PAWTUCKET — On a recent warm spring day in Slater Park, two young boys can be seen fishing with nets in the pond near the old bandstand. Yet, what would appear to be an idyllic scene to most people sends shudders down the spine of 45-year-old Jay O'Connell because of what happened to him 40 years ago in almost the same location.
Back on June 25 in 1971, when he was just five, O'Connell was abducted from the park, along with his 10-year-old friend, Carol, at around 3 p.m. while the two were fishing with another neighborhood boy. A 30-year-old Woonsocket man, who’d been chatting with the three children for awhile, lured Carol and Jay into his car with a promise of a new fishing pole. The man then drove with them to a wooded area in Sutton, Mass., where he chained Carol to a tree. At one point, he told the girl that if she didn't stop crying, the “Indians” in the woods would get her, and also that he had a knife and would harm her if she continued to wail. He then left Carol in the woods and telephoned her parents from a phone booth demanding a $1,000 ransom.
Several hours later, the man drove back to Cumberland with O'Connell, where he let the bewildered and frightened child out of his car near the Midtown Diner on Broad Street in Valley Falls. O'Connell said he realized that he was near the elderly housing complex on Mendon Road where his grandparents lived and walked over there. Another tenant who saw the young boy wandering around helped him to locate his grandfather.
The other boy, a 10-year-old named Rodney, stayed behind at the original spot to continue fishing. The man had promised to have O'Connell and Carol back “in 10 minutes,” but when an hour passed and they hadn't returned, Rodney brought Carol's bike to her house and told her mother what had happened.
The suspect, Raymond J. Daigle, was arrested two days later and charged with kidnapping through a joint investigation with Pawtucket and Woonsocket Police Departments and the FBI. An unemployed father of two, Daigle confessed to the crime, telling Pawtucket Police that he had viewed the kidnapping plot as a quick way to get some money. According to police reports, he also admitted to similar kidnapping offenses in Massachusetts. He reportedly received a 10-year sentence.
While O'Connell and the young girl were not physically harmed, the former Courtney Avenue resident said the chilling incident left psychological wounds that have remained with him into adulthood. Recently, those wounds on his psyche have become painfully re-opened, due to the controversy involving Michael Woodmansee, the convicted kidnapper and murderer of five-year-old Jason Foreman of South Kingstown that occurred in 1975. Despite this gruesome crime, Woodmansee has the potential for an early release from prison this August due to “good behavior” rules that trimmed almost 12 years off of his 40-year sentence.
O'Connell said that upon learning of the Woodmansee case through the news media, it has caused him to feel pain and anger about the injustice of the situation, and has prompted him to become involved—somehow--in helping the Foreman family find justice and to prevent this situation from happening to others. “This is a mockery of justice. I know how I feel about it, so I can imagine how they feel,” he stated. “This potential for Woodmansee's early release after what he did is horrifying.”
“Maybe it's because Jason Foreman was five and I was five. This case really touched me,” said O'Connell. “I want to see tougher laws to keep these scumbags in prison. We should shift the focus...let the car thief out early or the cat burglar out early, not the child predators.”
O'Connell said he has been following the Woodmansee release story and was so incensed by the situation that he attended one of the protest rallies held outside of the ACI in Cranston. He says he would like to do more, including reaching out to local politicians and members of the legal community, going on talk radio, or whatever it takes to fix the laws so that nothing like this ever happens again.
O'Connell noted that several of the laws that do exist having to do with child safety, such as Adam's Law, Megan's law, and the Amber Alert, all came about in the wake of a tragedy. He would like to see more preventative measures taken to keep children safe. “I want the next law to be named after something good, not a dead child,” stated O'Connell.
Following the abduction, O'Connell said that his family remained living for awhile in Pawtucket, and later moved to another part of the state. His friend Carol's family (he requested that her last name not be used) moved out of state soon after the incident, largely due to the unwelcome attention that the case generated at the time.
“This was 40 years ago, before the age of computers,” said O'Connell. “We were allowed to come to the park back then.” However, he also noted that public parks are among the places most frequented by pedaphiles and potential kidnappers.
He said that while he wasn't physically hurt, bad memories about the abduction stayed with him, and he thinks it contributed to a period of heavy drinking that he went though in his teens. He said he gave up drinking at age 19 after surviving a serious car accident, and has since sought therapy to help him deal with his emotions.
O'Connell's experience wasn't without its own measure of injustice. He said that at one point during Daigle's incarceration, the convicted kidnapper managed to escape, and lived “on the run” for several years. While he was eventually recaptured and returned to prison after having taken part in an auto theft ring, Daigle only spent about 9 or 10 additional months behind bars for some unknown reason, O'Connell said.
O'Connell, a self-employed mason now living in Massachusetts, said he has found a measure of peace and stability through his family life for many years now, and credits his wife and his three sons, ages 8, 13 and 18, for their support. As a parent, he said he can't help being overprotective with his own sons, while also realizing that he has to let them have their independence.
As a way of slaying his own demons, O'Connell said that after avoiding Slater Park for a long time, he eventually got up the courage to visit. He has since come back on a few occasions, sometimes accompanied by his wife and children. “I want this place to be a positive for me,” he said. “I want to be able to come here with my grandchildren.”
However, O'Connell also admitted that reading about the Woodmansee case has stirred up a lot of negative emotions that he thought he had overcome regarding his own abduction. He said his recent feelings have even manifested themselves in some physical ways, including a loss of appetite, sleeplessness, and general agitation about the evilness of child predators.
O'Connell also said he has thought a lot over the years about why he was released by his abductor and the fact that both he and Carol were not physically harmed. “It affected my faith, thinking 'Why do I survive when others don't?' Why were we so lucky when others weren't?” he said. “This whole thing coming out has brought a lot back.”
O'Connell said he just recently asked the Pawtucket Police Department to furnish him with the police report that detailed the kidnapping and subsequent arrest of Raymond J. Daigle. He said that when he read it, there were some things that he found surprising or that he hadn't been aware of. For example, he thought he had been abducted near the bandstand when, in actuality, Daigle had first convinced him and Carol to go to a secluded picnic area at the rear of the park prior to him forcing them into his vehicle. “I realized there were some gaps in my story. People internalize trauma and hold on to their pain,” he said.
O'Connell said he feels so strongly about wanting to help prevent other such abductions and to keep child predators off the streets, he would like to become involved in doing speaking engagements at schools, youth clubs and other organizations. He is also considering writing a book about his experience.
The issue surrounding the 52-year-old Woodmansee's possible release back into society and the Foreman family's reaction “has captured my thoughts and my heart. I felt that I just had to step up and do something,” O'Connell said. “I thought it was good time to speak out against the early release of Michael Woodmansee and the problem of kidnapping in general,” he said.
While relaying his experience, O'Connell grew emotional at one point, asking for a few moments to compose himself. Wiping away a tear and donning sunglasses, he said, “I thought I had closure, but, standing here today, I'm not so sure I have,” he said. “I look around, and I see all these kids, some who seem to be attended and some not,” he said. “It's bittersweet, being here.”
According to Amy Kempe, press spokeswoman for Attorney General Peter F. Kilmartin, Woodmansee is currently undergoing a psychiatric evaluation by the Rhode Island Department of Corrections. She said it is the intention of the Attorney General's Office to seek an involuntary consignment to a state psychiatric facility for Woodmansee, and the psychiatric evaluation is needed as part of this process.
Kempe added that legislation has now been proposed to eliminate time-off for good behavior in cases such as this going forward, but this legislation would not affect Woodmansee's scheduled release.