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Jewish World Review /July 27, 1998 / 4 Menachem-Av, 5758

Don Feder

Don Feder Crime wave hits hometown

LIKE MOST MEN in their middle years, I tend to romanticize the town where I grew up.

"Never locked our doors when we went away for weekends." "If you misbehaved in school, the teacher gave it to you. Then, when you got home, your mother gave it to you again." And other recollections of a bygone era.

Now, The New York Times tells me the rural county I hail from has become the homicide capital of upstate New York.

"In Spate of Killings, County Asks, 'Why?" read the headline on the July 20 story. "Boredom and Culture Are Blamed as Teen-agers Are Arrested in Slayings," the subhead explained.

Until February, Fulton County (population, 54,000) hadn't had a homicide in five years. Then, in quick succession, came four murders.

The most gruesome involved a young man abducted, tortured and strangled (allegedly by two teens and a 20-year-old woman -- an ex-girlfriend he owed money to), and a man of 77 asphyxiated. Two neighborhood boys, both 16, were arrested for that crime.

One of the four homicides happened in my town, Johnstown. Two of the others were committed in neighboring Gloversville. All but one of the seven arrested for these crimes are teen-agers or barely out of their teens.

There was a chilling detachment in the murders and their aftermath. The old man was tied to a chair that was tipped forward, pressing his face into the floor. Heavy objects were piled on his head to ensure a slow death. The accused rode around in the victim's car for two days.

Two of the trio arrested in the torture slaying cruised with the body stuffed in the trunk. None of them seemed to care if they were caught.

Polly Hoye, the Fulton County district attorney, says there was "something missing that was never instilled in them (the accused). There's a lack of remorse, a disdain for life, others or their own."

Arcadian in its tranquil beauty, Fulton County is 40 miles northwest of Albany, nestled in the Mohawk Valley. It was settled before the revolution and became a center of leather tanning and manufacturing.

When I was a kid there in the '50s and early '60s, the descendants of immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe worked in the mills and raised children who were taught right from wrong and instilled with a sense of responsibility.

Mothers were at home during the day. Expressions like "latchkey kids," "out-of-wedlock births," "fatherless families" and "social pathology" were decades in the future.

There were bad parts of town and tough kids. But the worst you could get in a scrape was a bloody nose or a split lip. The most violent thing on television (three channels, black and white) was the Lone Ranger shooting a gun out of the bad guy's hand. The lyrics of pop songs spoke of adolescent longing, not death, dismemberment and decapitation.

What happened to Fulton County and its twin cities of Johnstown and Gloversville?

Basically, the same thing that happened to the rest of the country -- welfare, single-parent families, drugs, an entertainment media that's a synthesis of a Roman orgy and the Roman arena (the average child will witness 100,000 acts of televised violence before he leaves elementary school), a juvenile justice system that mocks justice and the surrender of authority by schools, courts and parents.

Among the young, violent crime is pandemic. Between 1986 and 1996, the number of 14- to 17-year-olds arrested for murder tripled. In 1965, 23-year-olds were arrested more often for murder than any other age group. By 1992, 18-year-olds had copped this distinction.

It's estimated that by 2010, when the boomers begin retiring, there will be an additional 270,000 juvenile super-predators on our streets.

Zombie-like, young killers walk among us, seeking to fill the gaping hole in their souls with corpses.

We say something must be done. But nothing is. There are reform proposals galore, but those that could make a difference go against the ethos of the age -- by calling for discipline, punishment and a spirit of community in place of the monumental Me.

I know all of this. I've been writing about it for years. Still, sentimentalist that I am, I would see my hometown spared, preserved in amber -- like the Highlands village in Brigadoon, protected from a world in chaos as if by a magic spell.

The Johnstown I knew and loved now resides in the mists of memory. And there it will stay till America finds its way home again.


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©1998, Boston Herald; distributed by Creators Syndicate, Inc.