The Eccleston Murder: One Friend’s Reflection Fifteen Years Later

By Bryan Hurlbutt

I think the view of the horizon of time from the vantage point of humanity is like the advice that Forrest Gump got from his mama when she told him, “Life is like a box of chocolates, you never know what you’re gonna get.” Interestingly the Bible says something similar in a piece of wisdom literature called Proverbs. Long ago Solomon wrote, “Do not boast about tomorrow, for you do not know what a day may bring forth.” I still remember the day I learned this with a stark and startling clarity. I was a senior in high school in the Binghamton area. I had just come home from an after school activity when my parents met me at the door and said they had some difficult news to share. I sat down, they began to cry … and soon so would I. My mother’s words still ring in my ears 15 years later, “Dave is dead.”

When you are seventeen years old you have a bravado and swagger about life. All things seem within your grasp and yet you feel outside of everyone else’s. I was no different. But on this day reality swept in like a tornado and devastated my own notions about life and its alleged securities and sureties. As I collected myself, stilted at my mother’s words, I asked her what had happened. She informed me that earlier that day, a little after 8:00 am David had been murdered by his girlfriend, April Dell’Olio, when she stabbed him once in the chest and twenty-two times in the back with a butcher knife from her kitchen. They were down by a Quonset hut next to what used to be a feed mill operated by I. L. Richer and Sons. I have been near that spot many times in my life. In fact my father used to work for them when I was just a little boy growing up in New Berlin.

I don’t think that there is a script for how we are to react to such news. It was one of those moments when you try your best to remember to breathe, words come slowly and thoughts linger long and heavy. It was one of those moments where you are certain the sun is standing still, time has taken a break from its impervious advancement and life hangs motionless, like a thread in space, disconnected from anything that might give it substance.

A couple of days later we drove from Johnson City to New Berlin. We had moved there a few years prior from our house on a gravel road off Route 8 so my dad could go to college. Growing up in New Berlin had been a wonderful experience for me. David Scott Eccleston was the first “best friend” I ever had. He and I did everything together as boys in that small town. His father had left him, his mom and his little brother when he was just five years old. So my dad stepped in and became a sort of father figure to David. He spent a lot of time around our house in my youth. Therefore it was no surprise that David’s mother Diane wanted my father to do one of the two eulogies at Dave’s funeral, which he did, with a broken heart.

Some from New Berlin remember that funeral, held at the gorgeous little Episcopal church right in town. News crews were all over. Television shows like Inside Edition and Maury Povich would do stories on this bizarre case of a fourteen year old girl gone mad in a peaceful community in upstate New York. They were stunned to realize the brutality of the slaying, the stoic calculation evidenced by April going to school after she had committed the atrocity, cleaning off the knife and putting it in her locker. They were intrigued by the growing scuttlebutt about David’s character and relationship with April. How could this happen in a sleepy, one light town?

Of course the real circus began when the trial got underway in Norwich. For about a week straight the story was the front page news from Utica to Binghamton. The defense banked on an insanity plea and infamously won to the visible regret of Judge Dowd. April was sentenced to five years of outpatient therapy. Diane, Dave’s mother, and the rest of the family were left to move on and attempt to pick up the pieces of a puzzle that was at the same time tragic and confusing.

That was fifteen years ago, October 20 and some days it seems like yesterday. I can still feel the cool breeze as I stood underneath the pine trees next to Fish Field as they laid his body in its earthen grave. Right across the street were the little league fields we used to play in when we thought life was a never ending carnival of fun. I guess we never thought about Solomon or the box of chocolates.

A few years ago David Warren, who at the time of the murder was a writer for the New Berlin Gazette, wrote a poorly edited and even more poorly conceptualized account of the whole affair. He had become an “insider” with the Dell’Olio family and became convinced that April was the real victim. He accepted the defense’s position that David was some type of seventeen year-old megalomaniacal deviant gigolo seeking to control and manipulate an innocent and mentally under-developed 14 year old girl. Warren’s book was less report and more polemic. But his account gave evidence of a society desperately looking to victimize the true victim. He even titled it A Killing of Innocence, presumably to articulate a double entendre that the killing itself was done from someone who had been manipulated and was thus “innocent” and that in the process David had killed April’s “innocence.” But is that so? Or was an injustice carried to its extreme fifteen years ago? Were we witnesses to the fact that something is not right with the world? That maybe there is something in the human heart that even societal laws can bring only containment to, but not resolution.

Well you see, I am a now a minister. I studied theology extensively in both undergraduate and post-graduate work. And I am convinced that there is something in the human heart that only God can fix. I think we see it all around us, just watch the news. I know, I saw it fifteen years ago. But the truth is innocence was killed long before that, and it is slain again everyday by each of us. We are a flawed people who need to be made whole, and this October day reminds me of it again and again. That town nestled in the valley along the banks of the Unadilla saw a harsh, jaw-dropping reminder on a cold day in Autumn that Jeremiah the prophet knew something when he wrote that, “The heart of man is deceitful and desperately wicked, who can know it?”

Believe me, I am not throwing stones, wickedness is bound up in the human heart. I know, it is trapped in mine. Some of us are just more cosmetic about it than others. But thank God for the balm of grace He gives in His Son to heal this ailment. His death two thousand years ago serves as an elixir, treating the wounds of my own wickedness. I’m not preaching, just reflecting on the tragic story of an old friend, and how it still guides me today. I am still picking chocolates out of the box and wondering how they will taste. And to tell you the truth some are bitter and some are sweet, but I’m not sure which ones give me more to chew on. Maybe there is some benefit to bitter chocolates after all.

Editor’s Note: Bryan Hurlbutt is now the Lead Pastor at Lifeline Community in West Jordan, Utah.

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