A grim discovery forever changes a young man's life

ASSOCIATED PRESS Gail Willard (center) is embraced by Jason Culler and a friend during a 1998 ceremony at the trash-strewn lot where the body of Willard's daughter Aimee was found. Culler is now 31.
ASSOCIATED PRESS Gail Willard (center) is embraced by Jason Culler and a friend during a 1998 ceremony at the trash-strewn lot where the body of Willard's daughter Aimee was found. Culler is now 31.
Posted: October 16, 2013

FIND THE BOYS, Gail Willard said.

I had called Willard after coming across an overgrown empty lot in North Philly that was once a memorial park for her daughter.

In 1996, Aimee Willard, a 22-year-old college lacrosse star from suburban Philadelphia, was kidnapped, raped and murdered by a paroled murderer.

Her body was discovered by some neighborhood boys who often played in the trash-strewn lot at 16th and Indiana. After the discovery, it was transformed into a community oasis, a garden where neighbors gathered, and at least one couple was married. But over the years it was lost to the weeds.

The custom-made gazebo and benches were vandalized or stolen. Someone walked off with the statue of the Virgin Mary. Volunteers who had tended to the park had moved or moved on.

There was no way to distinguish it from any of the other empty lots in the neighborhood.

I was disgusted. It should be rebuilt, I thought. The sooner, the better. But after thinking about it, I wasn't so sure. What good was rebuilding a park that, without some serious planning and funding, would likely just get trashed again? What good was another memorial to the dead in a neighborhood with more than its share?

I called Gail Willard, expecting she'd say that the park in her daughter's memory should be rebuilt. I was wrong.

It was time to move on to the living, she said, like the boys who found her body. Find out what became of them, she said, how such a gruesome discovery affected their lives.

Find the boys.

With the help of Doris Phillips, who runs the nearby HERO community-service program that for years maintained the park with local teens, I found Jason Culler. He was a teenager when he discovered Aimee's body with two of his friends.

Culler, now a soft-spoken 31-year-old, was reluctant to talk. After testifying at the trial of the man who killed Aimee Willard, he tried to put the whole ugly thing behind him. He met me only after I told him Aimee's mother wanted me to find him.

"How is Gail?" he asked shyly when we spoke in an empty event room at the HERO community center on North 17th Street.

Culler was 14 when he found Aimee's body. His father was at work and his mother, who had gone with his sister to get her hair done, had told him to go straight home after school. Instead, he went to the empty lot near his home with his buddies.

"I remember everything like it was yesterday," he said, solemnly. "We were just going there to have fun, to act like boys."

At first, Culler thought the naked body whose face was turned toward the ground was a mannequin. But as he got closer, he saw the blood and bruises and flies.

"It's still in my head. I'll never forget it. For a long time, I was afraid to go to sleep," he said. "I was a kid. I never saw anything like that before. I knew I lived in a troubled neighborhood, a violent neighborhood, but I'd never seen anything that violent."

For months, Culler slept in his older sister's room, afraid the person who killed Aimee would come for him.

He remembers his father being angry and punishing him for being out when he wasn't supposed to, and then his father being afraid for his son for talking to police in a neighborhood where that was often discouraged.

But other than the officer who told the boys that they did a good job when they brought him to the lot, and another cop handing him a Coke, no one ever asked the eighth-grader how he felt about making such a gruesome discovery.

"No one ever asked me how I was feeling. No one ever asked me whether I was sad. They just said, 'Good job.' That was it. That just shows you how times have changed."

Culler withdrew from friends and family. Later, the isolation turned into anxiety and depression. But it would be years before he realized that finding Aimee's body was partly the cause.

"It changed me," he said. After a few minutes of silence, he said, "It wasn't a bad change."

After dropping out of school, he went back and became a pastor at his aunt's church. He now works for a health-care center and has his own catering company.

"I look back at the guys I grew up with in that neighborhood, and some are dead and some are in jail," he said. "Not one person I can think of is the same person. I'm not the same person.

"I don't understand why there's sick people out there like that. I didn't get it then, and I don't get it now."

Culler has since moved out of the neighborhood, but he often goes back to the lot, if only to sit in his car and think about what it has become. About 10 years ago, he said, he approached some people about cleaning it up, but no one was interested.

When I told him what Gail Willard said about letting go of it, the man who had been reluctant to talk suddenly become very animated.

"I want you to put this in there," he said, pointing at my notebook. "What happened to the park is a failure on everybody's part. Everybody, including me. If anyone is to blame, you've got to blame us all, because we all played a part in it. When the news cameras went away and the reporters went home, we let that go down the drain.

"I love Gail, I mean no disrespect. Aimee Willard, God rest her soul. But it's no longer about her. It's not. It's about the next generation of kids who have to live with that messed-up lot, who need somewhere to go and something to participate in and to be proud of. After Aimee Willard's body was found, something good came out of it. The community came together. We made that a beautiful place. I believe today it could help bring hope and light back to that community. It really can. It's not just about Aimee Willard anymore. It's about the survival of the community."

He may very well have an ally in Aimee's sister, Nancy, who said she'd been thinking a lot about the memorial park since my first column.

She thinks something should come of it, but she's not sure rebuilding the park on the lot, which is now for sale for $90,000, is the answer.

"I really want to do something," she said. "But I'm not sure what the right thing to do is."

She hopes to meet with Phillips and Culler to talk about options.

Culler has always been thankful that he didn't see Aimee's face the day he discovered her body. But he remembered her mother talking about her freckles, and her big smile. So a few years ago, he found a photo of Aimee online and downloaded it onto his phone.

In the picture, a freckled Aimee is smiling and wearing the green-and-white team jacket she wore at George Mason University in Virginia. The jacket had been in the trunk of the car she was driving the night she was snatched away.

Email: ubinas@phillynews.com

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