EPPING - Kenneth Countie would have turned 33 Friday. Instead of celebrating his birthday, his mother, Carolynn Lodge, kneels beside a tree on a lonely dirt road here. The makeshift memorial in front of her is decorated with angels, an American flag, sports memorabilia, Red Sox hats and, of course, images of her son. She places a chocolate cake with chocolate frosting down among the items. She knows she's providing a sweet treat for the nearby wildlife, but that's OK. It was her son's favorite.
The fact is, this spot, on a isolated dirt road off Red Oak Hill Lane, just yards from the farmhouse where her son was murdered and dismembered at the hands of Sheila LaBarre eight years ago, is the closest Lodge said she'll ever be to her son.
"It's all surreal," she said. "It's the worse nightmare for a parent to ever have to go through. You wake up everyday and you hope it was just a bad dream, and you think as the years go by it'll get easier, and it just doesn't."
Lodge said she used to visit the Epping memorial everyday for the first of couple years, a habit she recognized was unhealthy. Today, she still takes her bright red Ford Focus and makes the hourlong trek from Billerica, Mass., at least twice a month. She cleans up and redecorates the site according to the season, and then she grieves.
"I had to pull back because it was killing me. It was literally choking me to death," she said. "It used to be I would come to be with him and talk to him, and now it's a place where all these ill, horrible feelings pop into my head."
What haunts Lodge the most isn't knowing she'll never see her son again. For her, Countie remains a smiling, vibrant 24-year-old with a long life ahead of him. In that regard, she said time stands still. What still eats at her is the vision of her son being pushed in a wheelchair by a swearing and belligerent LaBarre in the Epping Wal-Mart. Cuts, bruises, wounds and evidence of abuse were clearly evident on his body, and police, she said, watching as he was wheeled into the parking lot, placed in LaBarre's vehicle and brought back to the old farmhouse, the site where LaBarre reportedly murdered him just four days later and then burned his body in a fire pit.
"I play it back, everyday, every second, every minute. It just doesn't leave me," she said. "I play it back in my head, go through all the things to see if, as a parent, I could have done something different to make the outcome different, and no, I did everything I was suppose to do."
Though a wrongful death suit against the Epping Police Department was dismissed and a subsequent appeal to the state's Supreme Court proved unfruitful, Lodge still maintains police repeatedly ignored her pleas, as well as other signs, that her son and LaBarre's other victim, Michael Deloge, were in trouble.
"They turned a deaf ear and a blind eye to everything," she said. "I have a lot of hate, and the word is hate, because it could have been stopped. It should have been stopped, and it wasn't."
So while LaBarre, now 56, is serving two life sentences in a Florida prison, Lodge continues to drive to the convicted murderer's former home. The place investigators believe Countie breathed his last. And his mother continues to mourn, and wonder, what if?
"Do I think of what life would be like with him now? I can't imagine," she said. "I think he still has that big beautiful smile of his that would light up a room. He loved his family. He loved his brother. You know, he loved people, he did. And unfortunately, that's what got him into trouble. ... He trusted people. He never thought anyone would do him any harm."