Rosalind Faber* didn't want to fret about her daughter, but she felt that familiar sense of uneasiness as she watched Leslie run down the steps in her sweats. She's home from school 10 minutes and she's leaving already, Ros thought.
"Where are you going, Les?" Ros asked.
"Shoot some hoops at the park," Leslie said without stopping as she detoured into the kitchen.
Ros watched her gulp down a glass of milk. She hesitated and finally said, "You know, if you're going to be late, you must call." It was never easy for Rosalind to let her 17-year-old daughter go out alone. Leslie Faber was retarded. Her IQ was 49.
To someone who didn't know her well, Leslie might appear almost normal: a friendly, outgoing teenager who loved sports. But Ros knew Leslie was classified as "educable mentally retarded," and that her condition wasn't always visible. A lot of what people said in seemingly straightforward conversations went over her head, and she was extraordinarily susceptible to suggestion and manipulation by anyone who seemed to like her.
In a big city, Ros thought, Leslie would have been vulnerable to a predatory stranger. But in 1989, Glen Ridge, N.J., retained the gentility of a more tranquil age; a small (about 7,800 residents), picture-perfect, upper-middle-class suburb where almost everyone knew everyone else. The houses were neat and spacious, the streets immaculate, the schools good, and the values of the community, Glen Ridgers would say with pride, were solidly planted in family, country and the free enterprise system. On days when the urban swirl seemed overwhelming, Glen Ridge was the kind of place a New Yorker dreamed of escaping to.
With her usual exuberance, Leslie trotted the short distance to Cartaret Park. She was tall for her age, broad-shouldered and somewhat overweight. Leslie was dressed in her play clothes—a West Orange High shirt, purple sweatpants and red-and-white sneakers.
The weather was cool and blustery, typical of the first day of March. The park was roughly rectangular, 542 feet long at its longest point. Leslie headed for the basketball court, in the southwest corner. Directly parallel to the basketball court, on the northwest side, was the softball diamond. At the other end of the park, the southeast corner, was the baseball diamond. Six rows of wooden bleachers, where spectators sat during Little League games, looked down on the first base line.
At the baseball diamond a bunch of high school guys had formed two lines. The boys wore gloves and cleats and trailed baseball bats behind them. Leslie, who was so devoted to athletics that she divided the year by the sports seasons, knew what was going on. The guys on Glen Ridge's championship baseball team were going to have a preseason practice, an easy drill without any adult coaches around. Loosen up, look sharp. The stars of the high school's other big-time teams, the wrestlers and the football players, also were there, hanging out. checking out the scene. This was very cool, Leslie thought.
In a bigger town or in a city, most of these guys would be considered average athletes at best. But in the insulated world of Glen Ridge they were the princes of the playing field. These were the guys who acted as if they owned the high school.