Children's deaths at father's hand haunt a friend

September 17, 1995|By MICHAEL OLESKER

Christopher Morgan squats on the ground behind the Middlesex Shopping Center in Essex. His eyes are red-rimmed, owing to several sleepless nights. People come and go. They leave flowers and stuffed animals. Morgan stays. He says the spirit of the children holds him here.

The children were killed in a station wagon explosion last week. The cops say Mark Alen Clark, furious that his wife, Betty, left him and wouldn't come back, blew up the station wagon (so badly damaged that police initially reported it was a minivan) and didn't care that the brief lives of three children would end hideously.

Morgan says he's a friend of the family. The children were Krysta, 4, Ricardo, 6, and Melissa, 11. This grassy spot behind the shopping center is next to an obscure little road, but people seem to find their way to it. Morgan says they've come by the hundreds, day after day. Some leave little offerings. Others sit in their cars, say a prayer and drive on.

"I thought it was an earthquake," says Michelle Knisley, who works at the Payless store at Middlesex Shopping Center. She means the station wagon explosion. She was at work when it blew up. She says she can't bear to say any more, and stifles a sob. She's walked here with a friend, who can't stop weeping as she moves through an array of flowers and teddy bears and personal messages left by strangers on the grass.

One says, "God bless the children. With our deepest sympathies. From the employees at Basics (Deli and Bakery Dept.)" Another, in a child's handwriting, says, "For the children who died. Jenn." It's sitting next to a can of peanuts, which has money stuffed inside. Christopher Morgan says he's been collecting it from people since Monday. It's now Thursday afternoon. The can holds $23.

"I haven't slept since this happened," he says. He's 21 years old and runs a hand through his blond hair. He looks exhausted. He says he stays here through the days and nights, going home only to eat. He glances at Michelle Knisley from Payless, who's hugging her friend, and then the two women walk forlornly back to work, sobbing and holding onto each other.

Morgan says he sees ghostly visions of the children at night. He says a priest arrived when the 11-year-old, Melissa, still was clinging to life. He says that vision won't go out of his head. He says every time he goes home, "Something keeps telling me to come back. She was crawling away from the van, up onto the grass, and she was crying."

More visitors arrive now: cars and cars, and people arriving on foot. This isolated little area behind a shopping center, with the road blackened from the force of the explosion, with pieces of debris hanging from bushes, has become a sort of shrine where people arrive and try to figure out how such a monstrous act could have happened and walk away knowing nothing more than when they arrived.

"Devastating," says Beryl Jones.

"God bless their souls," says Lynn Hart. The two women work at the shopping center's Village Thrift. They speak softly, the way people do at a holy place.

"He should have just taken his own life," Christopher Morgan says.

4 "They don't, though, do they?" says Beryl Jones.

Kids ride their bicycles through the area, pause for a few %J moments to look at the stuffed animals and then move on. Morgan eyes them warily.

"Some people," he says, "they've been stealing stuff."

"From the ground?"

"A stuffed animal, yeah," says Morgan. "A boy on a 10-speed bike. I chased him."

"My brother has a beautiful angel on his baby's grave," a woman standing nearby says softly. "They took it. Somebody just took it and ran off."

The words are said without much emotion. Where's the shock of stolen angels in a world where fathers blow up children? Beryl Jones says she has six kids. Lynn Hart has four, all under 11.

"People love you, and then they don't love you," says Jones, "but this. . . ."

"Over here," says Christopher Morgan. He's become a caretaker of this shrine, spreading the flowers neatly, propping up the stuffed animals, collecting donations. He's pointing to some roses on the ground. Left by two children, he says.

"They couldn't afford to buy any, so they stole them out of somebody's yard."

God will understand, he says. He looks around. But this thing, he says, these senseless deaths, no one will ever know why. He looks frazzled. He says there will be candlelight vigils. He glances toward the road, where more cars have stopped.

People stare hard at the flowers, as though expecting to find something more: some ghostly apparitions, maybe, or some reason why this thing happened. They leave, carrying no understanding with them. Only Christopher Morgan stays. The children, he says. He has appointed himself caretaker of their spirits.

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