Living In Infamy
By Kara McGinley
Located northeast of Philadelphia, Bucks County, PA is generally acknowledged as a pretty nice place to raise kids. With its mix of sprawling fields, farms, massive developments, shopping centers and strip malls, it’s one of those American counties that dances on the fine line between suburban and rural. It’s a kind of psuedo-suburbia, where most towns in the county are more known for their historic playhouses than their crimes. It’s a place where mostly everyone knows everyone, a sentiment that creates a vague notion of safety. There are art walks and First Fridays every month when the shops full of trinkets and fancy candles and vintage jewelry stay open late past 7PM. Most of all, it’s not an area of the country that you’d hear about too often. That was until July 5th, 2017, when two, and then four, young men went missing.
We are taught to have pride in where we come from, but what happens to our hometown reputations post tragedy? Post finding out that the farm you drive by everyday was actually more of a secret graveyard? What happens if your home, a large part of your identity, is now the thing you don’t want people to know about you? In places where everyone knows everyone and mayhem can strike in a matter of minutes, communities can suddenly become defined by that one story alone. You don’t hear the words Columbine or Parkland without the tragedies leading the conversation, but this doesn’t solely happen to the towns that suffer mass shootings. Everyday, more and more U.S. towns have a dark identifier.
The week-long search for the missing boys captivated Bucks County and eventually the nation. A normally peaceful area of Pennsylvania was turned on its head. The atmosphere of the town changed. Before, it wasn’t uncommon to leave front doors unlocked or keys in the car, but during the investigation, once friendly neighbors shut their doors and enforced strict curfews for their teens. People’s fear also spread to social media—from missing person posts to malicious theories left in the comments on the missing boys Instagram feeds.
Investigators were eventually led to a farm in New Hope, PA belonging to the parents of Cosmo DiNardo, a 21-year-old from the nearby area. New Hope is home to a mix of affluent families and professionals, many of whom commute to Philadelphia or New York on a daily basis. It’s full of huge gated estates, well kept green fields, and refurbished, rustic farmhouses. The DiNardo’s family farm was different than most, as it was excessively overgrown and seemingly unused. Still, it could easily be assumed that the farm was just an abandoned lot of land, something not entirely unusual in that forest filled area.
On July 10, DiNardo was arrested for an unrelated weapons charge. He was not allowed to own a firearm due to his schizophrenia, but had stolen one from his mother. Despite 30 run-ins with local police, DiNardo, the son of a wealthy businessman who owns a cement company, was never arrested before. It’s not too hard to guess why. DiNardo was then later released after his father posted just 10% of the $1 million bail.
Small towns in America are usually painted in pop culture as idyllic. They’re illustrated as somehow utopian, with the promise of a life far away from the crime of the city. They represent places where American kids can grow up with good schools and safe neighborhoods. Places where they have room to run and play outside until way past dark. In reality, this is a no truer portrayal of American life than showing big cities as danger zones infested with masked men lurking around every other corner.
For example, in Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, the town where the murders took place is basically nowhere to anyone who isn’t from there. That is until there was a quadruple homicide, an event that went on to change Holcomb, Kansas forever. Capote’s true crime novel immortalized the events, but also helped make a town that was barely on the map suddenly infamous. The point is though, whether the world knew about the people of Holcomb and their woes didn’t truly matter at the end of the day, because the truth behind the fairytale facade of their simple town was revealed: all is not quiet, safe, and clean in middle America.
Along with everything else, these small American towns once known for big football teams or blue ribbon high schools are being redefined overnight. Their identities change. Instead of defining a sense of place, the name of certain towns can suddenly alone conjure a sense of evil, loss, or societal betrayal. So much so that it would be impossible to name them all. John Wayne Gacy made County, Illinois synonymous with his serial killing spree that he committed literally in his own home. And no matter how many houses are fixed-up by a cheery couple with a cute, country drawl in Waco, Texas, the epic and disastrous standoff between the Branch Davidians cult and the ATF will always loom. It’s easy to chalk all these reputations up to murderous rampages, that is until taking a visit to Niagara Falls, New York, where the marvelous nature is overwhelming, but where a toxic undercurrent of the environmental tragedy that was Love Canal also flows through. Despite the differences between these tragedies there is one specific outcome: these no-name towns are made enduringly infamous for their man-made calamities.
On July 12, DiNardo was arrested and charged for stealing and attempting to sell a car that belonged to one of the missing boys. The same boy left his insulin in the car, something his family said was unusual for him to do, which was a dead giveaway. His bail was set at $5 million. The next day, DiNardo confessed to the murders of the four men, except the police still hadn’t found the last body.
DiNardo went on to implement his cousin in the crimes. In exchange for his confession and revealing where the last body was, police agreed to not pursue the death penalty. DiNardo confessed to separately luring the boys to the farm with the promise of selling them weed. This is something most young adults who grew up in small towns can attest to—simple drug deals on abandoned farms or in the perceived safety of an empty parking lot is the norm. The rationale being there’s no reason to think twice. Bad things don’t happen in small towns, especially my small town. When each of the boys got there, though, DiNardo and his cousin proceeded to shoot them for seemingly no reason at all. During his confession, he himself didn’t have much of an explanation besides that he was sorry and he didn’t do it to rob them. He just wanted to kill; a fact that spread like wildfire.
“When I started working in Philadelphia at my new job someone asked me where I was from, right away there was a lot of ‘oh wait isn’t that where those boys were murdered? Did you know them?’ sort of questions. It was the first thing that came to people’s minds,” said Bucks County native Olivia Schupp. This is a common theme not just in the local Philly area. “I live in Miami now and my boss always says to people ‘Alex is from that really creepy town in Pennsylvania’ and it’s solely because of the murders. Which, obviously, isn’t something you want to be known for,” said Alex Galt.
Many times after tragedy, communities come together to mourn and lift one another up, but other times they look for someone to blame. Social media becomes just as filled with hashtags of support for the cities and towns of the victims as it does with rumors, gruesome assumptions, and made up stories. But eventually, all the media attention ends and the people from these communities are left with only one another. As time moves on it’s important to remember victims, but it seems that it’s also nearly impossible to change the new identifier from that town where that bad thing happened, that community, those people.
As years go by, the tragedies in these towns tend to take on a certain mythology. Stories change and urban legends are born. Don’t go to that bridge at night-esque childhood superstitions cause these communities to continue to be haunted by their own afflictions and make it nearly impossible to rebrand. This is exactly what happened to the people of Sheppton, PA. In August of 1963, three miners got trapped in a coal mine for weeks. They lived off tree bark and huddled together for warmth as they constantly moved around to avoid caving roofs and crushing rocks. They claim to have seen a bright light and marble steps leading to heaven, but many think that was just a hallucination. After 14 days, the miners were finally saved. In fact, the rescue team used a new mine rescue technique that would go on to save many in the future, including the now infamous Chilean miners. Overall, it was an incredible feat, except for one thing: only two of the three miners were saved. The lost miner was tragically entombed forever and in turn became the urban legend he never asked to be.
It was a rumor that started like most in small towns—on the schoolyard. Soon it reached the families and survivors of the accident. The story circled around the community fast. The two survivors had apparently eaten their comrade and that was how they survived. It’s also why his remains were never found, something that those close to him never moved on from. The son of the fallen miner posted on social media about his distress surrounding this. What many in the town celebrated as a miracle ended up alienating others and forcing them to grow up living in the shadow of a disturbing urban legend—one that couldn’t fully be proven untrue. Though the cannibalism allegations were vehemently denied, the mythology was set in stone nonetheless. The people of Sheppton never truly escaped their tragedy or the tales and reputation that came with it.
The story of Sheppton goes to show how our pasts can follow us and that where we’re from isn’t something we can change, but there are some communities still desperately trying to to erase their history. Take Black Creek Village for example. It’s a sweet little working-class enclave with affordable homes in upstate New York. Except it wasn’t always. Forty years ago it was what the Environmental Protection Agency once called "one of the most appalling environmental tragedies in American history.” Yes, Black Creek Village was until recently called Love Canal. Yes, that Love Canal. The promised land turned horror show. In a cruel twist of irony, what once was marketed as a “dream city” ended up being a nightmare, due to the unfortunate fact that the city just happened to sit atop 21,000 tons of toxic industrial waste that had been buried underground in the 1940s and '50s by a local chemical company. Over the years, the waste began to bubble up into backyards and cellars, until the late 70s when the government started moving all residents out.
“We were a small, blue-collar community you know, we weren't scientists,” explained Love Canal area local Lois Gibbs in an interview with PBS. Many families in the small town felt cheated of their hopeful future there. Where they once had pride in their town and government they suddenly felt taken advantage of. “We thought, oh, what a nice ideal place to raise these boys. It turned out to be quite a disaster,” said another Love Canal area local, Luella Kenny. Kenny’s son died of a kidney disease in 1978 that she believes was caused by exposure to Love Canal.
Love Canal went from a famous town for future generations to an infamous place that not only cost people their homes, but also their lives. Nowadays, it’s been cleaned up and rebranded, except the name change didn’t completely rid Black Creek of its past. Many people who currently live there have been suffering similar symptoms as those in the 70s.
In 2018 America, even middle-of-nowhere towns can’t really hide. It seems that changing the name and rebranding is only something corporations can achieve, not communities. Which, come to think of it, is acutely American. There’s no more escaping to the country. Now it seems like all we can do is unlearn this perceived innocence that we were once taught to believe about our communities. Because if we don’t the myth of main street, which is so interwoven with our ideals, will continue to leave us hiding in shame, or in the case of Love Canal, desperately trying to forget.
Though it’s factually inaccurate to label Cosmo DiNardo as a serial killer, many have. He didn’t kill over a long period of time but that’s most likely just because he got caught. Nevertheless, when talking to someone from that suburb of the outskirts of Philadelphia, it’s a safe bet that the tragedy of the four boys will come up. Still, the town has prevailed; DiNardo may have changed its reputation, but he didn’t kill the community’s spirit.