of rumor and guesswork that has swirled around the case, some investigators have speculated about multiple personalities or some other disorder that would make such behavior understandable, and some people who know Mr. Lent say they hope the medical guesses are true.
"Maybe he's got an aneurysm or something pressing against his brain -- I hope for his sake that's what it is, because this doesn't sound like him at all," said Mr. Lent's former boss, Richard R. Baumann, the manager of the Cinema Center Theater. Reviewing Recollections
Mr. Lent has pleaded not guilty to the charges against him, and is being held without bail in Massachusetts. His court-appointed lawyer, Richard D. LeBlanc, has declined to comment on the case and did not return telephone calls today.
But here in North Adams, a struggling old factory town in the Berkshires, where the snow is deep and the smoke from wood-burning stoves seems to hang over everything, behavior has already changed. Just down the block from the street where Mr. Lent lived for the last 18 months, Reno Maselli stood waiting for his grandchildren's school bus so he could escort them home.
"My son, he called up and said, 'Why don't you take a walk over there and see that they get off the bus all right,' " Mr. Maselli said, stomping his feet and eyeing the street. "Everybody's scared. It's something that's so close."
Other people, who have mostly positive recollections of Mr. Lent, are rethinking what they saw and what it meant. Tim Lescarbeau, who lived across the street from Mr. Lent on Hudson Street, remembers that Mr. Lent was always there with his shovel after a big snow, ready to help, and how he bounded over to introduce himself and shake hands the day he moved in, and how he would talk about his love of walking and hiking and nature, and how friendly he was with the neighborhood children.
Mr. Baumann is reconsidering what he took to be warm-heartedness when Mr. Lent would take a young child to the movies.
"It's hard to believe you could live next door to somebody like that," Mr. Lescarbeau said. "Everyone thinks it could never happen in their town." Moving Around
Mr. Lent, who was born and raised in upstate New York in the hamlet of Reynoldsville, in Schuyler County, dropped out of Watkins Glen High School in 1967, when he was in the 10th grade, according to a spokesman for the school. Soon after, he moved to Florida, where he lived -- perhaps off and on -- until 1983 in the town of De Land, northeast of Orlando, according to the Volusia County Sheriff's Department, which is investigating Mr. Lent's activities there.
During that time, however, he did not stay put. In June 1976, for example, he was arrested in the tiny town of Truth or Consequences, N.M., 116 miles from the Mexican border.
Detective David R. Bryant of the Truth or Consequences police said Mr. Lent was apparently employed there and had picked up some tires from an auto supply store for delivery, but the tires never arrived. Embezzlement charges were dropped, Detective Bryant said, when Mr. Lent paid for the delivery himself. He said the department was still investigating why Mr. Lent was in New Mexico, and how long he stayed. Investigators in the multi-agency task force here are also looking into reports that he was, at varying times, in Pennsylvania and Virginia.
Sometime in the 1980's, Mr. Lent returned to the Northeast to live, and settled in Pittsfield, and then later North Adams in Berkshire County, where he has no criminal record. But even here, his movements may be hard to track.
Working a job where no one ever saw him, Mr. Lent was free to come and go when he chose, as long as the theaters were cleaned, and he was known to have imposed on friends to fill in on occasion, Mr. Baumann said. That means he could have easily have been gone for a days at a time without notice.
Steven Nichols, another neighbor here in North Adams, said he grew to recognize the sound of Mr. Lent's truck starting up in the middle of the night and eventually thought nothing of it.
What did jar him was the day last February when Mr. Lent showed up at the door, armed with a baseball bat.
"He said, 'Please restrain your dog -- I do have a gun and if I have to use it I will,' " Mr. Nichols said. "I got rid of the dog a week later."