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41 years later: Shawcross victim receives a headstone

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Forty-one years ago, Jack O. Blake’s classmates and friends were terrified when the 10-year-old went missing and became the first victim of serial killer Arthur Shawcross.

They were afraid to go bike riding. They stopped going to the park alone. They no longer went to play baseball at neighborhood playgrounds.

And their parents didn’t know how to talk to them about a child dying so young and under such violent circumstances.

It shook all of Watertown, but it hit children especially hard, said Janet A. Fish, 52, who went to Wiley School with Jack before he died in 1972.

“Things changed,” she said.

And now all of these years later, Mrs. Fish and her classmate crossed paths once again. On Tuesday morning, about 40 family members and friends gathered for a memorial service at North Watertown Cemetery for the dedication of a gravestone for Jack, who was laid to rest in an unmarked grave soon after his body was found Sept. 2, 1972.

Just by chance, Mrs. Fish and her husband, Gary A. Fish, noticed several weeks ago that the boy’s grave was without a headstone.

The couple and their two children were at the cemetery in October, sprucing up a couple of family plots, when they strolled over to the boy’s grave, only to find that it did not have one. So they purchased a granite headstone.

“It was supposed to be a secret,” Mrs. Fish said. “No one was to know. It was just a random act of kindness, a loving gesture.”

But the secret got out, and Jack’s sister, Robin L. Biccum, called a few days later to thank them. The two women had never met until the headstone was purchased and they started planning the memorial together.

Now 53, Mrs. Biccum, who was 11 when Jack died, said she thought it was a time to celebrate his life and to get “some closure for the family.”

As it turns out, Mrs. Fish did not know Jack when they were fifth-graders at the Wiley School; she just thought that he deserved a headstone, she said.

Jack, who died May 7, 1972, was missing for four months before his body was found in a wooded area near routes 81, 37 and 12. A few days earlier, Shawcross had been arrested for the murder of 8-year-old Karen Ann Hill in Watertown.

During Tuesday’s service, Mrs. Biccum read a letter sent by another classmate, Martin Cougler, who now lives in Raleigh, N.C. After hearing about the service, he wrote how his friend’s death still affects him today, referring several times to Shawcross as a “monster.”

The two young boys planned to hang out with each other outside of school for the first time, he recalled. They talked about going fishing, but Jack’s disappearance ended those plans, Mr. Cougler wrote.

“He was the first person who I knew who died,” he wrote. “Jack was my friend. He was killed by this monster. That was a lot for an 11-year-old to handle.”

It was a scary time for children in Watertown, Mrs. Fish said.

“Before that, kids were allowed to go out on their own,” she said.

After the service, Peter Blake, 50, who was 9 when Jack went missing, said he still misses his brother, the seventh of nine children.

On that day, Mr. Blake recalled, the two brothers went fishing with Shawcross at the Black River. Afterward, Jack, who was a year older, headed to a friend’s house at the old Cloverdale Apartments a few blocks away. That was the last time he saw Jack, Mr. Blake said.

“I went my way, and he went his way,” Peter Blake said.

The family suspected Shawcross, who later was found guilty of killing 11 women in Rochester. For a time, police suspected Jack’s parents, even coming into their Water Street home and digging up the basement, Mrs. Biccum recalled.

Their parents, Mary A. and Allen E. Blake, never recovered from the tragedy, she said. He died in 1984 at age 52 and she died in 2004 at age 69.

After his release in 1987, Shawcross was rejected by many communities and eventually settled in Rochester, where he preyed on women.

On parole after serving 15 years for killing the two children, he was arrested in January 1990 and convicted of strangling 11 women in the Rochester area during a two-year period. In 2008, he died in state prison at the age of 63.

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