For 18 years, this summer resort had a secret. But a guilt-ridden suspect finally broke his silence with a drunken confession, and a crusading small-town newspaper helped turned “the shame of Sea Bright” into a federal case.
Now everyone knows what allegedly happened at 11 New St. on a summer night long ago, when an arson fire swept through a boarding house and killed four former mental patients.
All were unwelcome arrivals in a town that feared it was becoming a dumping ground for psychiatric cases.
Three county and state investigations over the years failed to produce arrests. Finally, federal prosecutors stepped in and charged two favorite sons of Sea Bright--a former fire chief and the stepson of the former police chief. Many wonder whether others will be implicated, too.
Some of the 1,700 people in this beach town, where the fern-and-brass bars largely shutter up when the summer crowds disappear, are sorry the episode has resurfaced.
“I heard someone say the other day, ‘It’s too bad they opened this up again.’ Well, what are you going to do, let someone get away with murder?” said Alan Hinton, 86, a 50-year resident.
The victims were former patients of the state’s Marlboro Psychiatric Hospital. People here worried their presence in the three-story frame house signaled its conversion into a halfway house.
Threats and a petition drive led the owner of the home to move the men to a neighboring town.
But that home was undergoing renovations, and they returned to Sea Bright--for one night. It was their last.
William Hull, 27; John LaRocque, 66; James Mayer, 24; and Victor Podwatz, 41, died in their beds on June 23, 1977.
Nobody was charged, despite news coverage identifying the two main suspects, Kenneth T. Johnson Jr. and Charles J. “Skip” Carlson Jr., who were 14 and 19 at the time. Carlson was a volunteer firefighter and later became chief; Johnson eventually became a volunteer himself.
“Sea Bright was a very clandestine town, and that’s why I think it was swept under the rug,” said Buddy Williams, whose family owned the house.
The break came in 1988, when defense attorney Shaun Schlich learned that after a night of binge drinking with a friend, Johnson had admitted setting the fire.
But the admission wasn’t enough.
Investigations by the county prosecutor in 1977 and 1988 ended with no charges. The state attorney general tried and failed in 1993.
“It just irked me that someone who I thought had contributed to the death of these four people could be made fire chief, when everyone in town knew they were the prime suspects,” said Schlich, himself a volunteer fireman.
Frustrated, Schlich mentioned the case in 1992 to TV’s Geraldo Rivera, who owns the Two River Times in neighboring Red Bank.
“The whole town knew. That’s the shame of Sea Bright,” Rivera said.
The weekly newspaper carried stories about the suspects, local media picked up on them and Rivera’s brother, Craig Rivera, broadcast a story on the TV show “Inside Edition.”
Federal authorities then reopened the case. Earlier this month, Johnson, a 32-year-old former Marine, pleaded guilty to conspiracy in federal court and faces up to five years in prison and a $100,000 fine.
He has agreed to testify against Carlson.
Carlson, 37, pleaded innocent a week later to arson charges and could get life in prison. He remains under house arrest and refuses to comment.
Johnson said that on the night of the fire, Carlson told him to stand watch as Carlson poured a liquid that smelled like gasoline on the threshold of the front door.
Johnson then struck the match, igniting a fire that consumed the house.
Johnson’s father, a former police chief, said he had heard his son was involved, but “I couldn’t believe it. I’d believed all along it was someone trying to get at me through my son.”
He said his son’s guilty conscience finally prompted him to confess.
Many townspeople believe someone else also had a role in the fire. Assistant U.S. Attorney Marc Farley declined to say whether more arrests are planned but said the probe is continuing. He said he has other evidence in addition to the confession, but he wouldn’t disclose it.
Over lunch at Ichabod’s restaurant, across Ocean Avenue from the scene of the fire, Corey Flint, 24, said she knows both suspects and can’t believe they’re guilty.
“They’re both like Mr. Sea Bright. They do everything for the town,” she said.
Businessman George Gaskin, 55, said he heard for years that Johnson and Carlson set the fire. But he doesn’t believe they should be prosecuted.
“If these people did it, killed four people, I say they’ve already paid a high price,” Gaskin said. “Everybody pays a price for what they do.”