Chapter 6: Frontier

6. Frontier

Late 1995 
Depot Road — Kingston, New Hampshire

Marvin LaFontaine was almost home from work when his cell phone rang. It was his
wife, asking him if he could pick up their son from a play-date on the way. She gave him
directions to the Lanza family home. Minutes later, Marvin was making the turn off Depot Road, down a long and shaded dirt driveway, to the house with the deck, next to the old Champion farm. As he approached the front door, it opened, and then Marvin met Nancy Lanza.

Marvin still remembers the way she smiled, as they shook hands. “Right from there it
was a friendship. I felt it. She felt it, and we were close friends.” They got to chatting as he rounded up his son from his play date with Nancy’s oldest. Marvin found Nancy easy to talk to, and her told her a bit about himself: he was a staff scientist for a company in Boston, but he didn’t want to leave Kingston behind, so had made the long drive every day. Nancy could relate, and told him about her years at John Hancock. She was still getting used to the 24/7-mom role.

The new friends discovered another area of common ground: both had another kid, who
was younger than their sibling by four years. And one of Marvins was “coded” in the state’s special education system, like Adam. Nancy was relieved; finally, she had someone who understood, and with whom she could compare IEP notes, and trade tips on the early-education resources available in the area. She had someone she could talk to

Marvin listened, and learned that Nancy liked wine, and film, just like he did. And even
though they were both married, he knew there was no use trying to ignore it: Nancy was
beautiful.

Lafontaine Home — Kingston, New Hampshire

The LaFontaines were in charge of Kingston’s local boy scout troop. Marvin’s wife
managed the administration, while he was the Den Leader, and they held the weekly meetings at their house in West Kingston. Marvin’s home had a striking cathedral-style living room with a vaulted ceiling, where the boys would work toward their merit badges, assembling crafts or racing pinewood derby cars. In the backyard, Marvin had set up his own shooting range. The scouts loved it there.

Nancy signed up Ryan to join the troop, and the Lanzas were a fixture from then on,
never skipping a meeting. Marvin noticed that Peter was never with them, which Nancy
attributed to her husband’s unbreakable work ethic: he had left PaineWebber to start as a Senior Tax Manager at the accounting firm Ernst & Young, and he was also teaching advanced tax courses at a university in Boston. Marvin had met Peter a few times, but he got the distinct impression that Nancy was taking care of the boys almost entirely by herself.

As the months went by, the two friends grew closer. One day, Nancy let Marvin in on a
family secret: she was filing a lawsuit against her former employer, John Hancock Life
Insurance. Something about a betrayal, and a troubled pregnancy.

In May of 1995, ​Lanza et al v John Hancock Distributors Inc was filed in the Suffolk
County Civil Court, seeking damages for discrimination. The fact that Nancy’s father-in-law still worked for John Hancock was apparently no obstacle to Nancy. And, if Peter S. Lanza felt any conflicting loyalties at her suing his longtime employer, it was kept within the family.

Marvin already knew that anyone who went up against Nancy Lanza in a contest would
have their work cut out for them; she was quick, and she seemed to know something about everything. You had to be careful when telling her a story, because she was a smart listener, too: the kind who was constantly bringing up one’s past statements to contradict them. “She has a memory like a steel trap, and she gets you,” Marvin remembers, and though she went about it playfully with him, he could tell that Nancy was an aggressive, capable person under the disarming exterior. “She was pretty. She was attractive and very well spoken, and she didn’t take any crap from anybody.”

____________________

Nancy brought Adam along with her to the scout meeting one week. Marvin got to meet
the shy kid he had heard so much about — the one who, supposedly, didn’t talk. And sure
enough, when Marvin said “hi,” Adam said nothing.

Nancy continued bringing the shy boy to the meetings. A few times, Marvin observed
Adam making an odd “chit-chat” noise. He thought that was cute, but knew it was also a sign that the boy was continuing to speak in his own, secret language. Nancy had mentioned that. They were trying to get him to come out of his shell, but it was proving hard.

Adam wasn’t old enough to officially be a scout at first, but Nancy let him orbit around
his older brother, tagging along, and Nancy herself was never far away, either. The preschool had told her that Adam was not participating in groups, and Nancy thought that bringing him to the scout meetings would present a safe environment, where he could experience a structured social setting, while she still could keep an eye on him. As anyone who met them knew, Nancy was always very protective of Adam.

 

One day, Nancy took Marvin aside. She had to warn him about something. “I know you
wouldn’t do this, but just so you know, ​don’t touch Adam.”

Marvin, familiar with the old stereotype of the creepy scoutmaster, was a bit offended.
“Well, I wouldn’t touch him.”

“No, no. Not like that.” Nancy explained that even a normal handshake was out of the
question when it came to Adam, just as it was a bad idea go up and pat him on the back, the way a scoutmaster normally might. “He just can’t stand that,” she urged.

Marvin thanked her for the advance warning, and he honored her request, leaving a
buffer around Adam, but the other scouts were a different story; they were too young to have any restraint, and they touched Adam anyway. When they found out he didn’t like it, they did it more. Every once in awhile, Marvin would hear Adam yell at the other boys, angry and with tears in his eyes as he ran over to Nancy for safety. But that was rare. Usually, the scouts just worked on crafts, and Marvin and the other adults would circulate around their tables, offering a helping hand. Adam never asked for help, and if any of them approached him to see if he wanted any, he would not respond. Adam would just stare down at the table. The only exception was with his mom; often Marvin would spy Nancy whispering something in Adam’s ear as he worked, and kissing him on the top of his head. “He didn’t seem to mind that. He didn’t consider that being touched or mothered.”

November 23rd, 1996

The two friends started exchanging emails every day, and talking on the phone at least
once a week. Marvin mentioned that he was looking for activities that would be fun for the scout meetings, and one day, Nancy had a suggestion: why not call her little brother, Jimmie?

Marvin had never met Jim Champion before, but like most everyone in Kingston, he
knew the name well. After returning from the Green Berets in 1983, Nancy’s kid brother came back to his small hometown, and took a job as one of the local police officers. There were never more than two or three on the whole force, so if you had an emergency in Kingston, there was a good chance you were about to meet Officer Champion. When the town’s Chief of Police retired in 1994, his partner and good friend ran for the spot unopposed; there were just a few write-in votes in opposition, and all were for James Champion. He still got a promotion, to Lieutenant, recognizing his ten years of loyalty to the town.

Nancy suggested that her brother — Uncle Jimmie, as her boys always knew him — could
bring his various police gear over to Marvin’s for one of the meetings, to show the kids and tell them about life as a cop, and as a soldier.

It happened the weekend before Thanksgiving. Marvin had his video camera recording
as the police Suburban rolled up his driveway, and Lt. Champion hopped out, moustached and in uniform, his badge gleaming in the morning sun. In the footage, a small den of cub scouts can be seen milling around, excited to take a gander at the inside of a police vehicle. Nancy is there, too, in jeans and a dark jacket, her hair cut to neck-length. She has Adam close by her side. He is still dwarfed by the older boys, and he flinches as they shove past, crowding around the SUV.

Nearby, a K-9 officer removes the leash from a german shepherd who was pawing at a
discarded bottle in the driveway. The freed animal runs off into the woods, the camera swinging over to catch the gleam of Uncle Jimmy’s police badge, reflecting from further in the wilderness. The boys run after the dog. Adam follows last, wobbly and losing ground. Nancy’s voice shouts from off-screen: “Adam, do your doggie bark!” He doesn’t make a sound. Nancy swears he sounds just like a dog when he does it.

Heading off into the woods, Adam slows to a stop. He turns away from the informal
hunting party, and goes back toward his mother.

“It wasn’t just the kids that enjoyed it, I was thrilled,” Marvin remembers of his
excitement that day. Nancy liked bringing her little brother around. That was another of the things would stay in the memories of everyone who knew her during her years in her hometown: she loved and admired her baby brother, and especially, she praised his military service. He was a strong, respected, male figure, both within the family and in their small town. Adam was just four and a half years old as he stumbled through the woods that morning, and like surely many boys in Kingston, he wanted to be just like James Champion. Nancy knew that, and she encouraged it. “She allowed him to believe that yeah, you’re gonna be like your uncle,” Marvin would recall to journalists from ​The Hartford Courant, then carefully adding “…depending on how he turned out.” That was a caveat that Nancy did not share with Adam, hopeful for her son and his dreams.

April 1997 
Sanborn Regional School District — Kingston, New Hampshire

By the end of preschool, Adam was drifting further off-track in his development. His
teachers observed that he was still engaging in a several different “repetitive behaviors,” was sensitive to smells — or “sometimes smelled things that weren’t there,” according to his father — and he would not tolerate certain textures, to the degree where Nancy had to cut the tags off of his clothes before he would wear anything. While his articulation had improved, he was still very quiet, and in fact had started relying on a classmate to speak for him. Like his mother did.

Some teachers would document that they saw Adam “sit and hit his head repeatedly.” But like his expression delays, his repetitive behaviors were went addressed in his IEP — or at least, there is no record of any change to account for them. Instead, the next time Adam’s plan shows a change, it is when the school district suddenly cancels all of his speech and language services late in preschool, “due to a perception that his challenges were not impeding his ability to learn.”

His parents did not agree. But at the heart of the issue was a scarcity of funds: the federal
government would only reimburse the district for a portion of the cost associated with Adam’s “free and public” education, which was mandated by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). When the act passed in 1990, it was with the recommendation that the federal government cover 40% of the cost. But the real federal contribution never came even close to that. To direct what little funding there was, the government relied on the school districts to identify each student’s primary disability, specifically looking at how it impacted their ability to learn. In Adam’s case, the problem had been identified — delayed speech articulation — and by the end of preschool it appeared to have been fixed. It is not surprising that the school district would look to shuffle him out of special education once he passed such a milestone: New Hampshire was not rich, and there was certain to be another kid that needed help, waiting in
line after Adam. They couldn’t wait forever.

Years later, the State of Connecticut’s Office of the Child Advocate would sift through
New Hampshire’s records, with the benefit of hindsight on their side, and with a team of doctors supporting them. Looking back at Adam’s upbringing, the Child Advocate would determine that the district’s identification of Adam’s (relatively minor) speech problems had actually “masked the fact that expressive language was extremely delayed in his early education years, and particularly delayed compared to his ability to understand language.”

Nancy was saw it too: her son, slipping through the cracks. It stirred a change in her. She had already been a mother for four years before Adam came, but it was his arrival in her life, and the challenges he faced, that gave her new purpose. She would do whatever was necessary to protect him, the most vulnerable of her tribe.

 

 

 

 

SOURCES

Connecticut State Police — Sandy Hook Shooting Official Report (File 00196017)

“Raising Adam Lanza” — PBS Frontline & The Hartford Courant, 2013

Suffolk County Court records: 9584CV02884 Lanza et al v John Hancock Distributors Inc & 9601CV044533 Lanza, Peter vs. John Hancock Distributors Inc.

“Conn. killer’s NH kin express sorrow” — New Hampshire Union Leader December 15 2012

Annual Report of the town of Kingston — 1983 & 1995

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About Reed Coleman

email: reedscoleman@gmail.com
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