LENOX, Mass. -- Bitterness and grief weigh heavily this Christmas season on the heart of the beautiful Berkshire Hills where seven teenage boys convicted in the deaths of two other youths face prison after the holidays.
The 'Lenox Seven,' all spring graduates of Lenox Memorial High School, begin serving 2 -year sentences in the county jail Jan. 5 for involuntary manslaughter and assault and battery in the drownings last summer of two youths from a rival high school in the adjoining town of Lee.
The tragedy not only ended or irrevocably tarnished nine promising young lives, it also afflicted their families, friends and neighbors - almost everyone in the two towns nestled in the mountains of western Massachusetts.
It is a case that has in some instances divided families and pitted neighbor against neighbor in communities that at this season in better times celebrated joyous holidays in a classicly American setting, hunting deer in the woods and skiing on the Berkshire slopes.
Many Lenox residents argue the sentences were too harsh and will serve no useful purpose. Others -- mostly from Lee -- contend the 'Lenox Seven' got what they deserved, or less.
The case of the 'Lenox Seven' could serve as a warning for the '80s, a decade in which some observers believe American adolescents are turning from drugs to alcohol to fuel a race on a fast track toward tragedy.
The victims were Barry E. Griffin Jr., 19, and Richard W. Retzel, 18, both good athletes at Lee High School. They lived in modest houses in the same neighborhood in the mill town just south of Lenox, a picture-book New England town that houses Tanglewood, summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and sprawling estates built by wealthy outsiders.
Their bodies were found in a car submerged in Laurel Lake on the edge of Lee after a fight.
Trial testimony indicated the defendants hunted down and attacked Griffin and Retzel on a boat ramp to avenge an earlier attack on two Lenox youths. There also was testimony that Griffin and Retzel took refuge from their attackers in the 1971 Cadillac, which was then inadvertently driven into the lake.
The attackers, according to testimony, returned to a graduation party.
It is generally agreed that both the victims and their attackers had been drinking.
Unless their cases are successfully appealed, these youths cannot be paroled until they have served at least 15 months in jail: Peter P. Bianco, 18; Joseph F. Burke, 18; Mark E. Hinman, 18; Bruce C. Kern, 19; Steven M. Peretti, 18; Todd Terpak, 18; and Robert Walker, 18.
For both Mary Retzel, mother of a victim, and Rene Burke, mother of a youth facing jail, their family tragedies began with a knock on their doors.
'It was about 4 a.m.,' Mrs. Retzel recalled in an interview in a living room that displayed her deceased son's athletic trophies. 'When I saw the priest, I knew Dickie was dead. I don't know how I knew but I just knew.'
Asked if justice had been done at the trial, Mrs. Retzel hesitated and then said, 'I just don't know how to answer that. No matter what punishment the boys got, it won't bring Dickie back.'
Mrs. Retzel, who had just returned from the cemetery where she goes daily to visit the grave of her son, sobbed. Then, recovering her composure, she said, 'We have a lot of good, happy memories. Dickie brought a lot of happiness and fun into our lives.'
The victim's father, Richard F. Retzel, who sells hay at Suffolk Downs and has an interest in two racehorses, said after the trial the verdict had for him 'restored some faith in law and order.' But Mrs. Retzel still is bothered by the trial.
'The defendants showed no remorse at all in the courtroom,' said Mrs. Retzel, who works as a housekeeper at a nearby estate. She also is bitter because she believes her son's attackers made no attempt to save the victims when the car plunged into the lake.
On that same summer morning, in the pre-dawn darkness, Mrs. Burke was awaken by a knock at the door by one of seven police officers who wanted to talk with her son. He had returned a short time earlier and was asleep in his room.
'We have to talk to your son about a double homicide,' an officer told Mrs. Burke, a secretary at the General Electric plant.
'I woke Jody up,' Mrs. Burke recalled. 'He was sleeping like a baby.'
Mrs. Burke and her husband, a paper mill worker, are convinced their son should not go to jail.
'We've maintained all along that this was an accident that happened after a fight,' she said in an interview in her kitchen.
Mrs. Burke displayed a 'Golden Hammer,' an award her son had won for excellence in industrial arts at Lenox High, and some yellow ribbons used in a campaign started by his younger sister.
'The idea is to wear a yellow ribbon if you support the appeal,' said Mrs. Burke, adding that legal expenses for her son's defense already total about $8,000.
'Jody's always been a hard worker,' Mrs. Burke said. 'He's not college material but everybody doesn't have to go to college.'
His skis were on the back porch and he was at his job as a cabinetmaker.
'He went deer hunting the other day with his boss,' said Mrs. Burke.
'My husband is from Lee,' she said. 'He went to high school with one of the parents of the victims.'
Mrs. Burke said there had been no contact between the parents of the 'Lenox Seven' and the parents of the victims and she no longer shops in Lee.
She said her son's morale was 'excellent' despite the prospect of jail.
'Jody has a very nice girl friend and she's helped a lot. She's a senior at Lenox High.'
Mrs. Burke broke down during the trial, which ended after 2 weeks on Nov. 19, when she believed there was a possibility her son would be sent to a state prison rather than the county jail.
'Jody's strong,' she said. 'I have a lot of faith in him. I just hope jail doesn't make him bitter.'
Sentences were handed down Dec. 4, with the judge permitting the youths to spend the holidays at home.
Mrs. Burke said her son, who is 6-foot-2 and weighs 165, always had been non-violent, preferring skiing to body contact sports such as hockey.
She said her son is a former altar boy who no longer attends Catholic services regularly, as she does. But she said on the Sunday after the deaths 'Jody woke me up and said he wanted to go to church with me.'
She said defense attorneys had advised the boys to try not to show emotion in the courtroom but her son had been 'devastated' by the deaths.
'He sat out there on the steps by himself all day long,' she said. 'When my son doesn't eat, you know he's hurting.'
She said after the incident some friends of her son came by and asked him to go swimming at a quarry pond. 'He just wasn't interested,' she said.
Mrs. Burke said when the family had eaten in local restaurants and tried to keep up a brave front 'some people would see us laughing and tell people we were treating this thing like a joke.'
'If this hadn't happened near the water, nobody would have died,' she said. 'The deaths were accidental. We expected the boys to be found guilty of assault and battery. We didn't expect the manslaughter charge.'
Mrs. Burke, who had been wrapping presents, said, 'We're trying to celebrate Christmas as usual because for the next two Christmases Jody won't be home.'
Some visiting reporters saw what happened at Laurel Lake as a classic conflict between privileged youths from affluent Lenox and deprived youngsters from Lee, which they described as a depressed mill town. That view does not hold up.
Both the victims and the 'Lenox Seven' come from similar working-class backgrounds. Despite some appertenances of wealth in Lenox, both towns have their share of blue-collar workers.
Another theory was that a longstanding athletic rivalry between the high schools in Lenox and Lee prompted the fight. Residents of both towns scoff at that notion, seeing the competition between the schools as healthy and ordinary.
It probably is more likely the confrontation was triggered by boredom and booze, both of which afflict teenagers elsewhere in the United States.
'We're no different from any other community,' said Robert A. Romeo, a Lenox policeman for 11 years before going into the home furnishings business. 'Most people don't realize the magnitude of the problem of teenage drinking. It's not uncommon to find them drinking at 12 or 13 years old.'
Romeo said sending the 'Lenox Seven' to jail will 'do them no good' but acknowleged, 'If it had been my son killed, I don't know how I would feel.'
Linda Lubenow, 18, a Lee High senior who knew the victims well, said, 'They should have gotten longer sentences and the judge should have made them go to jail before Christmas.'
Some Lee residents were pleased when they heard that one of the 'Lenox Seven' -- Peter Bianco -- ventured into their town after the trial and was beaten by local youths.
Generally, the 'Lenox Seven' -- told by their attorneys not to talk to reporters -- have made themselves less visible. They are preparing for jail, saying final farewells.
Bianco, who has a reputation as a brawler, spends time at the home of a girl friend.
Ed Herlihy, 19, a close friend of the victims, said when he heard of the drownings he 'broke down and cried.'
'They were never in any trouble,' Herlihy said. 'They were both too busy with the girls. They were popular with girls all over the county, not just in Lee.'
Rumors persist that the fight at the lake was triggered 'by a girl' but there is no proof.
Principal Robert Lucy, who has spent 30 years at Lee High, spoke of his 'feeling of frustration. It was such a waste. Both were good students and both were three-sport athletes.'
'Every time I go by that pond I think of those boys,' said Lucy, who put part of the blame for the tragedy on the proximity of the New York state line, where the legal drinking age is 18, as opposed to 20 in Massachusetts.
'We're only 10 miles from the line,' said Lucy, noting sadly that teenage drinking had become 'an accepted thing.'
'Kids at Lee are more likely to do a six-pack than drugs,' said the principal, employing the vernacular of the youngsters he knows so well. 'I worry more about the drinking problem than the drug problem, although both exist here.'
Lucy, who described himself and his wife as 'successful parents' who have raised four children, said, 'Everyone who's ever had a child has said to himself that this tragedy is something that could have happened to any of us.
'Everyone is waiting to see the sentences carried out. I think it would be a mistake if some punishment wasn't dealt out here but nobody is looking justfor revenge, an eye for an eye. The thing everybody remembers is that they ('Lenox Seven') jumped in their car and ran off without trying to help after the car went in the water.'
Margaret Menatti of Lenox prays at her Catholic church daily for the 'Lenox Seven' and the souls of the victims. 'I don't think prison is the answer for boys of this age,' she said in an interview in her living room.
Her husband, Ernest, who had just finished a shift at a paper mill in Lee, said emphatically he did not agree and excused himself to get some sleep.
'Cars have a lot to do with it,' said Mrs. Menatti, whose own children attended Lenox High. 'We drank when we were kids but we didn't have cars.'
Tony Almeida, 19, a college student who attended Lenox High and a neighbor of the Menattis, said, 'There's nothing for kids to do here. You have to have a car. At that age you don't want to take a bus.'
Almeida, a friend of all of the 'Lenox Seven,' said, 'It just freaks you out to think about that long behind bars.'
Winnie Rutledge, another neighbor and former Lenox student who now attends college, blamed the tragedy on alcohol. She estimated that '60 to 70 percent' of Lenox youngsters smoke marijuana and said, 'When you smoke pot, you just get mellow. You don't fight.'
Mrs. Menatti got last year's Lenox High yearbook from a shelf. She and her two young neighbors looked at the photographs of some of the 'Lenox Seven.'
'They're all nice guys,' commented Ms. Rutledge.
'We all have a responsibility to these seven children and we should take care of it quietly,' Mrs. Menatti said. 'The town can be stronger because of what happened.'
In a small brick house in Lee, David Griffin, 18, displayed no such sentiments in recalling the death of his older brother.
'After the priest and cop came to the house to tell us what happened,' he recalled, 'I felt my life was over, too.
'I feel hate because not one of them stayed there and helped my brother.'
Hate, of course, changes nothing, a point frequently made in letters about the tragedy to the Berkshire Eagle, the daily newspaper published at nearby Pittsfield.
One of the most eloquent of those letters was written by Nancy Marasco, who lives in Lenox.
Noting the tragedy had 'touched all of us who live in Lenox and Lee,' Mrs. Marasco wrote, 'Small towns, like families, draw closer together in times of sorrow, and we all mourned with those who grieved. As we approach the season of Christmas and Hanukkah, let us all pray for mercy, compassion, forgiveness and peace.'
adv for tues dec.