Warning — This is not a typical Burlington Retro article. It’s about a child rapist, an ugly character in Burlington history. Some parts of this article are extremely unpleasant.
In February of 1983, the TV sitcom Diff’rent Strokes ran a risky two-part episode called “The Bicycle Man,” about a pedophile hiding behind a benign facade. It was meant to promote vigilance, but probably could not be aired today without some major revisions. For one thing, the jokes and the laugh track never stop, even when the events turn ugly. It’s strange.
But it worked. In a Wakefield living room, an 11-year-old boy watched the show with great interest as it dramatized the grotesque corruption of children: showing nude photos to them, brainwashing them into thinking nudity is normal, introducing them to drugs as a growing-up ritual, intimidating them into silence.
The boy found it all horribly familiar. When the show was over, he dropped a bomb on his parents. He had experienced all of those things, and worse.
He pointed his finger at the last man in Wakefield anyone would have suspected. He was a stellar, straitlaced product of Wakefield Memorial High School, class of 1961. In fact, he was voted “most ambitious.”
When that 11-year-old blew the whistle on him, Mr. Brehaut was 41, a champion soccer coach, a scoutmaster, a member of the Wakefield Fire Department auxiliary and a 16-year veteran of Burlington Public Schools. In fact, he was past president of the faculty council, and he was actively teaching at Marshall Simonds Middle School at the time.
The only child of Owen and Jean Brehaut, pronounced Bree-O, he was single, childless and living with his parents when police arrested him Nov. 18, 1984 and charged him with one count of indecent assault and battery on a child under 14. He pleaded innocent and was released on bail. Burlington put him on involuntary “vacation” at first, but then terminated him as the rest of the picture slowly emerged from the darkness.
Some Wakefield residents weren’t having this. He could NOT have done this. A crowd of supporters, including many scouts, defied freezing temperatures to hold a vigil on Wakefield Common for their beloved Mr. Brehaut.
- Craig Hudson, 14, who earned scout merit badges with Mr. Brehaut’s help, told the Boston Herald, “He’s a real good guy. I think he’s innocent because he helps people all the time. I never heard any stories about him.”
- Joe Clark, whose son James was in Mr. Brehaut’s troop several years prior, told the Herald, “I think he got a real bum deal. He’s not guilty until proven guilty, but his life is in shambles because of all the publicity.”
- Victor Kirmes, 70, a longtime neighbor of Mr. Brehaut, added, “I’ll back him any way I can. I’ve known Larry since he was a boy delivering newspapers. This thing is one hell of a mess. This is a small town and there’s so much sensationalism.”
- Merrill Mezilofsky, a longtime friend of Mr. Brehaut, organized the rally. He told the Herald, “I’m sort of nervous for the BSA (Boy Scouts of America). When you see something like this, it puts a black mark on the scouts. People might be afraid to join.” He continued, “It’s so surprising this happened. Even if he comes out innocent, it will still be tough to face everyone.”
Burlington Retro is not trying to shame these people. Pedophilia was barely in the vocabulary in the 1980s compared to now. And, of course, these people didn’t have the benefit of hindsight. But their passionate support shows just how convincing sociopaths can be.
If you’re wondering what Mr. Brehaut’s victims thought of this community outpouring, Eric Schneider can tell you firsthand. “My worst fears about adults were coming true. They conspired with each other to protect child abusers.” It’s in his book.
He is among the scores of children Mr. Brehaut isolated, then poisoned with booze, weed and cocaine, and then brutally sodomized. Yes, don’t assume Mr. Brehaut was guilty of mere “inappropriate contact.” He was violent and sadistic. Sometimes he hung his victims, all under 12 years old and some under 10, upside down from the ceiling like slabs of meat in a slaughterhouse, while he physically and psychologically tortured them.
Much of the abuse took place at marijuana-hazed sex parties in Mr. Brehaut’s photo darkroom, a basement space he was renting from an oblivious elderly couple on Pearl Street in Wakefield, a stone’s throw from two churches. Police raided his darkroom and found boxes and boxes of photos. The victims didn’t have to speak. The photos did the talking.
Faced with a mountain, literally a mountain, of indisputable photographic evidence, Mr. Brehaut changed his plea to guilty: eight counts of rape of a child, one count of indecent assault and battery on a child under 14, eight counts of posing a child for pornographic purposes, five counts of distributing obscene material and four counts of distributing obscene pictures. Prosecutor Patricia Bernstein said there were many more victims going back many more years, but the statute of limitations had run out on them. Mr. Brehaut had silenced those victims long enough to escape prosecution.
He asked the court for psychiatric help, to no avail. In January of 1986 he was sentenced to 10 to 15 years in MCI Walpole. Nine years into his sentence, he collapsed from cardiac arrest and died in the prison yard. He was 51.
Mr. Brehaut did not always rape alone. There were two other men and a woman, Schneider says, but he does not name them in his book because they were never tried in court. Many years later, he tried to sue the Boston Minuteman Council, the local division of the Boy Scouts of America, for allowing a sex ring, but the statute of limitations had run out. Further reading:
Schneider became a drug user, arsonist and eventually a member of Whitey Bulger’s crime gang. He is a rare Brehaut survivor. Most of the other victims killed themselves, he says. The victims never spoke to each other about their trauma. They were too young, confused and ashamed to commiserate.
Where were Schneider’s parents during all of this? William and Doris Schneider, both deceased now, had adopted Eric and another child as infants. The family moved from Saugus to Mansfield Drive in Wakefield when Eric was three. Dad was a heavy equipment operator for Mobil Oil in East Boston. Mom was a school teacher. She was widely respected as an advocate for abused children, having been abused herself by a previous husband.
But according to Eric Schneider, her top priorities were saving face and maintaining her professional reputation, so she developed a blind spot to her own child’s warning signals. From the book: “I remember the look on my mother’s face when she found out about the abuse. She was like, ‘Well, it’s over — let’s put it behind us. Would you like a sandwich?'”
And Dad? He was always working.
Sounds like a lot of families, right? That’s the scary part. These weren’t bad parents. They simply weren’t vigilant. Eric had a very long leash. He would disappear for much of the day, off with his friends, and nobody was concerned. Schneider acknowledges that parenting was simply more hands-off in those days, culminating in a handoff to the Cub Scouts. It was a rite of childhood, not subject to debate. And Mr. Brehaut was more than happy to act in loco parentis.
“The worst part is I assumed that every boy my age went through hell. It never occurred to me that Larry was an aberration. The Cub Scouts was a national organization. People worshipped the Cub Scouts. I was seven. Every day I was learning something new. The dentist did horrible things to me with a drill, painful things, while declaring it was all part of growing up. The doctor made me undress and he touched me in private places, assuring me it was all par of growing up. What was I to think?
“Larry showed no shame, acting as if it were the most normal thing in the world. It was late when he took me home, so he decided to go inside and visit with Mom and Dad to let them know everything was all right. I didn’t know it at the time, but Larry was a sociopath with a diabolical criminal mind. Since he did not believe he was doing anything wrong, it was easy for him to manipulate the parents of the boys who entrusted him. He could be very convincing.
“Parents were happy to have this guy as their friend because he was so popular in the community. What I may never get over is what an easy time Dad had talking to Larry, and what a difficult time he had talking to me. I sat at the table with them, blood pooling in my pants from being sodomized, stoned out of my mind, and they never noticed a thing, everyone laughing and praising me for how well I was doing in the scouts.
“After they chatted a few minutes, they asked me to make Larry a drink. I went over to the sink and poured him a water glass full of Seagram’s VO Gold, a kick-ass whiskey that he guzzled down like water. To this day I still remember how it smells. Just thinking about it makes me sick to my stomach. I sat there and watched them, feeling smaller and smaller.
“After Larry left, I went upstairs and put my bloody underwear in a plastic bag and hid it behind my dresser. Several weeks later, after the bag was so filled with bloody underwear that it no longer would fit behind the dresser, I tore up one of my sheets and, using the information I’d learned in the scouts, connected the pieces with square knots and made a rope strong enough to hold me.
“Once my parents went to bed, I tied one end of the rope to my bed and tossed the rest out the window. I climbed down the rope with the plastic bag crammed tightly into my scout pack, and ran deep into the woods and built a fire so that I could burn my underwear and nobody would ever know what’d happened to me.
“The fire had a strange effect on me. It was my friend, my only friend. It protected me in ways my parents would never understand. Standing there at the midnight hour, the sky filled with stars, I watched the fire, warming my hands against its flames, reveling in the quiet solitude of the moment.”
Schneider’s revolt against Mr. Brehaut came when he learned from other kids that it was possible to buy a gun on Mall Street in Lynn. He took a bus to Lynn and bought a loaded pistol using money he had slowly embezzled from his mother’s purse and from his own scout fundraising efforts. The next time Mr. Brehaut came to pick him up, he suddenly pulled the gun out of his coat and pressed it against the side of Mr. Brehaut’s skull. That was his ticket out of that car. He was 11 years old.