Kevin Riordan: Autumn Pasquale is still very much in hearts of Clayton

Autumn Pasquale , 12, was slainin October. "There are people at the grave every day, practically."
Autumn Pasquale , 12, was slainin October. "There are people at the grave every day, practically."
Posted: February 18, 2013

From a metal post shaped like a heart, a balloon bouquet fluttered above Autumn Pasquale's grave.

It was Valentine's Day afternoon. The legal and familial issues that erupted after the Clayton girl's killing in October seemed far away, and a brisk breeze kept the "I love u" balloon and two others in motion.

"There are people at the grave every day, practically," cemetery manager Jack Kessel says. "They've left letters from her schoolmates and from her soccer team. They've left soccer balls with writing on them."

Ever since Autumn, 12, was lured to the home of two teenage brothers Oct. 20 - and found dead two days later in a household recycling container nearby - the freckle-faced victim has remained a presence in Clayton. She's gone, but she's everywhere.

"I think of her as little Autumn," says Tom Bianco, a father of four who's also the mayor of this tidy, blue-collar borough in Gloucester County.

"Just talking about it brings tears to my eyes," says Raeann Burke, a clerk at the bustling Heritage's Dairy Store on North Delsea Drive at East Academy Street.

Adds retired kindergarten teacher Pat Gannon, "I think Autumn is always tucked away in the back of everybody's mind."

Gannon, a former mayor, has a compact "Autumn's Light" banner on her front lawn. Like those displayed elsewhere around town and on the grave, the blue-and-white banner carries the address for "the Official Family Website" autumnpasquale.com, where more than 50 condolences have been posted.

People are still posting on five Facebook pages dedicated to the girl's memory; the portion of the county cycling trail that runs through the borough has been renamed for her; and Clayton will observe "Autumn Pasquale Day" on Oct. 29 - which would have been her 14th birthday.

"She was everyone's daughter," says the Rev. Daniel Pure, pastor of the First Presbyterian Church, the North Delsea landmark that hosted the community's outpouring of assistance, prayers, and grief during those terrible October days and nights.

"Despite the tragic circumstances, in some ways you could say it was Clayton's finest hour," Pure adds. "It was an entire community response, irrespective of color or creed. It was wonderful to see so many people coming together."

Says Gannon, who volunteered for a search party: "You felt like we were doing something and not just sitting around waiting. You felt like you needed to be part of something, and you were. Nobody has forgotten that."

The fact that two Clayton brothers have been charged - and could be tried as adults - has served to keep the case alive in the public's mind. So has a threatened lawsuit against the county prosecutor's office by Autumn's father, Anthony, who contends the investigation was mishandled.

And recently, a feud between the girl's bitterly divorced parents, Anthony Pasquale and Jennifer Cornwell, about - among other things - the proceeds of a memorial fund, has sparked a number of cruel comments on websites.

But in Clayton last week, people I spoke to preferred to focus on a little girl who was last seen alive riding her bike on a Saturday morning.

"I didn't really know her, but I came here the day they buried her," says Vicky Keesee, who visited the grave on Valentine's Day.

"It's sad that the parents are fighting each other, but all I know is there were a lot of people out here that day. The whole street was lined with people. Everybody was holding hands."

The mayor says he's keeping his focus on the family.

"A mother and a father lost a child," Bianco says. "They can't kiss their daughter goodnight or see her graduate from high school. All that was taken from them.

"A family lost a child. And we lost someone, too."


Contact Kevin Riordan

at 856-779-3845 or kriordan@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @inqkriordan. Read the Metro columnists' blog, "Blinq," at www.phillynews.com/blinq.

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