S. Jersey town still struggles with death of Autumn Pasquale

DAVID MAIALETTI / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER Anthony Pasquale kneels next to his daughter's initials, painted on a Clayton, N.J., football field in a park that will be dedicated in her memory.
DAVID MAIALETTI / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER Anthony Pasquale kneels next to his daughter's initials, painted on a Clayton, N.J., football field in a park that will be dedicated in her memory.
Posted: October 18, 2013

AUTUMN is casting its colors over the fields and forests that surround the little borough of Clayton, where freshly carved jack-o'-lanterns peer out from front porches and the high school football team is having its best season in years.

In the 8-square-mile Gloucester County town, signs of the season mean that a year has passed since Autumn Pasquale, 12, a freckle-faced tomboy in the seventh grade, was strangled and stuffed in a recycling bin just blocks from her home by a boy who wanted her BMX bike.

Last month, Justin Robinson, 16, who admitted killing Autumn, was sent to prison for 17 years. His brother, Dante, 18, initially was charged with murder as well, then pleaded guilty to an obstruction charge and was released last month.

Many in town believe that the justice system let Autumn and her family down, that the full story of what happened after she pedaled away from home Oct. 20, 2012, will never come full circle.

Clayton could simply be too small, the tragedy too crushing, for the town to ever fully heal, some residents say.

"There's anger here. So much anger," said Suzanne Adams, a waitress at Barbara Anne's Downtown Cafe, just across the street from Clayton's borough hall on Delsea Drive.

On a recent weekday, a large, blue sign was in the window at Barbara Anne's, the same sign that's staked on lawns all over Clayton: It said Autumn's Light. Inside, customers poured syrup over stacks of pumpkin pancakes, and steam rose up from coffee pots behind the counter. Adams said something else was simmering in every customer's mind, and all you had to do was ask them.

"How does Clayton come back from something like this? Everyone knows one another here," said lifelong resident Donna Harmer, pouring creamers into her coffee in a back room.

'A difficult year'

Clayton's police chief and mayor did not return numerous requests for comment, but other officials said the town was trying to move forward.

"We think of each other as one family in this town, and it's been a difficult year," said David Lindenmuth, superintendent of schools.

The number of violent crimes in Clayton often can be counted on two hands in any given year, lower than larger surrounding communities in the county. According to the FBI's Uniform Crime Report, there were nine violent crimes in 2011 and three more the prior year in a town of a little more than 8,000 residents.

Clayton's last homicide was in 1998, when a man named Michael Myers shot resident Gary Dahl before killing himself. That slaying took place on Clinton Avenue, about a half-mile from where Pasquale was found inside a curbside recycling bin on the night of Oct. 22.

2 families, 2 struggles

Anita Saunders, the mother of Justin and Dante Robinson, still lives in the Clayton Avenue bungalow where Autumn was killed. Anthony Pasquale, Autumn's father, still lives about six blocks away.

Anthony Pasquale was a mailman in his hometown for 15 years, and nearly everyone there knows him and his family, he said. Saunders grew up there, too, her home once belonging to her grandmother.

Neither parent knew one another before Autumn was killed, but Autumn's grandmother, Mary Pasquale, taught Justin Robinson at Clayton Middle School.

"You just can't get any more small-town America than Clayton," said resident Barbara DeFrance, a longtime family friend of the Pasquales.

Autumn and Justin both grew up in Clayton, Anthony Pasquale noted in an interview at a Woodbury law office, but his daughter's killer was a product of his household, not of the community, he said.

"This could have been prevented," he said.

In a civil lawsuit Pasquale filed last month, he cast blame squarely on Saunders and Justin's biological father, Alonzo Robinson, claiming they were negligent parents who taught their son to be violent.

"I don't want this to happen to anyone else," he said. "It's about accountability."

Like much of Gloucester County, Clayton is predominantly white, but U.S. census data show that the borough has a higher percentage of blacks than many surrounding towns. Those numbers don't show the racial harmony that residents say existed for decades, the middle-class families mingling on the sidelines of Clippers games on Haupt Field, side-by-side in church pews or in the booths at Nick's Pizza.

Adams said those racial lines have gone from "blurred to defined" since Autumn's death, and others said there would have been more of a public "frenzy" if the victim's and suspect's skin colors had been reversed.

'Not a race thing'

Anthony Pasquale is quick to dismiss race as a factor in his anger and pain.

"Anybody who knows Clayton should know this is not a race thing," he said.

Outside a convenience store in the middle of town, Isaiah, 19, and his brother, Eric, 22, who are black, said they didn't feel racial tension escalating.

"It's just that the whole town is hurting," said Isaiah, who did not want his last name published. "Everyone feels bad for this girl's family."

Pasquale said he hasn't run into Saunders or Dante Robinson in town and simply avoids driving past her bungalow. Some residents said the family's presence in Clayton, in the home where Autumn died, is an an act of defiance.

"The decent thing to do would have been to move, to go away," resident Robin Sparto said.

Saunders said she had wanted to move out of Clayton before Autumn was killed, but that the case and the publicity it garnered cost her a job, and now she and her husband, Richard, can't afford to leave.

Saunders said Dante is not living at the house.

In the past year, the Saunders family said, their home has been shot with paintballs, their car tires slashed and their windows broken. Someone tossed a chunk of brick through a car window, she said, and it now sits by their front door.

But neighbors, sometimes anonymously, also have dropped off cookies and written letters of support.

"People wanted us to know we were in their prayers, too," Saunders said.

Effort to reach out

Saunders said she's tried to reach out to Anthony Pasquale, that she would like to meet him and Autumn's mother or attend a memorial, but has been rebuffed.

"I would like us to sit and talk together and address the community, together," she said.

Pasquale acknowledged that Saunders had tried to contact him, but DeFrance said the gesture was not genuine.

"Let me tell you, the Robinsons are very lucky that he [Anthony] is as passive and kind as he is," she said, sitting beside Anthony at his attorney's office.

DeFrance, who lives a few blocks from Saunders, said she'd like to move, too, to leave Clayton and the pain far behind.

"It's not the town I knew," she said, tearing up. "It's not the same."

Pasquale doesn't think he could leave Clayton, the community that came together to search for Autumn in the woods and along bike trails, and later rallied around his family when she was found dead. It's where Autumn grew up, he said, where she went to school, played soccer and rode her beloved Odyssey BMX bike.

Clayton is where Autumn Pasquale died, where she was eulogized and laid to rest, and where a park will be dedicated to her Sunday morning.

Signs of Autumn will always be right there, in Clayton.

"Our hearts are in this town," her father said. "Our hearts are in it. It's part of me, and it's part of my family."

On Twitter: @JasonNark

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