His companion, Alicia Woodward, also had emotional problems. She briefly ran away from home at age 16, and dropped out of high school at 17, then she allegedly joined the crime spree that stretched from North Carolina to Colorado during the last few weeks.
Esposito, 21, of Berlin Township, and Woodward, 18, of Marlton, were being held this weekend by authorities in Durango, Colo., after their arrest at gunpoint in the nearby Mesa Verde National Park.
The two were charged in the abductions and murders last month of Lola Davis, 90, of Lumberton, N.C., Lawrence Snider, 91, and his wife, Marguarite, 86, of Oklahoma City. The cars belonging to Davis and the Sniders were stolen and all three victims had been bludgeoned, authorities said.
Esposito's mother, Debbie, said her son developed discipline problems in high school and began exhibiting bizarre behavior. She committed him to a mental hospital in 1994 and now is angry he was released.
``He's not just a murderer, he's a coward,'' she said, as she sat in her living room. ``Those people he killed, they couldn't fight back.''
She added: ``They keep saying he's nuts. He's not nuts. He's evil. People have to understand there is a difference.''
Woodward's father, Robert Woodward of Georgia, said his daughter told him over the phone Thursday that she feared John Esposito, did not participate in the killings, and tried unsuccessfully to contact her father after the first kidnapping.
Alicia Woodward had once played in a marching band at Cherokee High School in Marlton, took baby-sitting jobs, and worked as a waitress. Her mother, Sharon B. Woodward, is a teacher at Overbrook Regional Senior High School in Camden County.
``She said she was scared to death of Esposito and he beat and abused her while they were together,'' said Robert Woodward. ``She was too afraid to try to escape. I don't have any answers about why she didn't try to escape when he was asleep. I just can't answer things like that.''
Esposito, who grew up in Paulsboro and West Deptford before dropping out of high school, is the only son of Giovanni Esposito, 42, an immigrant from Calabria, Italy, who was convicted of manslaughter eight years ago. The elder Esposito shot a man in the head and hid the body in a shed for several days before cutting off its head, hands and feet. Only the torso was recovered.
Giovanni Esposito is the nephew of mob ``soldier'' Raymond Esposito, 55, of Gibbstown, a member of the Stanfa crime family who took part in murder plots, obstruction of justice and extortion. Raymond Esposito was convicted in November 1995 with John Stanfa on racketeering charges.
Authorities and relatives said John Esposito lived in a Berlin Township boarding home that housed people with emotional problems. He had been referred there by a mental-health organization in Voorhees. He also spent time at Ancora Psychiatric Hospital in Camden County.
Esposito and Woodward met in late summer and as the season wound down, they drove South in Woodward's 1986 Pontiac Grand Am, apparently headed for Florida. They allegedly began their crime spree after the car conked out in the parking lot of a supermarket in Lumberton.
John Holstlaw, an FBI special agent in Denver, said the killings initially reminded him and others of the slayings in the movie Natural Born Killers, in which a young couple go on a violent crime spree throughout the West.
``I guess a few years ago everybody would have thought about Bonnie and Clyde, but now we think about this,'' said Holstlaw.
Lt. Ray Mayer, of the LaPlata County Sheriff's Department in Durango, Colo., said the suspects were being housed this weekend in the ``special management section'' of the county jail. Mayer said Woodward has been quiet in her cell while Esposito constantly paces and seems very distressed.
One of the victims, Lola Davis, was buried Sept. 23 in Fairmont, N.C. An autopsy was scheduled for the Sniders this weekend.
In Oklahoma, friends of the Sniders gathered for a two-hour prayer service last week at the Oklahoma City Church, which the couple helped establish 50 years ago.
``It was what we needed,'' said the Rev. Sandra Stroh. ``There is a sense of peace right now. People are somewhat relieved that the bodies were found. However, I expect a major swing back to grief and anger when the funeral times arrive.''
* John Esposito's mother thinks he is guilty. Alicia Woodward's father thinks she is innocent.
The parents of the suspects had widely differing views of their children after the arrests.
``I watch him on TV and it's the same look in his eye as when he was here,'' said Esposito's mother. ``There's no remorse in his eyes.''
For the former Debbie Esposito, who remarried and asked that her new name and address not be used, her son's appearance in newspapers and on TV was an old nightmare revisited on her family.
``I don't know why,'' she said. ``I've been sick, throwing up, for a week. He's not part of my life. I don't have any answers.''
Her son lived with his mother through his junior year at West Deptford High School, then dropped out to join the Army. ``I got letters from him in basic training,'' she said. ``They're wonderful letters.''
He was assigned to the 157th Infantry Brigade in Bristol. She still has the letter from the Army welcoming John to the service.
But she has other letters from the government about her son, too. After he returned from basic training, John Esposito started to change. And the nightmare began.
He carved ``Sandman'' into his chest, ``because he puts people to sleep,'' Esposito's mother said. He signed letters as ``Lucifer'' in his own blood. When he wrote such a letter to her, saying he would kill her, she had him committed in Gloucester County Superior Court in April 1994.
He was out in 20 days. That, she says, is when she knew he was evil.
``He can con anybody,'' she said. ``They had him. I did what I was supposed to do, and they let him out. He couldn't con me. That's why he hates me.''
In May 1994, she obtained a restraining order against him. It was the last she saw of him. She has no pictures of him displayed in the house, which she and her husband bought last July. She has had no contact, and now, she says, she feels as if she has lost her son.
``It's like he's dead and I don't have a body,'' she said. ``I don't have a funeral.''
Then, she turned her thoughts to the victims. ``Can you imagine? You live through 62 years of marriage, just surviving in this rotten life that long,'' she said. ``They could go to church, get their hair done and then one night you run across John Esposito Jr.''
Her own mother, she said, passed away last May after suffering five strokes in five years.
``My mother loved him,'' she said of her son. ``Her room was filled with pictures of him. I'm just glad she wasn't here to see this, because it would have killed her. And that would have been another life he took.
``When I think about this, all I see is my mother.''
* Alicia Woodward's father, Robert Woodward, said she tried to avoid disaster after the first abduction - but failed. She had the wrong phone number.
``She told me that she tried to call me a couple of times for help after the woman was kidnapped in North Carolina and was being driven to Georgia,'' he said. ``Unfortunately she had the wrong number. I would have been able to help her - I know it.''
The father said his daughter told him she was not present when the victims were killed. But he said Esposito frightened her so much that she was afraid to attempt an escape.
``I was happy to see them caught,'' he said. ``There is no doubt in my mind that at some time he was going to kill her.''
Woodward said his conversation with his daughter has convinced him of her innocence.
``My daughter said she has not confessed to committing the murders as the media and some law enforcement officials claim,'' he said. ``She loved people both young and old. If she found a puppy on the street, she would adopt it. She wouldn't hurt anyone. She wouldn't lie, and if you yelled at her, she would cry.''
Woodward said he grieves over the deaths of the three victims. ``These poor people lived through depressions, world wars and deserved to die in their sleep, not killed like this.''
``When my daughter talked about the elderly couple that was killed, she referred to the man as `Larry,' as if she'd established a father-daughter or grandfather-daughter relationship with him.''
The father said he believes his daughter met Esposito at a job interview. She called him after the meeting and told him that she found somebody she thought she cared about. Robert Woodward never met the suspect.
``Someone has to pay for these crimes,'' he said. ``I believe my daughter is innocent. But if I found out she was really a willing participant, I would walk her down the aisle myself to the electric chair.''
Esposito's mother said she has been concerned about Alicia Woodward. ``Does she know I've been praying for her?'' she asked. ``I hope she wasn't part of this, that he [John Esposito] hadn't ruined someone else's life.''
* John Esposito and Alicia Woodward allegedly headed to Florida on Aug. 31 and wound up - three weeks later - in the parking lot of a Winn-Dixie supermarket in Lumberton.
Their car was disabled and they needed another, authorities said.
On Sept. 19, Lola Davis, a retired librarian, had just finished shopping and was suddenly confronted by the couple who allegedly carjacked her.
The victim was later battered with a large limb of an oak tree, and her body was found Sept. 20 in a hay field near a dirt road in Morgan County, Ga.
Authorities found her 1978 Buick Electra the same day in Talladega, Ala. A grocery bag was in the back seat. The suspects' Pontiac Grand Am was found at the Winn-Dixie.
``If they're the ones that did it, I hope they burn 'em good,'' said Davis' husband, Forester M. Davis. ``I don't see how people can be that mean.''
Authorities are not sure where the suspects went over the next several days or how they got from Alabama to Oklahoma.
But financial records show they apparently used an automated-teller-machine card belonging to an elderly Oklahoma City couple on Sept. 28.
The victims were reported missing on Sept. 29, when they failed to show up for church. The two were last seen Sept. 26 at an Oklahoma City grocery store. Their bodies were found Oct. 3 in a grassy area outside Adrian, Texas, near the New Mexico border. They had been bludgeoned with a tire iron.
The Sniders' ATM card had been used in Arizona, New Mexico and Oklahoma to withdraw more than $1,000.
* The 28-year-old Park Service ranger became suspicious Wednesday when she saw the blue 1996 Chevrolet on the side of the main road atop a mesa at Mesa Verde National Park.
In mid-August, the area had been scorched by wildfires, which burned away underbrush, revealing several new ruins in the park, known for its adobe cliff dwellings, which are off-limits to the public, said Chief Ranger Howard Dimont.
The ranger was concerned that the car's occupants might disturb the ruins, so she ran a check on the car's license and determined it had been stolen. Even worse, the owners were presumed missing and in danger.
She called for a backup unit and was waiting for it when a couple emerged from the woods. The man was carrying what appeared to be a rifle.
``It later turned out to be a BB gun, but at that point, she [the ranger] was not aware of that,'' Dimont said. The ranger shouted to the man to put down the gun, but the couple kept coming toward her. She shouted again, with no results.
She began to draw her own .357 Magnum service revolver, and asked him one more time to drop the gun. Then, as three backup rangers arrived, the man put the gun down, Dimont said.
The confrontation ``had the potential to be quite a bit worse than it was,'' he said. ``From what I hear, these folks are somewhat predatory. I think [the ranger] is a bit stressed, to say the least.''
The two gave their real names to the rangers, who ascertained by radio that the couple were wanted in the Georgia killing. At that point, said Dimont, they were handcuffed, belly-chained, and put into separate cars to be taken to the La Plata County Jail in Durango.
The fact that the two were arrested without incident ``is kind of surprising, given their alleged violent background,'' said Mark Holstlaw, the FBI special agent in Denver. ``The ranger didn't have a clue of what she was dealing with.''