From 1989 to 1996, a series of increasingly bizarre and terrifying murders wracked the small Upstate New York town where I spend most of my childhood and my early teen years. The final two crimes are the most well known because they involved a football coach and two cheerleaders. Like most small towns in America, high school football is the center of social life in Dryden, and the coach, football players, and cheerleaders are local celebrities, gods among men in the high school hallways.
I remember getting the call. It was Christmas break 1994, and my two younger brothers and I were visiting my father at his place near D.C. Dad was on the phone with someone an official from the elementary school. There was going to be a memorial service for my younger brother David’s sixth-grade teacher, Stephen Starr, who was also the celebrated football coach. Starr had stepped in the way of a shotgun to protect one of his daughters and was killed by the blast. This came as the result of a home invasion by an ex-boyfriend who had become obsessed with one of Starr’s daughters, a cheerleader at Dryden High School.
That was surreal enough, but a little less than two years later, something even more terrible happened. This time I watched it all unfold on the national news, since the year before my mother had moved my brothers and I down to a suburb of Birmingham, Alabama, where most of her family lived. Two sixteen-year-old girls, Jennifer Bolduc and Sarah Hajney, were kidnapped, tortured, and murdered. State troopers found the girls in a remote area about an hour away. They were in pieces.
A video with eight minutes of clips from Village of the Damned, a five-part limited documentary series coming to Investigation Discovery was released three days ago. The clips confirmed my initial suspicions about the project: They’re going to portray Dryden as a kind of Mayberry, an idyllic town where everyone knew each other and was kind to each other. How could murder come to Mayberry? That looks to be the basic premise.
But the reality of the situation is of course more complex. Like most small towns, the place was insular, conservative, and suspicious of outsiders. It could be a very cruel place to grow up if you were bookish and not into sports or you were too poor and lived in the trailer park instead of a house. Casual racism was rampant, as well as homophobia. But I suppose you would have found that in Mayberry, too.
But all of that aside, it looks like the show will be pretty decent. The emphasis in these clips is mostly on the victims, not the more salacious details, though who knows what the final documentary will look like. And Dryden’s rolling hills and cow pasture countryside are absolutely gorgeous. And I think everyone can agree that these stories are horrifying, tragic and heartbreaking. Absolutely everyone in the town was affected by this in some way. These stories deserve to be told in a considered, nuanced manner that honors the victims, especially the two girls who never got a chance to grow up, whose lives ended in terror and pain.
I don’t have cable, so hopefully these shows will be on iTunes after they air on Investigation Discovery, since I’d like to review each episode for Cultured Vultures.
The five-part miniseries airs weekly beginning on November 28th.