Sandy Hook, Connecticut
From the top of a hill in Sandy Hook, Francis Bresson witnessed Newtown grow, and change. When he had left to fight in the second Great War, the roads back home were still dirt paths; when he returned, with a row of medals pinned across his chest, the streets were all paved. Then, as the 1970’s and 80’s passed, and as Newtown’s population surged to 18,000 and beyond, the roads branched, spreading further out from the flagpole, as civilization steadily crept upward, toward the wood fences of Bresson’s old dairy farm.
Finally, the Bressons sold their land to developers from out-of-town, and the dairy farm disappeared. But the road to the old farm persists to this day, with Bresson Farm Road curving east, high into the hills of Sandy Hook.
Nearby, the damming of the Housatonic has created Lake Zoar, drowning the site where the neighboring Bennett family’s old bridge once spanned the river. In the right conditions, when the reservoir is low, you can still sometimes see the stone pylons peering over the surface of the water, past the end of what is still called Bennett’s Bridge Road, a reminder of the path that vanished with the rising tide.
The names of more recent paths through Sandy Hook are often much harder to place.
Yogananda is a Sanskrit word, a name that means “bliss through divine union.” The term was likely first heard by Americans after the Hindu monk Swami Vivekananda first brought Vedantic philosophy to the west from India, and established the Vedanta Society of New York in 1896. One noteworthy attendee of the society’s first meetings was a peculiar man from Brooklyn, a Dr. John Street; he was a “well-known apostle of the occult” and “powerful psychic,” and was famous for his collection of magic crystals, which he claimed could show him visions of future events. The visiting Swami Vivekananda was apparently impressed with Dr. Street’s character, and ordained him; Dr. Street henceforth took on a new name, Swami Yogananda — or as he was usually known, Doctor Yogananda. The society later opened an ashram in West Cornwall, Connecticut, not far from Sandy Hook; this outpost of eastern thought could, by come forgotten vector, have introduced the name Yogananda to Fairfield County, where it still lingered a century later. It’s one possibility.
But the most famous person to call themselves “Yogananda” — the figure most likely to have inspired a namesake in Newtown — came to America twenty-five years after Dr. Street was ordained: Paramahansa Yogananda was a yogi who immigrated from India in the 1920s. He founded the Self Realization Fellowship, and shortly after his arrival in the U.S., embarked on a historic speaking tour around the country, being among the first to bring the practice of “yoga” to the west. Today, he is widely remembered for his series of essays on inner peace, and a philosophy with the goal “to liberate man from his threefold suffering: physical disease, mental inharmonies, and spiritual ignorance.”
Perhaps it was a blessing bestowed on the family of a future land developer, or a chance reading of Paramahansa’s enduring Autobiography of a Yogi that brought such an obscure Sanskrit word all the way to Newtown. Whatever the source, it came to pass that in 1996, when a firm from the nearby town of Monroe cleared a path through the woods that surrounded the old Bresson dairy farm, they settled on the name “Yogananda Street.”
The developers broke their purchase into 2-acre lots, and uprooted the trees, leaving a vantage point overlooking Sandy Hook that was to be one of 17 selected by the townspeople in 1998, “deemed worthy of preservation during a time of continuing rapid development.” Such an enviable view of “the unique, rural open character of Newtown, its visual quality and significant landscapes and natural areas,” would last as a blessing to the family who made their home at 36 Yogananda Street.
July 23, 1998
36 Yogananda Street — Sandy Hook, Connecticut
The house at 36 Yogananda was built by a man named Robert. He designed it as a two-story, colonial-style home, with an attached two-car garage. It came with four bathrooms, and four bedrooms. Robert built the house high at the back of the lot, on a hill overlooking the development, and painted it a pale yellow with forest-green shutters. A winding driveway led down the hill from the house, with a plain, grey mailbox where the path met the street.
The Lanzas signed the mortgage that summer, for $405,900.
Robert liked the Lanzas. At some point after selling 36 Yogananda to them — possibly while finishing the basement after they had moved in — Robert remembers meeting their two sons; of Adam, he noticed “nothing out of the ordinary or remarkable.”
* * *
Nancy said she was looking for a “fresh start” in Newtown. She wrote to friends back in Kingston that her new surroundings were beautiful, and full of activity. The house was more than twice the size of the old place on Depot Road, and to Nancy’s delight, they now had the money to fill this big house with new furniture, new appliances, new everything. But she was determined to stay humble. “Most people buy a house in this neighborhood and cop an attitude,” she reported to friends, shortly after moving in. “They say to themselves, ‘hey, I paid a half million for this house…I DESERVE to be treated like royalty. If this goes wrong, or if that isn’t perfect..I DEMAND that someone gets here to handle it right away.’”
Nancy wasn’t like that. She prided herself on her manners, and even more so, on doing the hard work herself. In her heart, she would always be the girl from the farm.
Nancy started planning how she would make 36 Yogananda “home.” She had the builder, Robert, set up outlets for a gaming room in the basement, and the boys couldn’t wait to hook up their Nintendo 64 for sessions of Goldeneye. The rest of the basement would be for the laundry, or Nancy’s exercise room. Then there was an unfinished storage area, with the furnace, and a tank that stored the home’s heating oil for the winter.
Above-ground, Nancy began filling the empty spaces with her purchases. She chose them meticulously: for the study, a maroon Oriental rug; for the dining room, a giant framed print of “The Dinner Party” by French post-impressionist Jules-Alexandre Grün. There were two living rooms, each furnished with decorative shelves that would house displays of Nancy’s fine glass and antiques, which she immediately began collecting. (Here, money was no object: if Nancy loved a piece, it was going to be hers.)
She even got to build her dream kitchen. From the cookware to the dishes, she chose everything — the cloth on her perfect kitchen table, she decided after much deliberation, would be white with Wedgewood Blue flowers. The kitchen had oak floors, three sinks, and the counter tops were platinum-granite — Nancy searched all over town until she found a cutting board that matched perfectly.
A staircase led up from the foyer. The four bedrooms were on the upper floor, and the master bedroom, where Nancy and Peter slept, was a left turn from the top of the staircase, at the end of the hall. Nancy chose a polished wood furniture set, and placed photos of her beloved sons around the room, facing her bed.
Sandy Hook Elementary School
The school bus stopped on Yogananda street. Nancy had enrolled Adam at Sandy Hook Elementary School in September of 1998, to start first grade. His older brother Ryan would be there with him for the trip, to join the fifth grade class.
The bus took the Lanza brothers down Bresson Farm and Bennett’s Bridge roads, out of Sandy Hook and into Newtown proper, just long enough to see Newtown High School pass by out the left window; that year, the boys could have caught a final glimpse of the high school’s “Newtown Indians” logo on the side of the sports stadium, being painted over and replaced with an image of the school’s new mascot, the Newtown Nighthawk.
The bus came to a “T” intersection, and turned right, up Riverside Road, past the site of the old mill, and back into Sandy Hook. Across from the firehouse, an old wooden sign, painted white and hung under an iron bar, marked the turn:
SANDY HOOK SCHOOL
Reaching the top of Dickenson Drive, the Lanza boys hopped out at the curb, and joined the crowd of students as they filed through the school’s glass front entrance, ready for their first day of class.
* * *
Newtown picked up Adam’s education plan right where Kingston had left off: he was to continue receiving the same kinds of speech and occupational therapy sessions that he was getting before, just in new surroundings.
According to the Child Advocate’s office, “best practices” for Planning and Placement Teams at the time called for more than this: Newtown was, ideally, to coordinate directly with Kingston, and review the prior district’s original evaluations (the materials underlying the IEP itself) before coming to their own conclusion, and finalizing a new IEP for their incoming student. But the 2014 investigators at the Child Advocate’s Office would not find any indication that such source documents were ever “provided, asked for, or considered.” And so, while Nancy said she had moved to Newtown because she believed Sandy Hook was a better school, it is likely that Adam’s new teachers had little choice but to follow the old plan, handed off from New Hampshire.
* * *
There were twenty-one students in Adam’s first-grade class. Many of the faces in this classroom were ones whom Adam would recognize again and again over the course of their education together, and who would recognize him back. Their teacher was a Mrs. Lavelle, and she shared with them her plans for the school year to come: the kids would be acting in several plays, and going on a field trip to the Beardsley Zoo, in nearby Bridgeport. There was also one feature of Mrs. Lavelle’s classroom, itself, that was unique: hers was the home of Sandy Hook’s “Culture Corner,” which meant that each month, a section of the classroom would be transformed into a series of exhibits about another civilization found somewhere around the globe — from Chinese New Year, to the mysterious circular calendars of ancient Mexico.
On picture day, Mrs. Lavelle led her class into the auditorium at Sandy Hook Elementary for their group photo. She positioned Adam immediately in front of herself; he is seen wearing a white turtleneck sweater, patterned with racecars. His expression looks as though he was trying to smile — but, standing among his new peers, the boy’s face is tense, bug-eyed, portraying something closer to confused alarm.
* * *
Nancy would spend a lot of time up north that first year, back home in Kingston, lingering among familiar surroundings and familiar people. If she didn’t have the boys with her, she would often spend all day on shopping sprees at the luxury stores in North Conway — the kinds of places she could have only dreamed of affording during her days at Front Street Laundry. It was a three-and-a-half hour drive back to Newtown, and the suitcases and shopping bags began to strain the confines of her old commuter car. “Oh well, needs change and there is no way to predict how they will change,” she wrote to a friend, as she started shopping for a new model. One with a little more space. “Maybe a Lexus, or an Infiniti… just as long as it isn’t a minivan,” Nancy said. She was upgrading, not selling out.
Nancy toured the village, and took in Newtown’s carefully preserved colonial landmarks; the flagpole, the meeting house, and the churches. She glowed when she described her new surroundings for the folks back home, calling the town “picturesque.” She said the boys were doing well at their new school, and that Peter was making great money. But there were already some things Nancy missed about the farm: while the treeline facing 36 Yogananda’s backyard was effective in separating the property from their neighbors, at night, deer would creep out from the darkness, eating her decorative shrubs, and dropping tics. Lyme disease was a growing concern, and so naturally, Nancy wanted to shoot the deer; she was disappointed to learn that in Newtown, she would have to wait until hunting season.
Nancy and Peter brought the Ruger Mini-14 “ranch rifle” with them from Kingston, and kept it in a gun safe, somewhere in 36 Yogananda. (They may also have brought the .45 pistol with them — or, they might have sold it before the move. Nobody remembers for sure.)
* * *
The move to Connecticut meant that Adam had to change pediatricians. When Nancy took him for a check-up that fall (apparently as part of the IEP process) the records note that Adam had already been “diagnosed” with sensory processing problems, and that the family reported a previous diagnosis of a “seizure disorder.” But it does not appear that there was ever any official diagnosis of a seizure disorder during Adam’s years in Kingston, nor after. (However, investigators would later find a curious piece of evidence in Nancy’s closet at 36 Yogananda, tucked in a cardboard box full of Adam’s early-childhood artwork: a drawing of the Nintendo character Pikachu, scribbled child-like in yellow marker on a sheet from a set of promo stationary, which was branded with the logo for Dilantin — a drug used to treat and prevent seizures.)
In a return visit a few months later, ostensibly to address “joint pain” that her son was experiencing, Nancy again raised the prospect of Adam suffering a seizure. This time, the boy’s mother clarified the issue: she told the doctor there was the possibility of a seizure if blood was drawn; Adam was sensitive, and couldn’t handle needles. She preferred that they perform whatever diagnostics they could, that would not require drawing any of her son’s blood.
* * *
Later in the fall, the team at Sandy Hook Elementary invited Nancy down to the school for one of their regular Planning and Placement Team meetings. Mrs. Lavelle and the staff reported to her that Adam was reading “at grade level,” and they had determined that he was actually above-average in math. He was always respectful, and behaved appropriately.
His difficulties, the staff found, were in his written expression, which was attributed to his more fundamental delay in developing speaking skills — an echo of the Adam that New Hampshire observed in his preschool years. He was “timid,” and “needed prompting to participate.” He needed to “learn to take initiative.”
Nancy and her team agreed to an update of Adam’s IEP; the goals they set, while broad, mostly indicate that Adam remained sensitive about touch, such as with the tags on his clothes that Nancy was still having to remove; if left unaddressed, these “aversive reactions” could lead to full-on avoidant behaviors (such as pathologically refusing to touch certain surfaces), and so the team added a goal to Adam’s plan, to “improve sensory processing related to daily school activities” by “focusing on tabletop activities in appropriate ways.”
* * *
In November 1998, a tepee rose in the courtyard of Sandy Hook Elementary School. It was a sign that the culture that Mrs. Lavelle’s class was set to study that month was not from a foreign place at all, but a foreign era; with the Thanksgiving holiday approaching, they were to pay tribute to the continent’s indigenous tribes, the Native Americans.
Mrs. Lavelle’s class took turns playing a dance game in the tepee, hopping along the floor to the rhythm created by the pounding of a native drum, and a rattle made of deer toes, as they waited to pick up candy from the floor when the beat stopped. A group of visiting tribal descendants had constructed the tepee out of sticks and buffalo hide, and were playing the old instruments in hopes of making the children feel closer to the people who lived there once before — in a time when the wigwams still lined the rocky banks of the Housatonic, and the land was known only as Quanneapague.