"Our Guys: The Glen Ridge Rape and the Secret Life of the Perfect Suburb"

Published August 13, 1997 9:32AM (EDT)

There was nothing about Mary Ryan that would have qualified her as a Jockette. A year older than the students in the Class of '89, she was extremely shy and spoke in a whisper that could turn into a whine when someone was mean to her; she dressed conservatively in white blouses and pale-blue and tan cardigan sweaters; she did not wear much makeup, and her brown hair was not permed or streaked or frosted or sprayed into an arabesque monument, as the popular girls did with theirs. Mary Ryan was never known to call attention to herself -- except for one time, and that misjudgment would change her life.

In the Jocks' sophomore year, during the first week of February 1987, the shy junior stood up in the school cafeteria and said: "My parents are going to be away next week. I'm going to have a big party. Everybody come." Mary Ryan's secret wish was to be popular, to have people notice her. In Glen Ridge people noticed you if you threw a party when your parents were away. But giving advance notice within the hearing of a hundred or so high school students could be dangerous.

The risk was heightened if the Jocks weren't good friends with the hostess. "First of all, she was a girl none of us like," Tara Timpanaro recalled. "If someone didn't like you, they're not going to have respect for your home." Charles Figueroa, a wrestler and football player, wasn't her close friend, but he liked Mary. "She smiled a lot and tried to be nice to you, but people wouldn't accept it. She had a kind of weak way about her. She tried not to offend anybody, so people thought they could roll right over her."

There were decorous nonalcoholic parties in Glen Ridge. There were rowdy alcoholic parties. And there were parties that turned violent. Before Tara transferred to Glen Ridge, she "had known for years that Glen Ridge was a major party town. Somebody is always having a party. I can remember my father telling me a guy jumped through a bay window during a party."

Fights often broke out at parties. But what got the Jocks really mad was being barred from a party. One of the proudest moments for the '89 Jock clique -- a moment that was celebrated in their senior yearbook -- was the time they beat up older boys on the lawn of a host's house in Glen Ridge. The reason for the fight: The boys who lived in the house didn't want the Jocks at their party. Indeed, earlier in their sophomore year, on October 11, 1986, Kyle and Kevin were reported to the police when they crashed a party, refused to leave, and "had to be forcibly removed."

Parties could turn ugly when the adolescent partygoers decided they would use the party as a vehicle to hurt, one way or another, the party-giver, who in almost every case was a young woman. These scenes became known among the youth of Glen Ridge as "revenge" parties. The specific reason for the punishment seemed less important than the opportunity to hurt the girl. "If you're a girl and they don't respect you and they don't like you, forget it," said one of Chris Archer's wrestling teammates. This wrestler and other Jocks described what had happened to one of the Jocks' Little Mothers when she drank too much at a party. Like a bag of garbage, the girl was dumped in a closet as the party wound down; the guys locked the closet door and left her confined in the dark to gag on her vomit. Again, the Jocks noted the incident in the yearbook as one of the bright moments of their school years.

Kids who weren't in the cafeteria when Mary Ryan issued her invitation heard about it soon enough, and word traveled swiftly to students in other communities. February was the wrestling season, and high school wrestlers for miles around were told of the impending party. That's how it worked. Wrestlers told wrestlers; cheerleaders told cheerleaders in other towns. Why so much excitement? Parties with parents absent were not uncommon. But this one had the makings of something special. For Glen Ridge kids, the big attraction was that Mary Ryan, a tuition student, lived just across the town border in East Orange. They thought that if the cops busted the party, the guys' parents were less likely to find out. "When you got out of Glen Ridge, you go crazy," one of the athletes recalled. "There are no neighbors to stop you or tell your mother."

The other inducement was Mary's passivity. She was not known as a strong-willed kid, she didn't have many friends to protect her, and her family was not friends with the families of the Jocks. "If Mary said 'no,' who'd listen to her?" Charlie Figueroa said. "She didn't have anybody who'd fight for her."

Along with everything else, the timing was perfect. The date set for the party was Saturday, February 14, 1987, Valentine's Day. That Saturday also fell in the middle of a three-day weekend, Monday being Washington's Birthday. "It was, like, a party that could go on forever," one Ridger said.

Instead of on Saturday, the party began spontaneously on Friday, February 13. By sundown every parking space for three blocks around the Ryans' house was taken. There were kids from Caldwell, Montclair, Bloomfield and Verona. From private schools and public schools, from middle school and high school. There were older guys who had graduated three or four years ago. There were even kids from East Side High School in Newark. There were Jocks and Guidos and Giggers, cheerleaders and majorettes, and even a few "band fags." There were girls who looked too young to get into a movie alone and some who seemed old enough to be married and have kids. There were kids who brought bottles, and kids who lugged cases of beer on their shoulders, and some who rolled kegs up the front steps into the kitchen.

They all converged on a narrow three-story white shingle house with a semifinished basement and a small balcony facing a nearby park. The location was perfect for a nonstop party. There were only a few other houses on the block, and they all adjoined the park. You could make as much noise as you wanted with little likelihood of interference.

The kids who got there early made for the upstairs rooms. It was the only place where you could hear yourself talk. The ones who arrived by 10 or 11 o'clock wedged themselves into the kitchen or basement. Sixty or seventy kids jammed together, drinking, smoking, and screaming. Mary Ryan had given up asking who the kids were and where they came from. Despite all the kids and booze, there was relatively little damage on Friday night. One guy did take out all the crystal glasses and pitchers in the kitchen cabinets, line them up on the table, and fling them, one after the other, against the wall. But that happened at a lot of parties. It was nothing to get excited about.

John Maher, a student who later would be indicted on a charge of conspiracy in the Leslie Faber case, was working on Friday night. "My friends were saying it was a great party, the best," he would say later. "I couldn't believe what was happening. So I made sure I was there Saturday."

Saturday night, February 14, Valentine's Day. More kids. More booze. There were so many bodies in Mary Ryan's house, so many kids jammed into a small smoky space, that they had to open all the windows and the doors. With all the runs to the fridge, the beer couldn't be kept cold. So they gave up on the fridge, cleared everything out, and left the door hanging open.

They started taking the furniture apart. Within an hour the legs had been broken off everything that was standing -- coffee tables, kitchen chairs and table, side tables. A couple of guys got the idea of using a leg from the kitchen table as a battering ram. One-two-three -- charge. The leg smashed through the plasterboard, leaving a hole the size of a saucer. Back up and start all over. The hold got bigger and bigger, maybe two, three feet in diameter. Okay, let's start on the other wall.

Then some people decided that the amputated remains of the furniture were cluttering up the place. In five minutes every tabletop and chair seat had been heaved into the backyard.

One wall was covered floor to ceiling with a bamboo stand to hold decorative objects. The stand had been attached to the wall. "Betcha can't break that in half," one Jock challenged another. As if he were working out in the school exercise room, the other Jock stood with his back to the bamboo, his arms raised behind his shoulders. A deep breath and pull. The entire bamboo stand, with everything that rested on it, came crashing to the floor. A few minutes later some guys were breaking pieces of the bamboo over their heads and using them as swords in make-believe duels.

One guy stood in front of the fish tank. Thinking. Then he went into the kitchen and returned with a container of Comet detergent. He emptied it into the tank. A half-hour later another kid saw the fish floating dead in the water. He and a friend carried the tank to the door and emptied its contents into the snow.

Mary Ryan would wave her hand in a futile plea to halt the destruction. But one of the girls would take her by the shoulder and guide her out of the room. "We'll help you clean up later," she'd tell her.

Sunday night, February 15, 1987. It seemed as if the whole world under the age of thirty had turned up for the third act at Mary Ryan's house. Among the new notables were the wrestlers from Glen Ridge. They had been forced to miss the Saturday-night festivities because they were competing in a match. Rock-solid and brimming with energy, they could always be counted on to liven up a party.

It was a true gathering of the clan: Richie Corcoran and Kyle and Kevin; Peter Quigley, his companion, Tara, and Peter's older brother, Sean; Chris and Paul Archer. They had no problem finding the house. "You could hear the noise from like a mile away," said one Glen Ridge wrestler. "When you got on the street, it was amazing. It was so cold out and snow was on the ground and there were dozens of kids standing outside. One of the kids I recognized was holding a neon tube over his head and then he smashed it right on his skull. All the lights were on in the house, and you could see people in every window. As I was walking in, part of the frame over the door was hanging down and I almost ran into it.

"There were like a million people in there, all of them drunk. And right away I saw all the wrestlers from the school and I know they can get a little crazy at a party, and I thought, Whew, there's gonna be all sorts of shit tonight. I kept thinking, I'm walking into a movie."

Charlie Terranova, one of the Glen Ridge Giggers, stayed about fifteen minutes. "I went into this place and the things I saw I could not believe. I once worked for a construction company, and there were rooms in this house that looked like a construction crew had gone in there with the crowbars and the pikes and just destroyed the place. I just left. I couldn't stand it."

Some kids may have experienced a letdown when they surveyed the wreckage on the first floor. Really, what was left for them to do? The people who had been there the first two nights seemed to have exhausted all the possibilities. But, on reflection, it was apparent that they hadn't. There were two upstairs floors and a basement, and that left lots of unfinished work.

Chris Archer took the basement. People who were there remembered him rushing down the stairs with a can of spray paint in his hand and spraying every wall with painted graffiti. Another Jock, partygoers recalled, charged upstairs, followed by a pack of football players and wrestlers. First thing they did was dismantle Mary's parents' bed. One kid had the idea of setting the mattress on fire, but another thought that was a stupid idea since it was a waterbed. Let's puncture it, one guy suggested, and start a flood. Some guys began stabbing it with a screwdriver and a kitchen knife.

Other kids carried the bed frame to the top of the landing and, using it as a makeshift toboggan, tried to slide down the stairs. But the frame was too wide to make for a level ride. The kids smashed all the balusters that held up the stair rail. Now there was enough room. The guys sat on the frame, their legs straddling the sides, and slid down the slope.

Mary Ryan had retreated upstairs to her parents' bedroom, where she sat on the floor with another girl and Charlie Figueroa. They heard a roar coming from downstairs and rushed to the door; they saw a bunch of kids charging up the stairs as the boys were sliding down the bed frame. The boys leaped over the mattress and burst in to the Ryans' bedroom. There, they pulled open the dresser, flinging the underwear, blouses, and other clothing on the floor.

Holding their findings over their heads, they marched down the stairs. "Hey, wait a second," Mary shouted, fear in her voice. But who was listening? They put up on the mantelpiece all the personal possessions they had taken from the Ryans' bedroom dresser. Mary sank down in a corner of the room, her knees up against her chest. "She looked to me like she was getting smaller and smaller, like she wanted to disappear," Charlie said.

Now dozens of kids formed a row, and began snake dancing past the mantel, as though they were performing a religious ritual before an altar. Someone had come up with the perfect description for what was going on. And the snake dancers began to chant it, as they weaved through the room: Ryan's Wreck. Ryan's Wreck. Ryan's Wreck.

It must have got through to Mary that the party was out of control. This had to stop. It wasn't only her life that was being trashed; it was her parents' life, too.

Now she saw a boy pick up her cat by the back of the neck, hanging him high for the crowd to see, and then push him into the microwave. She heard one terrible yowl, smelled burning fur. She screamed: "Stop, you've got to stop." Somebody pulled the cat out, but few people were listening to Mary Ryan.

Mary ran up the stairs, rushed into a room, and flung open the window. She stepped outside onto the balcony. It was not very high, ten feet or so above the ground, but high enough so she could hurt herself if she fell. She leaned against the rail of the balcony and peered down through the darkness at the mob of teenagers who had gathered on the snow-covered incline. "Oh, my God, my house, my house," she screamed. "If you don't stop, I'll jump."

Alarmed, one girl urged her, "Come on, come back in, Mary. Everything's okay. We'll go home." But instantly the sound of her voice was drowned out by dozens of kids chanting: Jump. Jump. Jump. Jump.

Charlie Figueroa, standing in Mary's bedroom, decided that all this had to stop. He knew that what he was about to do would break the first rule of Jock solidarity -- never squeal. Charlie called the police anyway.

At about 11:15 Officers Chwal and Marinelli, patrolling in East Orange police car number 23, got a radio message: "Loud party in progress. Proceed to the scene." A second police car was also dispatched. When the police got there, kids were still standing beneath the balcony urging Mary Ryan to jump. But they weren't there for long. As soon as they saw the two flashing reds wheeling around the corner, the kids scattered.

The party was over. "Ryan's Wreck" had now passed into the folklore of Glen Ridge High School.

East Orange has a lot more crime than Glen Ridge. The East Orange cops weren't going to spend time chasing a hundred or so kids through the brambles of a park at midnight. But even these experienced cops were impressed by what they found in Mary Ryan's house and recorded in their report: "The reporting officers noticed the front door wide open and the downstairs in shambles ... Further investigation showed the entire residence, three floors, in shambles."

The two officers called the crime "malicious mischief" and described the "weapon" used to commit the crime as "physical force." The police detained eleven juveniles, all from Glen Ridge or Glen Ridge High School. These included a boy who would be selected as one of the captains of next year's football team and another football player, Peter Quigley's older brother, Sean, who had already completed his football career at the high school. Also held for questioning was James "Tucker" Litvany, a Class of '89 football player, who would be later cited as an unindicted co-conspirator in the Leslie Faber case.

These youngsters were questioned briefly, their parents were informed and that was the end of that. None of them was charged with a crime. None of them was punished or reprimanded by Glen Ridge High; none of them lost his athletic privileges or eligibility.

Mary never came back to Glen Ridge High. Her parents moved out of their house, and she was reportedly sent to live in another part of the state. A sophomore recalled that one of his teachers heard about the party and briefly discussed it in class: "The kids commented on how drunk people were, how they were breaking things, but how Mary deserved it. Nobody said they were sorry. Nobody offered to clean up the place. And nobody wanted to pay for the damage."

Two years later the memory of that party remained fresh in the minds of the Jocks and the Jockettes of the Class of '89. In a section of their yearbook, where each student listed personal highlights, many of them cited their participation in "Ryan's Wreck" as an outstanding event of the past four years. "It just showed what can happen to a girl when we didn't like her," one Jock would recall. John Maher, another Class of '89 football player, would say years later, "That's a party that everybody still talks about."

For that nucleus of sophomore Jocks, this was not a formal initiation rite on the order of their first high school football game. But it was a benchmark experience on their high school years. There had been destructive parties before in Glen Ridge, and there would be others later. But it was under the tutelage of upperclassmen -- older, admired football players and wrestlers -- that they learned at Mary Ryan's party how much they could get away with. They also learned that the girls who attached themselves to the Jocks could be as pitiless as they were.

The primary lesson was that a bunch of high school kids could raise hell and inflict tremendous pain without being penalized at home or in school. But the party also taught a more advanced lesson. To one father whose daughter was in the Class of '89, the boys who participated most enthusiastically at the party behaved as if they were gaining more legitimacy and authority as a group each time they victimized a woman. "If I think back about that period, I can see the group getting stronger, closer, every time they got together and humiliated a girl," he said. "What they enjoyed in common wasn't football. This was their shared experience. For them, this was what being a man among men was. My daughter would come home with stories -- I'd just shake my head and wonder if they thought a girl was human."

By Bernard Lefkowitz

Bernard Lefkowitz, an Edgar award-winning author, has written three earlier books on social issues, including "Tough Change: Growing Up on Your Own in America" (1987). He teaches journalism at Columbia University.

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