By Mike Kirby
Forty-five Maple Street in Florence is the old home of Franís Hobby Shop, and its rusting sign is still up on the roof. Bill Hurley, one of the deputy chiefs in the Fire Department, has fond memories of that house. When he was a 10-year old, Franís Hobbies was the place for all the neighborhood kids to hang out. The elderly couple that ran it had a racetrack and they would let neighborhood kids bring their slot cars and race them.
Today the front yard at 45 Maple St. is crowded with dead vehicles and filled with trash. The neighbors in the adjoining houses have built high fences, evidently to put the house and its problems at armís length.
Recently there was a porch fire at the house. Luck would have it that the fire engines happened to be at the corner of Corticelli and Nonotuck Streets coming back from another call. It took only 45 seconds to get there, and probably another 25 seconds to put out the fire, the fire captain in charge reports. The incident wasnít much. Smoke pouring out of a bucket. Northampton police also responded, and determined that one of the tenants had dropped a cigarette in a mop bucket on the porch and walked away.
The house at 45-47 Maple St. is a problem, and it has got a history.
Iíve heard that the Board of Health has been involved in the past, trying to clean up the place. Thereís enough flammable debris inside and around the house that if the fire had caught, it would have been impossible to stop. The south side of the house is just jammed with junk. Justin Rice, the ownerís grandson, lives in the north side of the building and he and his friends are fixing up the place. Progress seems uncertain; the yard is dotted with piles of brick and rotting wood. But siding is being put on, little by little.
The owners of record are E. Milton Rice and Elizabeth A. Rice of Nash Hill Road in Williamsburg. The Rices own a lot of property in the hilltowns, but seem to be land rich and cash-poor. The records on their property at the Registry of Deeds are peppered with land-takings and filings of liens from towns for overdue taxes. Elizabeth Rice is Justin Riceís grandmother. The other day I sat in the sun on his front steps talking to Justin about the house and listening to his plans. I couldnít help liking him. Heís a student at Greenfield Community College studying so-called "Green" land use, a sweet idealist like I once was, born into a family with troubles. One of his uncles was Jack, a logger. He was badly injured years ago when a maple tree fell on him. Then there is his grandmother who visits every now and then for a couple of minutes when she is looking for Jack, and is known for going in great circles around the Florence neighborhood blasting on the horn when she canít find him.
Justinís mother arrived at one point and listened to him talk about the family. A certain look in her eye told me that the kid would catch hell later for talking so candidly to this reporter. It wasnít easy, talking to Justin about his plans, and how great the building would look when it got fixed over, when I was sitting there staring at all the rotting zucchinis and potato salad in open Tupperware containers sitting around us in the yard.
"Forget the cosmic stuff and start picking up around here," fatherly Mike might have said if heíd hadnít been busy being a no-good snake of a reporter.
I donít think Justin has ever been inside the southern half of the building. He told me he understands every room is filled with bundled newspapers, magazines, and broken appliances. The apartment he is living in was once like that, and over the years he and his friends gradually cleaned it out, dealing with the dirt and the mildew and the dead animals and the piles of trash. He told me that a woman had been murdered in the front hall back in the 1980s.
"Right there," said Justin, pointing down at the floor of the front hall, "There was blood all over."
On April 27, l982, a 30 year-old woman, Sylvia Callahan, lived in this house with her husband and one of his two children. The building was run down even in those days. Newspaper accounts talk about broken windows, peeling paint, and lack of soundproofing. A source close to the family says that Mrs. Rice had bought the building for her son (Justinís father) because he wanted it and he wanted it because Franís Hobby shop was there. I guess he liked to hang out there and watch the slot cars go round and round.
Justinís father, though, was never able to do much with the building. At the time of the murder, Franís had been closed for about a year.
Some time in the morning of April 27, after her husband left for work, Sylvia Callahan was stabbed in her bedroom, lying in her bed. The single thrust by a kitchen knife in the abdomen severed a major artery. She was only able to get to the stairs before she collapsed and fell. Her body was discovered in the front hall by her mother, who had come over to visit and have a cup of coffee. The police found no sign of forced entry, and the next day Sylviaís 15-year-old stepson, Adam Victor Callahan, was arrested for the crime. He had evidently killed Sylvia, and then gone to his classes at JFK as if nothing had happened. When he was brought home after her body was discovered, he played the scene as it was all an awful surprise to him.
The brutal murder was a bombshell event for quiet Florence, and was page 1 news in the Gazette for quite a while. The Gazette did not reveal the assailantís identity because he was a minor, but the Union-News did, breaking with their long-standing policy of keeping juvenileís identity secret. More than 200 people showed up for Sylviaís funeral. The District Atttorney wanted to try the 15-year-old as an adult, but the boysí attorneys, Thomas Lesser and William Newman, launched a determined effort to prove that Adam was mentally ill and keep the case in the juvenile court system, where any confinement would end at his 18th birthday.
For this reporter, it was a quick, enlightening plunge into how the system handled this kind of murder in the 80s when a well-connected local white kid was involved. There were a lot of postponements and a successful defense appeal to the state Supreme Court that blocked the district attorney from sending the youth to Met State in Waltham for a psychiatric examination. Eventually, all the therapists that the prosecution and the defense consulted said the kid was a terrific candidate for rehabilitation, and DA Michael Ryan, feeling his hands were tied, approved the disposition. Helping the case along was his fatherís health coverage at Perstorp, which covered 80 per cent of his inpatient mental health costs. On May 14, 1983, Adam Callahan was found guilty of delinquency by means of murder and committed to Department of Youth Services custody until his 18th birthday. DYS put him into a locked 25-bed facility on the grounds of McLean Hospital in Belmont, and he stayed there about 15 months or so, until he was age 18. It cost insurers and the state $16,000 a month to address his "deep-seated deprivational syndrome" at McLean. When he got out he visited Sylviaís mother at one point.
"Well," said Elaine Bonneau, "Youíre out now. I hope you make something out of yourself."
He didnít. He was tried once for rape, and acquitted, and then convicted in l997 of yet another awful crime. In l995 and l996 he was living in Easthampton, and working at Tubed Products, and he raped his girlfriendís 15-year-old babysitter. He had no memory of the rape, and said he was drunk at the time. He evinced no remorse for any of his crimes, according to the prosecutor. There was no talk of his being mentally ill. Today he is at Bridgewater and is classified as someone "sexually dangerous."
Today I donít think the system could handle this crime the way it did in l984. There is more skepticism about the ability of the system to reform or cure people, and more skepticism and cynicism about all these diagnostic labels that are pinned on kids and adults who want to avoid jail. Things like "deprivational syndrome" and "borderline personality" cover a variety of ills. One person who has borderline personality is someone elseís mouthy kid. Private mental hospitals in the 70s and 80s discovered what a cash cow adolescent units could be. The insurance money was a beautiful thing, and you didnít need nice buildings and beautiful grounds. Adolescent units could be dumpy, they were cheap to run and enormously profitable. Parents with troubled kids are desperate to get rid of them.
I worked at a similar unit in a California private hospital in the 80s and I can personally testify that you donít get much from milieu therapy when the milieu you are talking about is confining 25 kids in grungy dayrooms until their insurance coverage runs out.
Today the building at 45-47 Maple St. is as much of a problem to the city and the neighbors as it was two decades ago. For Justin, like his father, the old building is too much of a burden. Believe it or not, 20-odd years after it stopped regular hours, the Rices keep the Franís Hobby Shop listing in the Yellow Pages. Now and then the phone will ring in this half-empty house, someone is calling, looking for car kits or information.
Justin is trying, but the army of Rices uses the place as a dumping ground. The cars are full of Bettyís old papers; the big RV thatís sat there for 10 years is hers, and some of the cars are rejects that Rice Family Auto Sales of Goshen has parked there and forgotten. Bill Williams, who works across the street, happened to be outside one day and saw a silver Honda Civic with heavy front end damage come in, steaming and blowing smoke, before the engine seized up. It's still there, six months later.
My work as a health aide has taken me into houses like this one, but they all were out in the country. One old guy out in the Cummington area stockpiled many cases of stolen dynamite that he had lifted off a construction job 20 years before. Iíve worked with old bachelor farmers who had rooms so jammed with stuff that only narrow trails are left linking the bathroom with the kitchen, and the kitchen with the front door. The syndrome says, "Donít throw this away; youíll have a use for it some day."
But this house is in the city, with neighbors across the fence. Does City Hall care?
downstreet.net©2001. All rights reserved.