Fear behind the smiles

My daughter was going to a funeral- would it end up being her own...?

Published by: Laura Hinton and Sharon Keeble
Published on: 22 September 2011

The sound of tyres crunching on the driveway made me peer through the window. Oh yes, there was the familiar black 4x4 - it was Tom, 20, my daughter's boyfriend. As if on cue, Jessica, 19, appeared in the kitchen with her sleeping bag.
They were going camping with friends in Wharton State Forest for the weekend - Tom wanted to take her mind off her pal Andrew, who'd been killed in a car crash.
‘All set?' I asked her. ‘And you'll remember about not drinking and keeping warm...'
‘Stop worrying,' she smiled. ‘You know I can handle anything!'
‘It's my job to worry,' I chuckled, as she raced out to Tom.
Watching them from the window, I smiled to myself. Tom was only her second boyfriend, but they were already so intense after eight months together. Ah, young love!
They'd met through friends, and he was a quiet, polite lad, worked for his family's landscaping business. He just seemed immature sometimes, like when he'd got moody the other day when our black Labrador Cosmo hadn't taken to him. ‘He doesn't like guys,' I'd chuckled when Cosmo had moved away as Tom tried to cuddle him.
Talk about a face like thunder! Then Jessica had giggled, making him even moodier. ‘Stupid dog,' he'd said.
But Jessica had her head screwed on. She was a hard worker, juggling her fashion studies with her job at a clothes shop in Staten Island mall. I was intensely proud of her.
She was the most sensible of her friends. ‘I get them to text me if they're going somewhere their parents don't know about,' she'd tell me.
I loved the closeness and honest relationship we had. And she always stuck to her 11.30pm curfew. Despite that, I waited up for her, half-asleep on the sofa, that Sunday evening. The sound of the door being shut stirred me awake.
‘Did you have fun?' I asked, squinting in the semi-darkness.
‘Yep,' she said, quickly walking past. The poor love must be knackered, and she had work first thing. She was so busy, in fact, that I barely saw her for the next week.
It wasn't until she shouted downstairs one night saying she didn't want dinner, I suspected something.
‘Are you okay, love?' I asked, peering around her bedroom door.
She was sitting cross-legged on the bed, head in her hands. ‘Oh dear,' I said. ‘Have you fallen out with Tom?'
As she looked up, I noticed she was wearing her thick-rimmed glasses instead of her contact lenses. Tears were trickling down her cheeks.
‘No,' she sniffed, looking away. ‘I'm just upset about Andrew, it's his wake on Tuesday afternoon.'
‘Oh, darling,' I soothed, leaning across for a cuddle - she winced. Suddenly, I noticed faint yellow bruises under both her eyes.
‘What are they?' I gasped.
‘T-Tom accidentally head-butted me. We were just goofing around...' Unable to meet my eye, she glanced down at a piece of paper on her bed.
I looked down, too... It was her phone bill... for $300 (£180)!
‘That's ridiculous!' I scolded.
‘Don't worry,' she sighed, turning away. ‘Tom's been using it, but he'll pay me back.'
‘He'd better! But I'm more angry about your face - you should report him to the police.'
‘It was a mistake,' she panicked. ‘I've dumped him anyway.'
‘Okay,' I said, feeling surprisingly relieved. ‘Why?'
‘I realised he wasn't good for me,' Jessica sighed, fiddling with her heart necklace. ‘He didn't want me seeing my friends.'
‘Well, you've made the right choice,' I smiled, hugging her.
Still, I was absolutely furious with him. So when she walked out of the bathroom later on, I snapped a photo of the bruises. ‘Mum,' Jessica snapped. ‘Leave it!'
I hated upsetting her. But I wanted to show her the picture when she was calmer, so she could see the severity of what he'd done.
Over the next few days though, Jessica was quiet and withdrawn. I guessed it was to be expected. She was heartbroken. Before I knew it, Tuesday morning had arrived.
‘Bye,' Jessica said, before running out of the door. I didn't get a chance to ask whether she'd be heading to the wake after work. I text her, but by 8pm she still hadn't replied or answered my calls.
‘The wake started at 2pm,' I fretted to my hubby Victor, 49. ‘Surely it would've finished now?'
‘Maybe they've all gone on somewhere,' he shrugged.
But something was niggling at me. Jessica had been so upset this week, and now she wasn't answering my calls... So I logged on to her instant messenger, and started chatting to one of her friends.
Jessica didn't come to the wake, she wrote back. I assumed she couldn't make it.
My blood ran cold. ‘I'm going to the shop,' I said, grabbing my keys. ‘I need to find out when she left.'
When I arrived, the manager said Jessica had finished at 2pm. ‘Is everything okay?' she asked. ‘It's not to do with her boyfriend, is it?'
‘No, why would it be?' I frowned.
‘He's been hanging outside in his car a lot lately,' she replied, looking concerned. ‘And there was that incident last week.'
‘What incident?'
‘He kept chasing Jessica around the shop, shouting abuse. The security guard had to chuck him out. I'm sorry, I thought you knew.' She looked to the floor.
‘I'll let you know if I hear from her,' she whispered.
I stomped out of the shop, couldn't believe what I'd heard.
Tom had been threatening and abusive to my daughter, but nobody had thought to tell me. And now she was missing. Had she met up with Tom to talk? Had he taken her somewhere?!
‘This all makes sense now,' I raged to Victor back home. ‘He must have been so controlling. You saw how she'd changed her dress sense.'
‘Yeah,' he nodded. ‘That must've been Thomas's doing.'
Jessica loved fashion - it was what she was studying at college. She'd always worn little skirts and tops, but lately had taken to roll necks and trousers. I'd written it off as a fad...
We waited a couple more hours before ringing the police. ‘We can't register your daughter as missing until she's been gone 48 hours,'
the officer told us. ‘Do you have a photo I could take with me?'
‘Here,' I said, handing him the snap I'd taken of Jessica's bruised face. ‘That's what he did to her.'
Tom had to have taken her somewhere - I just knew it.
The next day, I went to my school bus driver's job, desperate to distract myself. Back at home that night, we tiptoed around on eggshells, scared to say what we were really thinking. ‘Maybe she lost her phone?' Victor kept saying.
I just nodded, too numb to point out that wouldn't stop her from coming home. We must've dozed off on the sofa, because a knock on the door suddenly woke us.
I opened the door and found two officers standing there. Victor's ashen face told me he was thinking the same thing as me - why would the police be turning up at 3.15am if it wasn't something serious?
As I led them into the living room, they passed a photo to me. ‘Is this Jessica?' the officer asked.
‘Yes,' I nodded. ‘But that's the picture I gave you earlier...'
The same beautiful dark hair, the same bruised eyes. Then it clicked. In this picture, Jessica had her eyes closed, in mine, they were open. Suddenly, I saw the edge of a white sheet, just below her neck.
‘No...' Victor groaned as realisation hit. Our beautiful daughter was dead. Grief exploded in my heart. ‘Hikers found her body in Wharton State Forest. She was in a makeshift grave.'
Wharton State Forest... where she'd gone camping with Tom.
I didn't stop crying until sunrise the next day - when police had more news. ‘Tom's been charged with murder,' we were told.
‘My poor baby,' I wept. All the signs had been there - he'd head-butted her, been controlling, made her change her clothes... yet I'd been oblivious to it all, until now.
‘Please, just find out the truth,' I said. ‘I can't rest until you do.'
Days later, we were allowed to see Jessica in the chapel of rest. My body shook as we walked inside.
‘Oh darling,' I howled. I ignored all of her horrific injuries - she was still my beautiful baby girl - and held her battered and bloodied head in my hands. ‘I'll always love you,' I wept. ‘I'll get you justice.'
We couldn't bury her for three months while police inquiries continued but, finally, the day of the funeral arrived. More than 1,000 people crammed into the church.
As her gold and white casket filled with family photos was lowered into the ground, Victor and I threw red roses into her grave. ‘Bye my darling,' I whispered.
But days, weeks and months passed, and still we heard nothing.
So many times I'd see something like Jessica's sleeping bag or her old cheerleading kit, and it would set me off. When I spoke to her friends and work colleagues, they told me things I wish I hadn't heard.
‘Tom put out cigarettes on her shoulders,' said one.
Another reason why she'd started wearing different clothes - to cover up her injuries. ‘Why didn't I see?'
‘That was Jessica. She wanted to deal with everything alone,' said Victor. She'd always been there for her pals, making them text her to let her know they were safe. If only she'd let someone know she wasn't safe.
Six months later, the trial began, Victor and me clutched hands in court as Tom was brought up wearing a white paper suit. Oh, I wanted to hurt him like he'd hurt me. ‘Be strong, for Jessica,' Victor whispered, seeing my pain.
I tried, but it was so hard as I heard details of my baby's death.
Tom had strangled her... then stamped on her neck so many times he'd left her with a three-inch hole.
‘Animal,' I hissed. All that just because she'd dumped him, and he'd wanted her to pay.
But my baby had put up a fight. When police had spoken to Tom, he was covered in bite marks and scratches. ‘That's our girl,' Victor whispered. The beast had still had Jessica's DNA under his nails.
About 50 witnesses gave evidence. Tom's neighbour had seen him leaving his house, putting a plastic bag and a shovel in the boot of his car.
Someone else saw him drive from the shop with Jessica in his 4x4 around 2pm. He'd persuaded her to let him give her a lift to the wake - then killed her on the way.
But he'd been spotted by two hikers. They'd waved as he'd driven out of the woods, but he'd just stared blankly. Finding his behaviour odd, they'd followed his car prints... then stumbled across the grave he'd dug.
On top of the grave lay the programme for the wake. And when Tom was arrested, Jessica's trainers had been found in the back of his car. Her silver heart necklace was also hung on his rear view mirror. ‘Like a trophy,' I raged.
Finally, Thomas Paolino pleaded guilty to aggravated manslaughter in return for the murder charge being dropped. He was jailed for 23 years - meaning he could be released by the time he's 40.
He could go on to have a family, something Jessica will never do. But her death won't be in vain - I'm trying to have the law changed so that youngsters in schools are educated about relationship violence. That way, at least some good can come from this terrible tragedy.
Dina Tush, 49, Staten Island, New York, USA