HERMON — The next-door neighbor of a Hermon couple charged with kidnapping two Amish children said he had an “eerie feeling” about his neighbors but never dreamed they were capable of allegedly kidnapping and victimizing two young girls.
Stephen M. Howells, II, 39, and Nicole F. Vaisey, 25, on Friday each were charged with two counts of first-degree kidnapping with the intent to inflict physical injury or sexually violate or sexually abuse Fannie Miller, 12, and her sister, Delila, 6. The girls reportedly were abducted Wednesday evening from their family’s roadside produce stand on Mount Alone Road outside the village of Heuvelton. The alleged abductors were sent to St. Lawrence County jail, Canton, without bail early Saturday morning after being arraigned in Fowler Town Court.
Jamie P. Matthews, who lives at 1406 County Route 21-A, about 100 yards away from the couple’s house, said his daughter and his neighbor’s children only have to cross a small bridge to play at each other’s homes.
“I have an 8-year-old daughter who played with his children,” Mr. Matthews said. “It’s gut-wrenching for us. She was crying. It’s hard to get her to understand what’s happening.”
Mr. Matthews said although he was on friendly terms with his neighborshe never felt “quite right” allowing his daughter to go next door for extended periods of time. Mr. Matthews said he would let his daughter play for only 45 minutes at a time before checking to see that she was OK. “We want her to get outside, get fresh air and play with kids,” he said. “We would just be a little cautious. We would always have one eye on them when our daughter would go over there.”
Mr. Matthews said he never saw Mr. Howells become physical, yell at his three children or act inappropriately toward his daughter. But he did witness things he didn’t like.
“His supervision wasn’t very good,” Mr. Matthews said. “That is what we noticed. In one instance, he taught the 6- and 8-year-old how to swing a hatchet and swing an axe. While they were up in the front yard, he went in the back to garden.”
He said there has been a lot of commotion next door in the last 24 hours. “It’s hard to imagine this kind of thing happening. Hermon is a better place today with Nicole and Stephen gone, but the world is still not a safe place. You have to be vigilant, especially when it comes to your children.”
Other area residents expressed a mixed range of emotions Saturday in Hermon, just hours after the two suspects were taken into custody.
“I am truly glad they were able to capture and find them so quickly,” Hermon Mayor Cathy L. Race said. “It is very scary to think that someone would do something like that so close to home. You would have thought something like that never would have happened here.”
Some people around the small town said they knew little about the duo, but were shocked and disgusted by the charges.
Piercefield resident Jesse Ritz has a girlfriend and young daughter who live close by on County Route 21, and as news of the arrests broke Friday night, Mr. Ritz admitted to being shaken up.
“It startled me very much so because the guy who abducted these girls lives less than two or three miles from where my little girls sleep at night,” he said. “My girlfriend believes that (Mr. Howells) might have been her nurse at one time when she had the baby at the hospital he worked at. Other than that, no we don’t know him. We might have seen him at the grocery store or here or there in passing.”
Mr. Howells is a registered nurse at Claxton-Hepburn Medical Center, Ogdensburg, and Ms. Vaisey worked at the Bows and Bandanas Pet Salon and Resort in Potsdam.
“This really hits home that you’ve got to lock your doors at night and you’ve got to really watch people,” Mr. Ritz said. “My daughter plays in the yard with her cousin and (Mr. Howells) drives right by her house every day. I know he does. He could have very well scooped them up just as he did those two little girls.
“I don’t know what his plans were for them or what his plans behind (the abduction) were. I feel bad for the family and just thank God that they caught them. It’s just one less weirdo off the street, especially in a small town like this where you shouldn’t have to lock your doors.”
Authorities say the girls were dropped off Thursday night in the hamlet of Bigelow, near Richville, and asked a resident to take them home.
Morgan Buxton, Richville, said that given the couple’s employment status, she was surprised with their alleged acts.
She also said she was skeptical that Mr. Howells and Ms. Vaisey acted alone in the crime.
“I think there might be more people involved with (the abduction). The people that they arrested just don’t seem to fit the criteria or the reasoning for doing it,” Ms. Buxton said. “I’d really like some more questions answered about the motive as to why they would do it. It’s scary that he worked at Claxton-Hepburn Hospital. That’s very alarming and odd. It almost makes you wonder if they were paid to do the job for somebody else or something for that matter.”
During a press conference Saturday morning, St. Lawrence County Sheriff Kevin M. Wells said that investigators now are pursuing the possibility of other suspects and victims.
Hermon residents Shawn Clary and Michael George said they were surprised by the alleged crime occurring in a small community in the north country, but also with how wide the news was spreading.
“I think it’s kind of ridiculous and a little scary considering I have an 8-month-old daughter now and it makes you think. I can’t believe it happened,” Mr. Clary said. “This just blows my mind.”
Johnson Newspapers staff writer Victor Barbosa contributed to this report.