RAGE OF THE FATHER
Richard John Sharpe was born on August 23, 1954, in Derby, Connecticut, the third son of toolmaker Benjamin Sharpe and his homemaker wife, Laura. Their first son Robert had been born fourteen years earlier, and their second son Ben followed in 1945. Fifteen months after Richard was born, his mother gave birth to a girl they christened Laurie, to complete the family. A hard worker, Benjamin seldom came home until late at night, and worked weekends, never turning down overtime—he needed the extra income to pay off his gambling debts.
The smallest city in Connecticut, Derby was established as a trading post in 1642 and rests at the intersection of the Naugatuck and Housatonic Rivers, in the southwest corner of the state. The city’s early prosperity came from manufacturing industries, and the opening of the Housatonic Dam in 1870 attracted a wealth of new industry.
After the Second World War the factories moved south, attracted by cheaper labor, and thousands of jobs disappeared. By the 1950s the city was fighting to survive, but Benjamin Sharpe’s skills as a toolmaker/electrician always put food on the table for his family.
When Richard was a young boy, his father moved the family across the Housatonic River to nearby Shelton. He bought a house at 36 Soundview Avenue, across the road from the Harry B. Brownson Country Club, with its immaculate golf course. The Sharpes lived in the comparatively ritzy Huntington section, but by the time they arrived, the town was well past its prime, a fading shadow of the industrial powerhouse it had been at the turn of the century, with asphalt now the major industry.
Derby’s natural twin, Shelton was named after Edward Shelton, founder of America’s first tack factory in 1836. But after industry moved out during the Depression, the town never recovered. When Richard Sharpe was growing up in the 1950s, run-down factories littered the predominantly blue-collar farming community. It had a claustrophobic small-town atmosphere, where everyone knew everyone, and there were few prospects for advancement for ambitious young people, who seldom stayed long after leaving school.
Benjamin Sharpe personified the frustrations of Shelton. He was a compulsive gambler who dreamed of winning a ticket out of town. He often drank to excess and on the rare occasions he came home, usually drunk and in a bad mood, he’d terrorize his family both physically and mentally, calling his sons “stupid,” “dumb fucks” and “worthless bastards,” mainly venting his anger on his eldest son Robert.
“My father was unique,” Robert would later explain. “[He] harassed my mother and he beat me up.”
When Richard was four years old his brother Bob couldn’t take it anymore and left home at the age of eighteen and got married. Six years later he divorced, moving next door to his grandfather Michael Sharpe’s house. He started a small business repairing televisions and radios. As a young child, Richard would often go over there to learn electronics.
“He was actually more of a father than my father was,” said Richard. “Once he helped me build a science project.”
When Richard was ten years old he was traumatized after witnessing his father repeatedly smashing a heavy metal poker across Robert’s head during a violent outburst at their grandfather’s house.
“He almost killed me,” said Robert, who remembered being covered in blood from the resulting deep head wound, “for no reason at all.”
Benjamin beat Richard with a baseball bat, and reportedly chased him around the house with a gun.
Benjamin Sharpe also verbally abused their mother, who had a seizure disorder. She always tried to keep the peace in the household, and protect the children against their father’s anger, by jumping in between them during physical fights. But Sharpe also employed psychological warfare to wear down his wife and children.
“He would just gnaw,” said Robert. “He’d take a subject with my mother and he’d just pick at her, and she’d just take it. I’d be in bed and he’d pick on me. He’d pick on Richie and he’d pick on all of us so he’d be late for work in the morning.”
But the whole Sharpe family was traumatized when Richard’s grandfather, a deeply religious man with severe psychiatric problems, hanged himself. Later Richard would maintain he also suffered from mental instability, saying it ran in his family.
There was little money in the Sharpe household, due to their father’s gambling, and the family never went on vacation, except for an occasional trip to visit relatives in Brooklyn.
Growing up, Richard idolized his brother Ben, who left home at nineteen and married a year later, moving to California. Seven-year-old Richard had dreamed of going to the West Coast with him, and was distraught when their mother refused to let him go.
“I started calling him two, three or four times a day,” Richard would remember. “I begged his wife to let me come out.”
But when his father got the phone bill he was furious, ordering him to stop making long-distance calls to his brother.
“So I actually took a rare coin collection that my grandfather had given me and went down to the pay phone to make long-distance calls to California,” he said.
After his brothers left home, Richard found himself taking the brunt of his father’s anger. And although the boy desperately wanted his father to be proud of him, he found himself being continually insulted and mentally abused instead.
The only member of the family to escape Benjamin Sharpe’s wrath was his daughter Laurie. Richard became obsessively jealous of her. When he was ten years old he began locking himself in the bathroom to escape his father’s “ranting and raving.” “He wouldn’t break the door down, because then he’d have to fix it,” Richard remembered. One day he saw his sister’s clothes in the laundry hamper and put them on. He felt so good wearing Laurie’s underwear and dresses that he would often dress up and sit in the corner of the bathroom, pretending to be her, every time his father went on a tirade.
“[I] actually felt more relaxed and safer dressed like that,” Richard would later say.
Over the next few years his cross-dressing escalated from once a month to almost every day. And when he was twelve he used the money he’d earned from selling golf balls to buy his first complete set of female clothes.
“I remember going to a store and buying an outfit,” he said. “I always had long hair when I was a kid, so I combed my hair a little differently. I put the outfit on and I actually went out in public, because I was so convincing. And that was the beginning of that.”
Ultimately he was caught in drag by his father, who hit him.
“He didn’t say anything about the cross-dressing, but he yelled at me for taking my sister’s clothes. [He said] if he caught me with her clothes anymore, I’d be in trouble.”
Another means of escape for Richard was sleeping over at friends’ houses or staying out until the early hours of the morning. He became wild and unruly, often skipping school and getting poor grades. He would use his spare time working for his brother Robert or doing odd-jobs for his best friend Frank Pelaggi’s father.
Frank, who was in Richard’s class at Shelton High School, often visited the Sharpe home, where the two boys would build go-carts. He witnessed Benjamin Sharpe’s furious temper and verbal abuse on numerous occasions.
“He used to call [Richard] a ‘miserable fucking bastard’ and [tell him] to get out of the house, as he was no good,” said Pelaggi. “He said teenagers should be put in a bottle and shipped off to war. It was intense.”
When Richard was twelve, his brother Ben returned from California. Richard moved in with him for six months to escape his troubled home life. Having hardly seen his kid brother during the seven years he’d been away, Ben found him “an aggressive teenager” who was being persecuted by their father.
Ben set up a computer consulting business, offering Richard a part-time job in his office and the opportunity to learn computers. Although his school grades were dismal, as he rarely attended classes, Richard discovered a natural ability for computers and science. Indeed, several years earlier in grade school he had surprised his mother by winning first prize in a science fair organized by a local radio station. Laura Sharpe was so proud she wrote Ben in California, saying how smart Richard was, and that he had a great future.
One day while they were working in the office, Richard would later testify, Ben happened to pick up the phone and overheard his wife arranging a date at a hotel with a contractor friend. Ben was furious, driving Richard with him to borrow a handgun. They then went to the hotel with the gun to confront the lovers, but the contractor managed to talk his way out of the situation. The two brothers left without a shot being fired.
It was the first time Richard had ever seen a gun, but it wouldn’t be the last.
In his early teens, Richard began to fight back when his father attacked him. Father and son would wrestle each other to the floor, and soon Benjamin began to back off, realizing that Richard was now big enough to hold his own. At school Richard began getting confrontational, deliberately provoking fights with his schoolmates, and usually coming out on the losing end.
“I was the little shrimp, and the bullies used to pick on me,” he said. “The fights would flare and I just wouldn’t back down even if they were twice my size. I inevitably got my butt kicked to the point where it was almost a joke.”
But Richard didn’t confine his fighting to school bullies, and began beating up his little sister Laurie, also a pupil at Shelton High School. Although they were just fifteen months apart, Richard and his sister never played together. Laurie always felt he was jealous of her for being a girl.
“He was very physically and emotionally abusive to me even in grade school,” she would later remember. “And he abused our mother, who was pretty much your Kool-Aid mom, and very good to him.”
On one occasion, when his mother failed to crease his pants to his satisfaction, Richard lashed out, calling her a “slut, a scumbag and a prostitute.” But mild-mannered Laura Sharpe just took the abuse in her stride, never attempting to punish him.
“From elementary on up he seemed to get worse,” said Laurie. “He got more aggressive, more bizarre.”
Once, as a joke, he urinated in his brother Ben’s bottle of wine and then put the cork back in, waiting for him to drink it. Another time at elementary school, after Laurie had been given a note to take home to their mother about Richard’s bad behavior, he savagely beat her up inside the principal’s office, before snatching the note away.
He was also angry that his sister’s bedroom was bigger than his and that she had a stereo system. In revenge he began stealing her stuff and reportedly killing her pets. Laurie was so traumatized by his erratic behavior that she put ten locks on her bedroom door to keep him out. But even then he tried to break it down.
Paradoxically, although his parents attempted to keep him away from the family pets, if any of them took sick he would treat them. Although he had little or no medical knowledge, little Richard would always be able to cure whatever was wrong.
Even Laurie, who always feared her brother as a child, would later credit him for saving her life at the age of ten.
“I was lying on the couch complaining of a sore throat,” she remembered. “My mom didn’t deem this condition serious, [but then] Richard walked in the door, looked at me, and ran to get a flashlight and thermometer.”
The twelve-year-old took his sister’s temperature, looked down her throat and pressed on her heck, declaring, “We need to get Laurie to the emergency room. She has a severe case of strep.”
According to Laurie, an ER doctor later told their mother that her brother had probably saved her life, as she could have died if she had not received treatment in time.
All through his schooling, Richard was always in trouble for skipping classes and getting into fights. At the age of fifteen he had his first brush with the law, after getting drunk on beer and going for a joyride in a car his brother Robert had rented. He was picked up by the Shelton police and was given a stern warning.
“I got thrown out of the house by my father,” remembered Richard. “My mother wanted me back and there was a lot of friction. I was just a mess during that whole period.”
His father finally relented and let him move back into the house, but his behavior went from bad to worse.
During his high school years Richard’s temper often veered out of control. He began hanging out with a wild set of friends and drinking alcohol. Frank Pelaggi’s father had a full bar stocked with liquor in the basement, and the two boys would often raid it on weekends, sitting around drinking and listening to loud rock music.
Richard had recently saved enough money from his odd-jobs to buy an old 1969 Mustang which he totally rebuilt and souped up, proudly driving it around Shelton. The nerdy-looking teenager grew his hair long, and started hanging around with a clique called the “Gear Heads,” who loved tinkering around with cars.
“Everybody liked [Richard’s] car,” said Frank Pelaggi. “It was bright red with scoops on the front.”
Like many 1970s Shelton teenagers, Richard frequented the Bradley Parking Lot tailgate parties, which usually culminated in everyone jumping into their cars to race to New York City, where the drinking age was eighteen.
Richard was now getting more popular and his mother encouraged him to bring new friends back to the house, where she would bake them cookies and brownies.
“The town was like Happy Days,” said Tony Surina, who was a year ahead of Sharpe at school and is now a Shelton policeman. “Everybody knew everybody here and Rich didn’t particularly stand out.”
Richard also befriended a long-haired boy who went by the name “Hippie,” and turned him on to marijuana.
“We’d sit around in his attic, which was complete with a black lamp, beads and lava lamps,” Richard remembered. “We smoked pot and occasionally hash.”
Sharpe now became interested in girls, discovering that many were attracted to his feminine features. Years later he would boast of once having three girls in Shelton High School fighting over him. Although he loved the thrill of wearing women’s clothes, he was attracted to women and otherwise heterosexual.
In the spring of 1972 Richard and two friends, Tommy Mulready and Tommy Rivas, were on their way to an English class when they spotted a hot new sixteen-year-old student named Karen Hatfield, who was in her very first week at Shelton High. They followed her up the stairs, crudely remarking about her skin-tight jeans which had a patch on the back pocket saying, “built not stuffed.”
Finally, as they were going down the hall, Richard plucked up the courage to ask if the patch referred to her or the jeans. Karen visibly blushed as the three boys started laughing, but stopped to introduce herself anyway. She explained that she had taken the patch from an old mattress and sewn it on her jeans, thinking it was cool.
Complimenting her on her sense of humor, Richard escorted her to the English class, making a point of sitting next to her. With her big brown eyes, and heart-shaped face framed by long dark hair, Richard considered her to be the most beautiful girl at Shelton High. From then on, he would make a point of attending every English class, as he embarked on a mission to make Karen his own.
Copyright © 2003 by John Glatt.